The kanji 集, like any other kanji, has 3,300 years of history. Their ancient writings over thousand years tell us their history.
The left-most one — a bird, possibly flying, over a tree — is in an oracle bone style writing (甲骨文 /kookotsubun/), the oldest style of ancient Chinese character precursors. The second one — a bird perching on a treetop– is a bronze ware style (金文 /kinbun/). The third one is also a bronze ware style, but the shape of a bird became a linear drawing. You can see the birth of writing (文字 /mo’ji/) at that point. The shape became more formalized in the fourth and the fifth images, which are in ten official seal style (篆文 /tenbun/.) The last one is the kanji as we write now.
The kanji 集 is used in words such as 集まる atsuma’ru “to gather, congregate,” 集める atsume’ru “to collect,”集い tsudo’i “gathering of people,” 集合 shuugoo “assembly,” 集中 shuuchuu “concentration” and 編集 henshuu “editing (of a book).”
A few notes that I would like to make here:
(1) A flock of birds perched on a treetop gave the meaning “to gather.” It is like the English phrase “birds of feathers flock together.” In one of the ten style images, there were even three birds together — that would be difficult to write as kanji.
(2) The shape of a bird in the top of 集 is called hurutori ふるとり in Japanese. It appears in the old style 舊 of the current kanji 旧 huru’i “old.”
(3) Hurutori is a kanji bushu (radical) that appears in many kanji. I will discuss this my later posts.
References: Kiyomi Akai 1985; Shizuka Shirakawa 2004; Noriko Kurosawa Williams 2010. (The reference information will be added on the About Pages shortly.)