The Chinese Periodic Table: 元素週期表 (Part 1)
In a language like Chinese that doesn’t use an alphabet-based language, naming the elements was not a trivial matter. When chemistry began to flourish in China in the early 1900’s, chemists got together to give each element a systematic name to prevent any ambiguities in communication.
Their first step in naming was to group the elements into four groups based on their physical properties at STP, with each to be represented by a common motif (what we call a 部首/"radical"):
- 气 (“gas”): Gaseous elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and xenon.
- 釒/钅 (“gold”): Metallic elements like sodium, copper, and lead (with the exception of mercury).
- 石 (“stone”): Solid nonmetals and metalloids like carbon, silicon, and iodine.
- 水/氵(“water”): The two liquid elements mercury and bromine.
After grouping the elements into these four groups, the characters were constructed based on three different methods: native characters, property-based, and pronunciation-based, .
Native characters are used for those elements already known to the ancients, either in pure or mineral form. These characters include gold (金, jīn, gold), carbon (碳, tàn, charcoal), mercury (汞, gǒng), and boron (硼, péng, from 硼砂/borax) among others.
Property-based characters include those for bromine, nitrogen, chlorine, and oxygen. These characters are constructed by adding on a different character to the radicals as mentioned above. For example:
- Bromine, known for its awful stench, is composed of the radical portion 氵 and the character 臭 (chòu; ancient pronunciation xiù) meaning “stinky” to create the character 溴 (xiù)
- Oxygen, the gas that the vast majority of living beings need to live, is composed of the radical 气 and the character 羊, which is an abbreviated form of 養 (yǎng) meaning “to nourish/raise”, to create the character 氧 (yǎng).
- Nitrogen, the primary component of our atmosphere, is composed of 气 and 炎, abbreviated from 淡 (dàn) meaning “dilute”, to create the character 氮 (dàn). (Nitrogen “dilutes” the breathable oxygen in the air.)
Pronunciation-based characters are constructed by adding on a character to the radical that is suggestive of its pronunciation in European languages. The vast majority of the elements, and any new elements that are discovered, are named using this method. For example:
- 砷 (shēn): arsenic
- 碘 (diǎn): iodine
- 鋁 (lǚ): aluminum
- 鈉 (nà): sodium (Latin: natrium)
- 鎢 (wū): tungsten (originally named wolfram)
But, as always, nomenclature will always have strange exceptions and variations, and this is no different. The characters in the image shown above are the standard for Taiwan; in a later post, we’ll talk about the standard for Mainland China and Hong Kong/Macau, and the different ways they differ.