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Qin-era seal script (c. 200 BC)
Han-era clerical script (c. 200 AD)
Comparison of historical forms for 'horse'. The clerical form more closely resembles modern regular script.
Traditional Chinese隸變
Simplified Chinese隶变
Literal meaningclerical change
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Libian refers to the gradual, systematic simplification of Chinese character forms during the 2nd century BC, by which the Chinese writing system transitioned from the seal script character forms to clerical script characters during the early Han dynasty period, through the process of making omissions, additions, or transmutations of the graphical form of a character to make it easier to write. Libian was one of two conversion processes towards the new clerical script character forms, with the other being liding, which involved the regularisation and linearisation of character shapes.


The earlier seal script characters were complicated and inconvenient to write; as a result, lower-level officials and clerics ; gradually simplified the strokes, and transitioned from writing with bowed ink brushes to using straight ink brushes, which both improved ease of writing.

The complexity of characters can be reduced in one of four ways:[1]

One consequence of the libian transition process is that many radicals formed as a result of simplifying complex components within seal script characters—for example, characters containing 'heart'  / on the side had the component simplified into , as seen in and , and these newly-formed radicals are still used in modern-day Chinese writing as the fundamental basis for constructing and sorting Chinese characters.

Examples of libian
Gloss Old New Pinyin Details
year, harvest nián Originally in ancient bronze forms, the character was an ideogrammic compound of a man carrying grain on his back, e.g. a harvest; also functioned as the phonetic marker for OC *njin. After the Western Zhou period, the ancient bronze form had an additional stroke added to to give , which continued to function as a phonetic marker for *sn̥ʰiːn, creating , forming the basis for the seal script form . After libian simplification, the resulting clerical script form became .[A]
thunder léi Originally semantic 'rain' + phonetic *ruːl, the bottom component became reduced into during libian.[B]
to offer for the dead diàn Originally a pictogram of an alcohol vessel placed upon a mat , two strokes were added to later forms to represent overflowing alcohol, and a further two strokes were subsequently added to the mat to form a table with two legs . During libian, the mutated into , resulting in the clerical form.[C]
because Originally a pictogram of a person carrying an object, the seal script form was modulated during libian to create the clerical form .[D]
to obtain 𢔶 Seal script form , the initially simplifies into during libian into earlier clerical variants; later variants further corrupt this component into , and this clerical form is inherited by the modern character form.[E]
to include hán Seal script form .[F]
to change gèng Seal script form , consisting of phonetic *pqraŋʔ + semantic 'to tap'.[G]
board game Seal script form , consisting of semantic 'tree' + phonetic *kɯ, *ɡɯ. The component was relocated to the left side during libian.[H]
without Ancient bronze form originally a pictogram of a man holding two objects in both hands while dancing, the seal script form became . During libian, the components were modulated and resulted in the character becoming . This character is a phonetic borrowing for 'without', while  / consisting of phonetic *ma + semantic 'steps' retains the original meaning of 'dance'.[I]
thought Seal script form consisting of phonetic *snɯns + semantic 'heart', the component corrupted into the completely unrelated character during libian.[J][2]
forward qián Seal script form originally depicting a foot on a boat moving forward. During libian, was reduced to , as was to . The addition of 'knife' within was originally used to represent the meaning of 'to cut' *ʔslenʔ, as seen in  / 𣦃 / 𠝣; however, because became used to represent instead, an additional 'knife' was added to for the purpose of representing the character for "to cut".[K]
side by side bìng Seal script form was a duplication of 'standing person'; underwent modulation during libian transition.[L]
hill qiū Seal script form ; compare with representing 'north'.[M]
to ascend chéng Seal script form originally representing climbing a tree with visible feet  / , which was later simplified to + during libian.[N]
to revolve around 𠄢 xuān Seal script form consisted of an ideogrammic compound 'two' + 'turns'.[O]
fourth earthly branch mǎo Originally depicted a Shang dynasty ritual of splitting a sacrificial body in half, as seen in seal script form .[P]
death 𣦸 Originally an ideogrammic compound consisting of  / 'human remains' +  / 'man', as seen in seal script .[Q]
to rid Seal script form . Top component simplified to , bottom component simplified to . Origin highly contested; Shuowen Jiezi suggests a phono-semantic compound with semantic 'man' + phonetic 𠙴 *kʰaʔ or *kʰas,[R] while Axel Schuessler suggests that it depicts an anus beneath a man, representing 'to get rid of'.[3] Alternate interpretations include a man departing from a cave, lips departing from one another—re-borrowed from 'to open one's mouth', or the representing a cover atop an object re-borrowed from 'to cover'.
also The Shuowen Jiezi describes this character as a pictogram of a female vulva. Libian form is significantly simplified from the original shape.[S]
summer xià The libian form removes the 𦥑 component and the legs of 'head' from the seal script form .[T]
what 𠥄 shèn, shén The libian form modulates the upper component of the seal script form , originally an ideogrammic compound of + .[U]
to live 𤯓 shēng Seal script form represents a sprout emerging from the ground.[V]
to use 𤰃 yòng Seal script form *loŋs; variants 𠂦, 𤰆, 𠂵 originally depicted a pictogram of a water bucket; compare with *l̥ʰoːŋʔ 'bucket'.[W]
alliance 𥂗 méng Seal script form , with 'window' simplified to 'sun' during libian.[X] was an ancient form of *mraŋ 'bright'.[Y]
flower 𠌶 huā Seal script form . The characters 𠌶 and  / 𦻏 were originally the same character, however were erroneously split into two separate entries within the Shuowen Jiezi.[Z] *ɡʷraː 'to flower' is a derivative of 𠌶 *hʷraː 'a flower'.[AA]
𦮙 kuí Seal script form 𦮙.[AB]
west 西 Seal script form originally represented a pictogram of a bag or basket, which was then borrowed phonetically to mean 'west'.[AC]
edge 𨘢 biān The earlier bronze inscription form consisted of , , and ; the lower right component within the seal script form is the result of becoming corrupted. As the clerical variant later took form, the component made a reappearance in texts.[AD]
to eat 𠊊 shí Seal script form . The bottom component of the modern libian form is a simplification of 'food vessel', and is not cognate to the unrelated or .[AE]
fantasy 𠄔 huàn Seal script form was originally an inversion of 'to give'.[AF]
hometown 𨞰 xiāng Originally an ideogrammic compound consisting of 𠨍 'two people facing each other' + 'food vessel' within bronze inscriptions, representing 'to feast'. During the transition to the seal script form, 𠨍 became corrupted into 𨙨 and . Following libian simplification, became simplified into the etymologically cognate radical, 𨙨 simplified into the unrelated radical—cognate to  / , and was replaced with the unrelated component. The meaning of 'hometown' was acquired via phonetic borrowing, while *qʰaŋʔ was adopted to represent 'feast'.[AG]
fragrant xiāng Seal script form consisted of 'proso millet' + 'sweet'; the libian form simplifies into 'cereal plant', and replaces the bottom component with the unrelated character 'to say'.[AH]
fish 𤋳 Seal script form .[AI]
night 𡖍 Seal script form consisted of phonetic *laːɡ + semantic 'crescent moon'; the bottom-right component of is a corruption of following libian, while the + is a reduction of .[AJ]
stomach wèi The pictographic component that visually represented a stomach was simplified into .[AK]
excrement 𦳊 shǐ Seal script form consisted of an ideogrammic compound 'grass' + 'stomach'. The form that gained widespread use in literature following the transition to clerical script is based on the bronze script form from the Warring States period.[AL]
to migrate The portion of the left component was relocated to the right during libian, resulting in two on top of one another, coincidentally becoming unified with the same structure as ; the Shang dynasty form of 'to walk'.[AM]



  1. ^ "Learning and Teaching of Chinese Characters" (PDF). Education Bureau of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (in Chinese).
  2. ^ Li 2016.
  3. ^ Schuessler, Axel (2007). ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. ISBN 978-0-824-82975-9.

Example lexemes

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  18. ^ Multi-function Chinese Character Database,
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  27. ^ Multi-function Chinese Character Database,
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  • 漢語多功能字庫 [Multi-function Chinese Character Database] (in Chinese), Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2014
  • 異體字字典 [Dictionary of Chinese Character Variants] (in Chinese), Academica Sinica, 2017

Works cited