Friday, February 15, 2008

Two Women Under One Roof

A few days ago reader Glenn emailed me a clip of NBC's television series, Life. The episode's title is "Farthingale".


In this clip, Detective Crews (Damian Lewis) is telling his partner that "the Chinese symbol for 'war' is two women under one roof".

This absolutely incorrect & there is no such character in Chinese dictionaries.

Matter of fact, this somewhat sexist proverb originated from English in 1417. The original quote in Old English was:
Two wymen in one howse,
Two cattes and one mowce,
Two dogges and one bone,
Maye never accorde in one.

Western Folklore, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Apr., 1957), pp. 121-124, doi:10.2307/1497029

In the book titled "A Short History of the Chinese People" by L. Carrington Goodrich (ISBN 1406769762), it has stated that "there is no such character exist in Chinese dictionaries".

As Dr. Kelley L. Ross (interesting trivia: Dr. Ross is the nephew of R. L. Les Kelley, the founder of Kelley Blue Book) pointed out on his website:
It is sometimes said that the Chinese character for "trouble" shows two women under one roof. Such a character is possible, and would look like this , but there actually is no such Chinese character, though I understand that the myth lives on the internet.
The way I suspect how this hoax spread so rapidly is because the Chinese character for peace & tranquil is , which illustrates a woman 女 under the roof.

However, someone has decided to piece two cultural & linguistic references together to make a joke:
"You know the Chinese character for peaceful or tranquil is , one woman under a roof. Do you know what the character for war is?"

"Two women under one roof?"


All right people, let's put an end to this urban myth!


  1. Eh, it's a cute (if a bit misogynistic) joke. But yeah, it does have the makings of a nasty urban legend.

    For some reason, it actually bothers me more when people say things like "Chinese symbols." In a sense, of course, all writing consists of symbols, but in common speech, nobody refers to, say, '9' as "the symbol for 'nine'", so this bugs me. Maybe it's a lost cause though, as "character" and "logogram" don't exactly roll off the tongue, and saying "letter" would be even worse.

    Oh, and Tian, I hate to be pedantic, but that's not Old English, but Middle English. I can actually read it, unlike Old English. :P

  2. Eyedunno,

    I agree with you regarding people often referring Chinese characters as "symbols", or "pictographs".

    Dr. Rick Harbaugh has written a detailed piece about this:

    Good point about Middle English vs. Old English. I was thinking about the delicious 40 oz beverage Martha Stewart consumed on Conan O'Brien's show.

  3. On the other hand that logic might apply to the character comprised of 女 three times. I don't about Chinese, but in Japanese at least it carries some fairly negative connotations. There's also an expression 女三人寄れば姦しい which while I think it relates more to gossip than arguments, it does pretty much have the same idea behind it.

  4. James Clavell promoted the same mistake in his novel Shogun. From page 504 of the latest paperback edition:

    "Here's another character. A 'roof' symbol and a 'pig' symbol and a 'woman' symbol. A 'roof' with two 'pigs' underneath it means 'contentment.' A 'roof' with two 'women' underneath it equals 'discord.' Neh?"

    Of course, Clavell's use of "Japanese" in this book is often hilariously wrong, so him screwing up the hanzi/kanji is not surprising.

  5. Could this legend be at all related to the curious character featuring three women (link below) which carries negative connotations in both Chinese and Japanese?

  6. Not only is this incorrect, it's also ridiculously sexist.

    If character construction worked this way, the character for "war" should really be "one woman and TWO MEN".

  7. xenobiologista said...

    > If character construction worked
    > this way, the character for "war"
    > should really be "one woman and TWO
    > MEN".

    That character certainly exists: 嬲. However, instead of "war", it means "ridicule, mock, play with".

    PS Two women and a man 嫐 also exists, too.

  8. "If character construction worked this way, the character for "war" should really be "one woman and TWO MEN"."

    Amusingly enough, that character actually exists:

    It doesn't mean war though; it actually means a range of things along the line of "to annoy", "to jeer at", and "to make fun of". And yeah, it comes from two men pestering a woman.

    There's a reverse version too, and it means "to flirt":

    BUT HEY! I just found this character too:

    There's no roof, and it doesn't mean "war", but it's pretty close. It means "a verbal quarrel".

  9. Whoa! A Google search for "奻 two women" turned up a post by somebody named "Alan Siegrist" (whoddat?!) on Google Groups, along with some chatter about the other two kanji as well.

  10. This seems related (somehow - vis-a-vis linguistic/cultural ignorance) to the oft-repeated belief that Chinese characters - all of them - are "pictograms", similar to hieroglyphs, and that as such all have clever pictorial references that convey deeper meanings.

    Which of course is totally false - only something like 10% of all characters (?) have such a basis and of those, most aren't all that "clever", they're sensible.

    But the "Chinese characters are really pictograms" belief is much more appealing - it's, I don't know, sexier - than the truth about radicals/sound-meaning compounds and the like.

  11. Really, there are a number of examples accessible to even the most ignorant novice (me) that are interesting or amusing. For example, a legal case (狱) appears to be a dog talking to a dog! A pity this one isn't more famous...

    I also understand that a roof with a pig under it (家) actually means -ist ... "male chauvinist", for example. ;)

    Mike S.

  12. Ah, maybe I need to be shunted back to the beginner class, but 家 only works for "-ist" if it's a profession (政治家,书法家, 画家,作家), right? (As well as meaning home or being a measure word for businesses). "Chauvinism" is 沙文主义 or more broadly 性别歧视 (gender prejudice) but I'm not sure how to translate those into a person rather than a concept. Would you use 家 for that? (沙文家?) Sounds off to me.

  13. First, thank you for the information. I'm late arriving at this post but I was looking up the exact belief that there was a kanji character depicting "trouble" as two women under one roof.

    What you may find interesting is that I only just remembered it, in spring of 2008, but my memory is of a page in a textbook I had in college, in the late 1980's, a time when most people didn't spread information electronically.

    Thank you again for the information and for all that you do.

  14. Hi Zhang Bai Lian, to use personify the word chauvinism or gender prejudice you would use the character 者, as in 沙文主义者.

  15. thanks for this post for the following reasons:

    a) always good to blow away misinformation (ie; like the old chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times' which doesn't actually exist)

    b) it brought out the other two characters which just amuses me: 嬲 and 嫐


  16. Life is now retransmitted in France, and this very episode was broadcasted yesterday evening. Thanks to you, I have learned something tonight!

  17. This episode is airing just now here in Germany. I just managed to impress the two women watching it together with me under this roof by remembering to have already read about it on Hanzi Smatter.

    Thanks. :-)

  18. It is funny, though
    安い ("yasui") is "cheap/inexpensive" in Japanese, even though it apparently means peace in Chinese. xD I guess it makes sense though...

  19. @Eyedunno, mathematicians do refer to "the symbol for nine" all the time: it's called a digit.

    The digit 9 is very different from the number 9. For example, the number 9 in base 2 is 1001, but the digit 9 doesn't exist in base 2.

    I also think that it's not so strange to refer to "Chinese symbols" because they are larger units of meaning than numbers and, say, English letters.

    Pictographs have subparts which contain inherent meaning distinct from the meaning of the whole. The only parallel in a language like English is not letters, but words, and there is no problem with saying "English words."

    Note that "English letters" is not the same as "Chinese symbols" because there is no individual meaning in them. We don't get confused that the letter 'I' can be found in the letter 'F', because while they both involve a vertical stroke, a letter is an indivisible unit and a vertical stroke has no individual meaning.

    Some similar humor about word subpart meanings in English might be: Hillsdale is made from LSD, why don't bulldozers involve sleeping bulls, and surely capsizing should involve choosing hats?


  20. P.S. Now that I read I see that it is incorrect to call Chinese letters pictographs. My apologies. However, there is still an important element of the subparts having meaning, where the strokes of an English letter have no meaning in and of themselves, ever.

  21. This is a long time after the fact, but it needs to be said that hieroglyphs aren't 'pictographic' either.