I am going to discuss about a peculiar looking kanji radical 辰 and a few kanji that contain it (震，振、唇 and 娠.) Even though it is used in a person’s name and in the old sordiac time, 辰 /tatsu/ as kanji is not included on the Joyo Kanji list, but it is an important component of many kanji.
Surprisingly, the shape of the kanji 辰 came from an image of an opened bivalve or clam with its inside showing. In the oracle bone style, as in (a), and in bronze ware style, (b) & (c), the soft body and its ligaments were still attached to the two hard shells. According to Shirakawa (2004) 辰 was the original form of 蜃. The kanji 蜃 is not an every day kanji at all, but if we see it in a word like 蜃気楼 /shinki’roo/ “mirage,” a displaced image that is created by mixture of moisture and light. A clam, or other kinds of bivalve, spouting water up into the air and causing a mirage above the sea was thought to have magical power. It makes me think that the size of the shells must have been impressive to be noticed by ancient people — not like the size that we eat in spagetti vongole! A soft fleshy body trembles and that gave 辰 the meaning of “to shake” and “something active.” The on-reading is /shi’n/.
Now we take a look at four kanji that contain it as a bushu. (The writings on the left side of each paragraph are official seal style and kanji in kyokasho style.)
In 震, the top 雨 by itself is the kanji /a’mr/ “rain.” When used as a bushu, it means “something falling in the sky.” Something that falls from the sky that shakes things on the ground is thunder (雷 /kamina’ri/). The kanji 震 described trembling or shaking caused by thunder. 地震 (“earthquake” /jishin/) is the shaking of the ground. 震える (”to tremble, shake” /hurueru/) and 身震い (“shudder, shiver” /mibu’rui/) are the kun-reading.
By adding a tehen, “hand,” on the left side we get the kanji 振 “to shake; wave; swing.” The kanji 振 is in words such as 手を振る (“wave a hand” /te’ o huru/), 旗を振る (“wave a flag” /hata’ o huru/), and (彼女に) 振られる (“to get jilted (by her or girlfriend)” /(ka’nojo ni) hurareru/). Those are in kun-reading. It also means “to be very active” in words such as 産業を振興させる “to promote industry” in on-reading /shi’n/.
By adding 口, “mouth,” we get the kanji 唇 ”lip.” By itself, it is 唇 (“lips”/kuchibiru/) in kun-reading. The on-reading is in the word 唇音 (“labial sound” /shin-on/), which is a sound that is created using a lip or lips such as /p, b, f. m/. A very specialized word for a linguist.
By adding an onna-hen, “woman; feminine,” we get the kanji 娠 in 妊娠 (”pregnancy” /ninshin/) which describes the faint movements of a foetus. The on-reading is again /shi’n/ and it does not have any kun-reading.
形声文字 “semantic-phonetic composite writing”
All these kanji share the on-reading shin. The other components of the four kanji, such as amekanmuri, tehen, kuchihen, and onnahen gave the primary meaning. These four kanji are 形声文字 (“semantic-phonetic composite writing”/keesee-mo’ji/.) Often times, people say,
“A majority of kanji is keisei-moji. Only the sound, not the meaning, matters in keisei-moji. So, knowing the origin does not take you too far.”
I have a very different view on this. It is true that a large number of kanji are keisei-moji, but in reality the component that represents sound was chosen for having semantic connection, not by a random choice. To me that is the secret key to understand each kanji.
By the way, I found a cute video clip that shows three small clams on a beach. I imagine that the ancient people had much larger shells in their minds, but even these small clams demonstrate translucent flesh trembling and spouting water. They make me smile. 蛤の潮吹きのビデオhttp://youtu.be/AjNtG1uYvm8
[This topic was prompted by an earlier comment from a reader about the kanji 唇 and its relationship with its component 辰 a week ago. Thank you very much for your comment, Marco from Venezuela.]. [2-26-2014]