Jump to content
Learn Chinese in China

Faery and Fantasy

  • entries
  • comments
  • views

Gan, Gan, and Gan




I have had trouble with the trio of traditional characters which simplify to 干. It turns out (as usual) that all three have curious and twisted etymologies. Here are some mnemonics for keeping the traditional characters 幹干and 乾 straight in your head:


This is the most straight-forward of the trio.

It means "dry":


dried fruit



In its qian2 pronunciation, it is also one of the Eight Trigrams, and a surname, but those are much lower frequency uses.

Mnemonic: When there is a drought you beg for even a little mist.

Etymological note:

Wieger clarifies that "dry" was originally written using 旱 on the left (with 十 above it?). The character 乾 originally was read qian2 and represented the sun shining into the jungle, dislodging vapors which then rise up into the sky.


This character can mean "to do" or "tree trunk".

It can be used alone:


You have committed ("done") a folly.

Or in the common idiom gan4ma5:

你幹嘛/ 你幹甚麼?

What are you doing?

A canonical example of the "tree trunk" meaning is:



tree trunk


A tree (which originally was made of wood but is now a post-modern clothes hanger pole) is topped with an umbrella of leaves. But, through the mist, you can only see the trunk.

Etymonlogical note:

Wieger says the 干 component in 幹 is supposed to be 木, the former being an "absurd phonetic redundancy" This would make more sense.


This is the odd-ball in the group. It has several meanings. Its most prolific meaning is "to offend":



to offend or to violate



to meddle

But this gan can also mean "stem" in:


the Ten Heavenly Stems

An archaic meaning is "shield":



weapons of war, literally "shield and spear"


In Toronto, up until a couple of years ago, it was illegal to hang clothes outside, i.e. one of the biggest offenses and ways to offend the sensibilities of people was to hang your clothes outdoors. Silly, but unfortunately true. (credit: koohii user vorpal)

Etymological note:

Wieger tells us that 干 represents a pestle. By extension it means to grind or destroy. Destruction in the moral sense gives offense. Destruction in the martial sense gives the warlike association in 干戈.



Recommended Comments

Thanks for the helpful comments. I started out just wanting to point out the differences between these "gan"s briefly, but it's basically impossible without examples. -- I appreciate having y'all catch my butchered Chinese :).


Link to comment


Thanks for the Korean dictionary link. Too bad I don't know Korean :(.

Hello. Is Wieger an online source for Chinese characters' etymology ? Can you please share the link ? Thanks.

No, it's not an online resource. It's an older but still very helpful book demonstrating the etymology of many important characters.

Search "Wieger Chinese Characters" on Google. The first edition was published 1917, so the copyright has probably expired, and you may be able to find it in the public domain. But, I'm no lawyer, so please do not post a link to it if you find it.

  • Like 1
Link to comment

Well,I don't think it's a good way to explain every single characters alone while studying Chinese.For example,the word干涉,we Chinese know that it means interfere,but we never seperate it into two single characters to explain the meaning.Because it's difficult!If I ask a Chinese :What does"干"mean in the word"干涉"?or what is the meaning of "涉"exactly?No one could answer these questions.Maybe they will think:Why should this guy learn Chinese in this way?It will waste time!In fact,we should put it in articles and understand two characters as a whole ,it's the most efficient to learn Chinese.I am a Chinese girl,and I come here to improve my English LOL.I'm looking for a friend who can help me practice English,and I will try my best to help you learning Chinese in return ;) If you're interested,feel free to contact with me anytime :tong

  • Like 1
Link to comment
  • Create New...