Party Down with 节
By: Xiao Chu
The character 节 is, in a word, an instant party—attach it to the end of just about anything and you’ve got yourself a holiday. Tack it on to 劳动 (láodòng), or labor, and you’ve got 劳动节 (Láodòngjié), Labor Day; add it to 妇女 (fùnǚ), woman, and you’ve got 妇女节 (Fùnǚjié), Women’s Day. Add it to spring, 春 (chūn), and you’ve got the biggest holiday of the year: 春节(Chūnjié), or Spring Festival. 节, in other words, has the power to transform the dead of winter into a raging, baijiu-fueled, firework-popping celebration.
Given its alchemical powers, you might be surprised at 节’s rather prosaic roots—its original meaning, as recorded in bronzeware inscriptions (1300 BC-200 BC), was “bamboo joint,” the ridges along poles of bamboo. At that time, 节 was written as 節, which combined the radicals at the top of the character for bamboo, 竹 (zhú), with the pronunciation character 即 (jí).
The appearance of the character started to change during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC), when cursive writing simplified the ⺮ at the top of 節 to 艹. Later still, people started leaving out the left side of the character 即, simplifying it into the modern 节.
The meaning of 节, on the other hand, took a much more convoluted path. Around the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), dictionaries began listing a second definition for节, “bamboo cord,” thanks to the resemblance between bamboo ridges and knotted up bits of twine.
Here’s where the semantic gods of Association begin to run wild. Because twine was used as a restraint, 节 gave birth to 节制 (jiézhì), which means “restrict” or “moderate.” This spun off a host of new words related to restraint or restriction: 节约 (jiéyuē) and 节俭 (jiéjiǎn), for example, both refer to frugality; 节食 (jiéshí) means to diet; 节欲 (jiéyù) is abstinence and节哀 (jié’āi) refers to overcoming grief. When people pass away, we often say 节哀顺变 (jié’āi shùnbiàn), which is short for 节制哀伤 (jiézhì āishāng) “restrain grief,” and 顺应变故 (shùnyìng biàngù) “accept misfortune.”