The key word, jian, exists in two forms (Mathews 817 and Mathews 818). The first form, which is a character composed of three nü (women), primarily means "private, selfish, secret" and "heterodox, depraved, vicious, evil, wicked, demonic." The ancient lexicon Shuowen derives these meanings from the notion of doting on or being attached to three women. Secondary meanings include "foul things; scoundrels, ruffians and robbers; spurious, fake; external and internal chaos; crafty, perverse, cunning, treacherous; illicit sexual intercourse; secret communication with the enemy; rape." The second version, which is most often used in the binomial compound, Hanjian, has, among other significances, the additional meaning of "transgression." This jian is more like a transitive verb: "to commit adultery, to have sex; to break the law; to oppose someone; to trespass, violate, and encroach."
There are behind all these various signifiers three deeply connected meanings of jian that eventually adhere to the term "traitor." The first is the notion of illicitly
The compound hanjian came into general usage during the Song dynasty when it described Han (that is, Chinese) officials who spied for the Jurchen Jin dynasty. According to the most authoritative dictionary in use in the People's Republic of China at present, a hanjian, then, "is someone who helps a different race [yizhong] harm his or her own race [tongzhong]." Needless to say the term is more particularistic than such a definition properly would allow: that is, you have to be Han in order to be a hanjian. Semantically, in other words, it is difficult to separate political treason from ethnic transgression.