I was going through articles I saved to read later (this NYT article was form over a year ago!) and came across this article from the Chinese Edition of the New York Times. Which, by the way, you should check out as it provides English and Chinese side by side article views. Perfect for improving your reading!
The article was about NASA finding ice on Mercury with the title “NASA報告水星上發現大量水冰”. The Chinese name of planet Mercury is: 水星 (shuǐxīng): 水 (water) + 星 (a star, planet) = Mercury (planet), because of he Chinese way of referring to Mercury as “liquid silver” or, more literally, “water silver” (水銀 ; shuǐyín).
However, there’s a bit more to the story than this. Unfortunately, the burden of 140 characters kept me from going into it deeper on Twitter. During my research, I found that there was also a cultural reason for naming Mercury–and the other planets–after elements like water. Let’s take a look at the following list of the planets and their Chinese names:
Mercury: 水星 (shuǐxīng)
Venus: 金星 (Jīnxīng)
Earth: 地球 (dìqiú)
Mars: 火星 (Huǒxīng)
Jupiter: 木星 (Mùxīng)
Saturn: 土星 (Tǔxīng)
Uranus: 天王星 (Tiānwángxīng)
Neptune: 海王星 (Hǎiwángxīng)
That’s all eight of them (since Pluto got demoted :()! You’ll notice the first five (excluding Earth) that all have elements: water (水), metal (金), fire (火), wood (木), and earth (土) in their names are also the ones relatively closest to Earth. This also means that they are visible by the naked eye, and to ancient astronomers. Naming them after those specific elements has to do with the traditional Chinese concept of Wu Xing (五行 wŭ xíng) which was used to explain a large variety of phenomenon. The ordering for these phases are:
Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ)
This order is set, and doesn’t change. As the names came based on which ones looked larger and brighter in the sky, so we have them seemingly out of order with water (水), metal (金), fire (火), wood (木), and earth (土). However, to the ancient astronomers of China, they would have been wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), metal (金), and water (水) based on what they could observe, and which ones seemed larger, and brighter (thus, to them, closer to Earth).
However, the last two, Uranus (天王星) and Neptune (海王星) follow the English way of naming planets. Just as those planets were discovered later, so too in China. That is why we they are based on the English names while the other planets retain their traditional naming.