Eyes Wide Open (1) 目, 相, 想 and 箱


Ancient creators used different images of each of the human physical features. For “eye,” it was not just 目, and a few other different images were created. We are going to look at different shapes of “eye” that are hidden in various kanji. In this post the kanji 目, 相, 想 and 箱 are discussed.

(1) 目 “eye; seeing”

The eyes in the two oracle bone style writings, (1) and (2), had a pupil and two areas of the white of an eye on each side. That is a side-long shape, which is closer to how an eye looks on the face. In ten style, (3), the eye was placed vertically. Being longer in height than in width is one of the characteristics of ten style writing. The kanji 目 has a number of meanings. Here are only some of them. Kun-yomi /me/ examples include 目 (“eye; ability to see” /me’/), 〜に目がない (“to like very much without reservation” /x ni me’ga na’i/), 目方(“weight” /mekata/) and 四人目 (”fourth person” /yoninme’/).   /Ma/ in 目の当たりにする (“to see in one’s own eyes” /manoa‘tari-ni-suru/) is another kun-yomi. On-yomi examples are 注目する (“to pay attention to” /chuumoku-suru/), 目的 (“purpose” /mokuteki/), and 課目 (“subject matter” /kamoku/.)

(2) 相 “(facing) each other”

Kanji 相 HistoryThe kanji 相 consists of a bushu kihen 木 “tree” and 目 “eye.” If a person faces and looks at a tree, it means the tree faces and looks at the person at the same time. From that the kanji 相 means “facing each other; mutual; government minister (from someone who watches the governmental matter); phase.” In the image on the left, the first two, (1) and (2), are in oracle bone style, and they had a tree above or below an eye. In bronze ware style, (3), a tree and an eye were placed side by side. The eye had a shape that would survive as 臣 “loyal subject” from a watchful eye in several kanji as we will discuss in our third post on eye. In ten style, (4), the two elements are more controlled shapes and closer to kanji, (5), as we use now. Its kun-yomi is /a’i/, as in words such as 相手 (“partner/opponent” /aite’/). The on-yomi words include 相談する (“to talk over with” /soodan-suru/), 首相 (“prime minister” /shushoo/) and 相思相愛 (“(two people) in love with each other” /so’oshi sooai/.)

(3) 想 “think; contemplate”

By adding a heart (心) to 相 “facing each other” we got the kanji 想 “to contemplate.” (The writing on the left is ten-style and the right one is the kanji.) When a person entertains a thought, memory, or idea in his heart, he and the object of thinking are facing other. From that, this kanji tends to have something to reflect on or visualize such as 想像する (“to imagine; visualize” /soozoo-suru/), 感想 (“impression” /kansoo/, 理想 “an ideal” /risoo/.)

(4) 箱  “box”

The top is a bushu takekanmuri “bamboo.”  Once rooted well, bamboo grows strongly and propagates quickly. It provides light-weight materials that are easy to make crafts. Bamboo was also used as the medium of writing before paper was invented. So, many kanji that have a takekanmuri are related to craft or writing. This kanji 箱 is one of them. The bottom 相 was used phonetically for /so’o/ but also gave its original meaning “facing each other.” In traveling, two bamboo boxes were hung on either side of a carriage horse.

In this blog, I am primarily discussing the kanji out of the 1,100 kanji that are included in The Key to Kanji (Williams 2010). If you look at the entire list of the new joyo-kanji, we will find other kanji that contain this common component 相. In the next post, I plan to discuss 直 and four other kanji that contain 直 (値, 植, 置 and 徳).  [3-20-2014]

2 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Open (1) 目, 相, 想 and 箱

  1. Hello 先生。After reading this marvelous post, I reviewed the book “Chinese Writing” by Qiu Xigui (2000) and I would like to share the following passage:

    “In dictionary definitions, a lot of ink is sometimes spent without being able to express a word’s meaning precisely and completely. To express the basic meaning of a word using graphic form is even more difficult to accomplish. Not only is the relationship between the meaning of a phonogram’s signific* and the meaning of the graph itself often very loose, even the graphic form of a semantograph** can often only offer a hint concerning the meaning of the graph. Therefore we cannot unconditionally place an equal sign between the meaning expressed by a graphic form and the basic sense of a character. What is especially important to note here is that the meaning expressed by a graphic form is often narrower that the basic sense of the graph”. Qiu Xigui, P. 215.

    Professor Qiu Xigui states that “The original meaning of ”相” was to examine carefully”. P. 192

    I another passage says “The graphic form shows a person examining a tree, but the basic sense of the graph can scarcely be that narrow… If one says that because the character 相 has “木” as a component its original sense was “to observe a tree” he will be mistaken.” P.215-6.

    *Phonogram’s signific: The “radical” of semantic-phonetic compounds (形声文字)
    ** Semantograph: semantic compounds (会意文字)

    • Thank you for your sharing this passage. I hope that our readers will not take the meaning of each component “literally and narrowly.” I try to write my explanations as briefly and succinctly as possible so that our readers can use them as a point of departure from which to apply their own imagination and thinking. We have to be able to reconstruct meaning from the shapes themselves the next time we come across them. Remember, my primary objective is to teach.

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