Two Hands from Below (1) 共供異興兵具 -“hand” (5)


In this post, I am going to discuss the kanji that have “two hands from below”: 共, 供, 異, 興, 具 and 兵. We immediately spot that they all have a shape that is like the kanji 八 squashed flat a little. They are hands trying to lift something.

1. 共 “together”

Two hands from belowIn the kanji共, in oracle bone style, in brown, and bronze ware style, in green, a hand from the right side and another hand from the left side were holding up something in the middle. The use of both hands and raising something above suggested he was handling with care because it was something important to him. In ten style hands the thing got separated and in kanji they became two components. The meaning focuses on the point that “two” hands were used, rather than on the point of “raising.” It means “to share; do something together.” The kun-yomi makes a phrase “~と共に“ (“together with〜” /〜to tomo ni/) and the on-yomi makes the words such as 共有する (”to share” /kyooyuu-suru/), 共著 (“co-authoring” /kyo’ocho/), 共演者 (“co-stars” /kyooe’nsha/) and 共同で (“collectively; sharing” /kyoodo-de/.)

2. 供  “to keep company; make offering to”

History供In bronze ware style, the components were same as that of 共, and in ten style, by adding a ninben, it indicated the act that a person does with both hands, which was “to make an offering to” or “to keep someone company; accompany someone.” There are two kun-yomi for 供. They are in お供え (“an offering (that one leaves on an altar table)” /osonae/) and お供する (“to accompany a person” [humble style] /oto’mo-suru/). There are also two on-yomi for 供. /Kyo’o/ is in 提供する (“to sponsor; supply; furnish” /teekyoo-suru/)  and /ku/ is in 供物 (“offering at alter” /ku’motsu/). If you guessed that this must be a go-on because it appeared to have a bearing on Buddhist practice, you are right. Naturally the reading /mo’tsu/ for 物 is a go-on too, as seen in 荷物 (“luggage” /ni’motsu/).

You probably have seen the word /kodomo/ written in both 子供 and 子ども and wondered why in hiragana. Because the kanji 供 means “accompanying,” some people consider it to be pejorative. Even in this age of children’s rights, I am quite puzzled by this logic. Now that we have a chance to see the origin of the kanji 供, I still do not see what the fuss is about.

3. 異 “odd; peculiar; different”

History異大盂蘭鼎ー異写真I once showed to the students of my second-year Japanese class the photo of bronze ware style inscriptions in the famous huge bronze ware pot called Daiutei (大盂鼎 Dà Yú Dĭng), and asked them to decipher the writing. The writings were in bronze ware style.  One by one they guessed and enjoyed this new game. And someone said, “There is a guy doing rap!” [The photo on the right (Ishikawa 1996)] Indeed he looked like that. Looking at a photo of ancient artifacts in that way makes the kanji alive. The kanji historians’ interpretation is that he was putting on a fearsome mask over his face to turn himself to another character. From that it meant “peculiar; different.” The kun-reading is in the adjective 異なった (“different” /kotona’tta/) and in the verb (~と) 異にする (“to differ from~” /to koto’-ni-suru/.) The on-reading is in 異説 (“conflicting view” /isetsu/) and 異常な (“unusual; extraordinary  /ijoo-na/).

Notes:  After some exchanges of the comments with a reader on the interpretation of the ancient writings of the kanji 異, I have written its follow-up article entitled “Kanji 異 Revisited and 典其選殿臀” posted on September 26, 2014. Thank you.

4. 興 “to raise; resurrect; start”

History興In oracle bone style, a pair of hands at the top and another pair of hands from below were holding something in the middle. In bronze ware style and ten style, the top and the bottom separated. Shirakawa (2004) says that what was in the middle was a vase which contained sake that a priest sprinkled around to wake up the spirit of the earth. From people trying to raise something together at once it means “to raise; start; to resuscitate.” The kun-reading is in 興す (“to start something new; revive; resuscitate”/oko’su/). The on-reading /kyo’o/ is in 興味 (“interest” /kyo’omi/), 即興で (”extemporaneously” /sokkyoo de/).  Another on-reading /ko’o/ is in 新興の (”newly-risen” /shinkoo-no/). Lately, you see the word 町おこし (“revitalization of a locality” /machi-o’koshi/) quite a lot in the news. Even though the media tend to use the hiragana, it is in this meaning, that people do something to revive the locality by creating an event or project.  Because it is a Japanese word, it is not that necessary to use this kanji, however.

5. 具 “filling; to be equipped”

History具In oracle bone style and bronze ware style what two hands were holding above was a tripod (鼎 /kanae/) or cowry (貝 /ka’i/). A tripod was used to cook sacrificial animals for a religious ceremony, and cowry was used as currency in ancient times. So both are things that had important substance. From placing something important with both hands, it meant “filling; to be equipped.” The kun-reading is in 具わる (“to be equipped with” /sonawa’ru/) and the on-reading is in 具 (“topping/filling on food” /gu/), 具体的に (“concretely” /gutaiteki-ni/), because you would give the details, and 金具 (“hardware/metal fittings” /kanagu/).

6. 兵 “soldier”

History兵Just as I was about to write that “the top of the oracle bone style (the first one) was an axe,” I thought “I do not think I can convince my readers.” So, I went back to my source (Akai 2010) and found the second one, which showed the blade of an axe better. An axe was a weapon, and someone who held a weapon is a soldier. So it meant “soldier.” In writing the kanji 兵, the third stroke starts a little below the beginning of the second stroke, much like the kanji in the upper right of the kanji 近 (“near”), in which 斤 was used phonetically. The old Japanese word for solider was /tsuwamono/, and this kanji is sometimes read as /tsuwamono/. The on-reading is in 兵士 (“soldier” /he’eshi/), 兵器 (“weapons” /he’eki/) and 派兵 (“sending military” /hahee/).

There are a couple of more shapes taken from a hand that I have not touched yet. I will discuss them in the next post, to wrap up the discussion on various shapes that originated from a hand. [May 31, 2014]

6 thoughts on “Two Hands from Below (1) 共供異興兵具 -“hand” (5)

  1. Good morning. I have some questions concerning the explanations given in this post:

    – The bronze ware style of the kanji 共 represent two hands holding something in the middle. As Williams sensei explained, exactly the same elements are shown in the bronze ware style of 供, but in this case they are separated (while in the case of 共 they are not, and they get separated only in the ten style). Therefore, the only difference between the bronze ware style of 共 and that of 供 is that the three elements are separated in the second but not in the first, while the difference between the two ten styles is the presence of ninben in the second (the same difference we find in today’s kanji).
    Is this enough to say that the two bronze ware styles were different signs? Differently, we could think that in the time of bronze ware style only the sign 共 existed (maybe in the two different forms shown here, with and without separation), and that the adding of ninben to represent a new and different meaning took place after, when the ten style was used. Which is the correct interpretation?

    – In the explanations of the kanji 共, 供, 興, 具 and 兵, the ashi element (usually described in the web as “一 + 八”, I searched a lot but could not find the font; I only found this ㅈ, from korean Hangul, but is not the same) derives from the shape of the two hands from below, while the other parts are the evolution of the shape of the held object. In particular, the kanji 共 represents two hands (kind of ㅈ) holding an unspecified object (kind of 艹, which obviously is not “grass”; perhaps could it be a cup?). Differently, in the history of the kanji 異 we can see that the ashi element is identical to the kanji 共, but it does not share the same origin. Indeed, in the case of 異, we see that the ashi 共 is formed by “kind of ㅈ” (which in this circumstance derives from the shape of the legs of a human body and not from the shape of the two hands, as in the case of all the other kanji discussed in this post) + “kind of 艹” (which derives from the shape of the two hands from below and not from the shape of the unspecified object, as in the case of the kanji 共). Moreover, the kanmuri 田 is not a rice field but represents a head with a mask. This state of affairs sort of troubles me, because it results that the ashi 共 of the kanji 異, which is identical to the kanji 共, has not the same etymology; on the other hand, the kanmuri 田 of the kanji 異 does not share the same etymology of the kanji 田.
    This is an example of the typical problems which can occur using etymological explanation in kanji teaching.
    What does Williams sensei think about it? Is it helpful, for the students, to analyze the kanji 異not simply as the sum of the (eventually) already known kanji 田 and 共, but in a more difficult way, through the study of the “real” (best substantiate) explanation? It should be noticed that in this case the problem is reduced by the fact that both the etymologies of the kanji 共 and 異 are related to the shape of the two hands from below. But it is well known that many other kanji which share today one or more identical element(s) can be completely unrelated in their etymologies. For example, the kanji 具, discussed in this post, has nothing to do with the kanji 目. How can we support the point of view whereby the students should be provided with etymological explanation?

    – The phonetic mark 斤 of the kanji 近 derives from the same shape of an axe from which originated the kanmuri 斤 of the kanji 兵?

    • Thank you very much for your interesting comments. Here are my responses to part of your comments:
      1. 共and 供  Because the bronze ware style writings 共 and 供 on my post look different, you are thinking that the two might have been different in the bronze ware time. For the blog I pick just one image for each style and when I wrote “in bronze ware style, the components were same as that of共,” I did not write it well. What I should have made it clear was that the bronze ware style 供 in the post had also been for 共. In other words, in bronze ware style times, 共 had two types of shapes, the one in 共 and another one in 供 in my post. I believe that the one in 共in the post was older than the one in 供. No oracle bone style writing for 供is found in Shirakawa (2004) or Akai (2010). Shirakawa classifies 共as 会意文字 “semantic composite writing” and 供 as形声文字 “semantic-phonetic writing” in which 共provided the sound. So, we can say that共 existed first and that as the need arouse to create something meaning “a person does something with both hands,” and “a person to keep company with someone else,” the kanji 供was created by adding a ninben sometime before ten-style.
      2. 異 is different from共 供 興 具 and 兵. You are right. I agree with you on this now. 異was 象形文字 “pictographic writing” in oracle bone style and bronze ware style, whereas the other five were composites of two or more shapes, one of which is two hands. The bottom of the ten style is still troubling me, though. I do not think it is the legs of the person who was wearing a fearsome mask. To me it looks more like a table. Looking at other ancient writing such as 鼻典其期旗may tell us something. I need to do more digging to put my thoughts together on this.
      I will respond to your etymology in kanji teaching question at a later time. – Noriko [June 11, 2014]

    • This is my response to the second part of your comments: Is etymology helpful in learning/teaching?
      Thank you very much for raising this important question.
      It starts from the “cold” fact that much of kanji study relies on just memorization, leaving little to one’s own thinking. In order to make kanji study something that requires at least a more active learning process, teachers have to come up with all kinds of activities. I have decided to use the association with its historical development.
      Objectively, I think these are a few of the pros and cons for us to consider;
      A few pros: (1) An etymological explanation informs us that the shape of the kanji did have meaning – that is, it is not just a composite of arbitrary lines. It gives life to the shape that is otherwise quite abstract; (2) An etymological approach allows us to break kanji down into components, so by focusing on the common component we can learn to recognize how seemingly unrelated kanji are related. It is not possible to do this when we memorize a kanji by its association with how it looks or with something unique to you. For example, knowing that the kanji 臣 ”government minister” was originally “watchful eye” makes it easier to understand the kanji 覧, even 蔵 and 臓; (3) The fact that something actually happened in the history of writing is, in and of itself, interesting to me, and some learners.
      The cons; (1) Similar shapes do not always carry the same meaning and this can be confusing. For example, as you noted, after one learns that 田 means, he learns that the same shape in 思 means “baby’s fontanel (thus brain),” and then that the shape in 異 is mask. [This “con” is accurate – it is the nature of etymological information. Kanji are the result of a numerous “simplification.”]; (2) It takes time. [Also accurate, but I would note that thinking is almost always an indulgence of time. A mature learner may have more time to indulge themselves.]; (3) One does not need to know the origin to use kanji; (4) There is little information in Japanese course textbooks, and many classroom teachers do not have the time, or for that matter the knowledge, to teach it.
      When I taught undergraduate courses in universities, I gave our students a package explaining the origin of all the kanji in each lesson (and also uploaded on the course ware.) When time allowed, I explained (although briefly) the newly introduced kanji, but basically I left all up to individual student how much information he or she wanted to get from that package. Many students said it was helpful: I suspect some might have thought that they did not need it.
      In my intermediate level courses, however, I required that students learn the shape and meaning of 90 bushu as a tool for learning kanji. Their studies began with the origin of each shape and then moved to kanji that appeared in the lesson. This was done as homework, and in class we just spent several minutes going over the shapes using flashcards. Bushu shape and meaning are simple and manageable even for busiest students. At the end of their three-year studies, they all said that the most helpful thing in their kanji learning was bushu study.
      Again, thank you very much for your raising an important question. The Part 1 (first 200 kanji) of the new etymology-based kanji tutorials on the web that I have been preparing for is almost ready. You will see how I handle origin information and practical information for a learner in the video tutorials. Let’s discuss more again after we see how this particular way of kanji learning goes. – Noriko [June 21, 2014]

  2. About my last question, I searched the kanji 近 in “The Key To Kanji” and I found that 斤 is just the same axe which appear in 近 and 兵.

    • I just realized that I did not click the “approve” button. So, your earlier comment was not visible. Gomennasai. Your question of where etymology fits in our kanji education, if at all, is the most important question we teachers have to think about. At the moment, I have been struggling with the technology problems (Mac update; Word and Powerpoint crash issues; Screen capture app disabled; sound editing app not fully working, etc. all in one last few days!) So, when I recover from this confusing time, I will respond.
      About 近: The ancient writing (I only found one in ten-style) seems to be the same.

  3. After the exchange on Antoniomarco’s comments on the interpretation of the kanji 異, I have written an article revisiting the topic. The title is “Kanji 異 Revisited and 典其選殿臀” posted on September 26, 2014. Thank you very much. -Noriko

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