木 is a representation of a tree.¹ In modern regular script, it shows a vertical stem, horizontal branches at the top, and roots at the bottom. It appears to be without leaves. Cecilia Lindqvist argues that since a tree looks like that for most of the year “[t]he picture is harsh but realistic.”² However, that presupposes a specific region with specific trees. It does not correspond to the countless paintings of evergreen pine trees that China is famous for.
A few oracle bone inscriptions show larger irregular top branches as in , but most show a symmetrical shape left-right and top-bottom, with the roots depicted as large as the top branches: . This stylistic trend is also visible in bronze inscriptions, and often the branches and roots are curved, as in the small seal shape . The top down symmetry was abandoned in clerical script, which introduces the small horizontal top branches and large, exaggerated outward reaching roots.³ However, while style and ease of writing seems to have been much more important in the development of 木 than preserving a recognizable or “realistic” impression of a tree, 木 remains sufficiently iconic that one needs to be told only once that it depicts a tree to remember and recognize it as such.