The Chinese Periodic Table: 元素週期表 (Part 2)
As discussed in the first part of this post, the characters for the chemical elements in Chinese were constructed by grouping them based on their properties at STP (gas, liquid, solid nonmetal, solid metal), assigning a semantic portion (a “radical”) based on that physical property (气, 水/氵, 石, 釒), and adding on a phonetic portion that is indicative of its properties or its pronunciation in European languages. However, this is not the end of the story…
Due to the divide between Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong/Macau, the names of the elements are not entirely consistent between each region. The most noticeable difference is the Mainland’s use of simplified characters over traditional characters. As many people familiar with Chinese know, the Chinese language is written using simplified characters in Mainland China and regions like Singapore and Malaysia, and using traditional characters in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.
The most prominent difference between the simplified and traditional forms of the periodic table is the simplification of the “metal” radical from 釒 down to 钅. In addition to this minor change, many characters had their phonetic portion simplified according to the rules laid out by the PRC as well. For example: 鐵 → 铁 (iron, tiě), 氬 → 氩 (argon, yǎ/yà), 鑭 → 镧 (lanthanum, lán).
Aside from these trivial differences, there are some larger variations in the characters. Because of the civil war and consequent split between the Mainland and Taiwan, some elements discovered in the 1930’s and onward had different names in the two regions, depending on what character was chosen to represent the European pronunciation. Hong Kong and Macau add an additional level of confusion to this; both harbor cities write using traditional characters but are technically governed under the Mainland. These two regions use primarily traditional forms of the Mainland standard, but occasionally borrow the Taiwanese standard instead. For example:
- Francium - 鍅 (fǎ; TW) / 钫 (fāng; CN) / 鈁 (fāng; HK)
- Technetium - 鎝 (tǎ; TW) / 锝 (dé; CN) / 鍀 (dé; CN)
- Lutetium - 鎦 (liú; TW) / 镥 (lǔ; CN) / 鑥 (lǔ; CN)
- Americium - 鋂 (méi; TW/HK) / 镅 (méi; CN)
- Neptunium - 錼 (nài; TW/HK) / 镎 (ná; CN)
Although almost all of the elements with different names are elements that were discovered recently, silicon is a distinct exception. Silicon is known as 矽 (xì) in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and primarily as 硅 (guī) in the Mainland (although 矽 is also occasionally used). But silicon was discovered long before the Chinese Civil War; why are there differing names? This distinction is a story for next time, so stay tuned….