Amino acids in Chinese

Sept. 9, 2010

When looking up the word for acid in Chinese, I came across the Chinese for the amino acids. Since I've previously written about DNA and the bases in Chinese, it seemed logical to compile a list of the Chinese amino acids. Working out the logic behind the Chinese words took quite a lot of research, but was very rewarding. Hopefully the effort will help me remember the words. You can download the list as a text file at the bottom of this post.

So firstly, amino acid, in Chinese is 氨基酸 (ānjīsuān), which breaks down to three characters meaning "ammonia base acid". All the amino acids have the suffix, 氨酸 (amino-acid) except asparagine and glutamine, which end with 酰胺 (amide). Aspargine begins with the same characters as aspartate, and glutamine the same as glutamate.

Below are tables of amino acids showing the characters that precede 氨酸 for the other 18 proteinogenic amino acids and their meanings. I've split the amino acids into groups based on what I think is the etymology.


These amino acids begin with a character which sounds like the English, so is probably phonetic.

Glutamate (grain)
Lysine lài (blame)
Proline (chest)


These amino acids begin with characters that describe the chemistry of the amino acid.

Alanine bǐng third; propyl
Phenyalanine 苯丙 běnbǐng benzene propyl
Isoleucine 异亮 yìliàng different-bright

I was initially confused by alanine starting with 丙, which normally indicates the third in a series. However, it makes sense because it can also mean propyl (a three carbon chain), and the chemical name for alanine is 2-aminopropanoic acid. Phenylalanine is created by adding a benzene ring (phenyl group) onto the end of alanine, hence 苯丙. I've included isoleucine in this group because 异 means different, isoleucine is so called because it is an isomer of leucine (it's slightly confusing because actually iso- means same). Why leucine is 亮 is explained below.


These amino acids begin with characters that suggest a biological description origin.

Cysteine 半胱 bànguāng half bladder
Methionine dàn egg
Tryptophan colour

I'm a little unsure about this category, but here's my reasoning.

Cysteine is from the Greek, kustis, meaning bladder because it was first isolated from urinary stones (not sure where the 半 come in).

Eggs are apparently a rich source of methionine, which might explain its Chinese name (the English is chemical: methyl+thio-).

Tryptophan fluoresces, which might explain why it begins with the character for colour (though tryptophan doesn't fluoresce in the visible spectrum). Incidentally, tryptophan is named after the enzyme trypsin, which was named from the Greek, tripsis, meaning friction because the protein was originally obtained by rubbing the pancreas with glycerine. Etymology is brilliant.

English Etymology

These amino acids begin with characters that have a link to the etymology of the English word (which is given in the final column). Note that while I say English etymology, most of the English words actually come from other European languages, especially German, and are based on Latin or Greek words. For me, this is the most interesting category because in researching it, I learnt the derivation of the English words.

Aspartate 天冬 tiāndōng asparagus Asparagus
Glycine gān sweet Gr. glykys (sweet)
Histidine tissue Gr. histos (tissue)
Leucine liàng bright Gr. leukos (white)
Serine silk La. sericum (silk)
Valine xié knot Valerian
Tyrosine lào curdled milk Gr. tyri (cheese)

Amino acids are often named after the sources from which they were first isolated.

  • Asparagine was isolated from asparagus (the only etymology I knew previously; aspartate got its name from asparagine)
  • Leucine was isolated from egg white
  • Serine was isolated from silk
  • Tyrosine was isolated from cheese
  • Valine threw me for a while, but it turns out that the English comes from the herb, valerian, from which it was presumably first extracted. I was very pleased when I looked up valerian on the Chinese Wikipedia to find that it's 纈草 (knot grass), so valine is the "knot" amino acid.

I'm not sure why histidine is derived from the word for 'tissue', but it may be related to the role of the related chemical, histamine, which is involved in signalling between tissues.

Don't know

These are amino acids for which I can't see the logic of the Chinese and/or English name.

Arginine jīng essence; energy; sperm Gr. arginoeis (bright white)
Threonine revive; Chinese basil Gr. eruthros (red)

If I understood the etymology of the English names then I think I might understand the Chinese names. I would love to know who named the amino acids, both the in English and in Chinese.

Comments (6)

glossika on Sept. 19, 2010, 5:10 a.m.


arginine 同amino-guanidine valerianic acid: 阿金氨基酸,鮭卵酸,氨胍戊酸;arginine glutamate 麩酸精氨酸脂,麩酸精胺酸;arginosuccinicaciduria: 阿金氨琥珀酸尿。



peter on Sept. 20, 2010, 2:11 p.m.

Wow, thanks for your help. and MDBG both list hisitidine as 氨酸, but if your medical dictionary says otherwise, then I willing to go with that. I can see how the Chinese for histidine follows the English etymology, but I'm still unsure where the English comes from. Presumably, hisitidine has some organisation role in the cell.

As for arginine, do you think the 精 has a phonetic role?

I guess threonine would revive you if you had a deficiency, however the same is presumably true the other essential amino acids. I had though that a threonine deficiency might lead to a problem with erythrocytes (red blood cells), which would make you require reviving, but it doesn't seem to. I think maybe, threonine is named after the sugar erythrose, but I don't know what that is in Chinese.

Yuan Yuan on March 17, 2011, 4:02 a.m.

Whoa! Amazing article!

Here is my point of view on Histidine and Arginine:

Histidine 组氨酸 //组zu:组织(n.)tissue//←"histmine amino acid"(signals between tissues)

Arginine 精氨酸 //精jing:精液(n.)sperm//← "sperm amino acid"(largely found in sperm)

Besides, "组织(v.)" and "组织(n.)" are different words in Chinese, though they are in the same charecters. The verb means "to organise", while the noun is "tissue". All amino acids are named by noun in Chinese (noun amino acid).

Peter on March 17, 2011, 1:59 p.m.

Thanks Yuan Yuan, glad you liked the article.

If 组 can mean 'tissue' then that solves that. I guess you're right that the word 'tissue' was used because of the role of histamine in signalling between tissues. Seems a bit arbitrary, but no more than any of the other names.

Similarly, it makes sense that arginine might be largely found in sperm (though, according to Wikipedia, it was originally isolated from the plant, lupin). But then I'm not sure where the English/Greek word comes from.

Anonymous on Dec. 9, 2011, 3:58 p.m.


Anonymous on Nov. 9, 2016, 11:01 a.m.

Good article.

Just a minor typo: the Chinese character after leucine should be 亮 instead of 异 in English Etymology section.

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