One Foot at a Time (3) 無舞乗


In this post and the next two posts we are going to look at the shape 舛, which came from two downward-facing feet of the same person. If we break down the shape 舛, we get two shapes (タand ヰ) that are vertically placed in kanji such as降 that we looked at in the earlier post.

1. 無 “nothing”

History無rHave you ever wondered how strange the kanji 無 looks? You may be surprised to know that it has a pretty origin. In oracle bone style it was a person carrying a branch of a tree or feathers in each of his or her two hands, dancing. Dancing usually means vocative dancing that was meant for the god to see, possibly praying for rain during a dry spell. As the writing progressed it became more elaborate. In earlier time the writing was borrowed to mean “nothing” for its sound /bu/. In ten style, we can recognize the origin of 亡 “to disappear” in the center. The kanji 無 means “nothing; not.” The kun-reading is 無い (“not exist”/na’i/). The on-reading /mu/ is in 無理な (“unreasonable” /mu’ri-na/), 無味乾燥な (“dry as chip; uninteresting” /mu’mi kansoo-na/), 皆無 (“absolutely none,” /ka’imu/). Another on-reading /bu/ is in 無事な (“safe” /buji-na/) and 無難な (“safe; flawless” /bunan-na/).

997st無70mmI must confess that I had been writing this kanji in the wrong stroke order for some time. One day I realized that the third stroke was the long horizontal line, then it became easier for me to write a better-shaped kanji. This is the stroke order for 無 on the left.

2. 舞 “to dance”

History舞rrrBecause the original writing for dancing had been taken away to mean “nothing,” a new writing for dancing was created by adding two downward feet. In bronze ware style, there was writing that had two feet underneath. In ten style, it was a person with a branch in either hand and two downward feet at the bottom. In kanji the right foot became the shape of a katakana タ/ta/ and the left foot became an old katakana ヰ/i/, which we no longer use. The kanji 舞 means “to dance.”

There is another kanji for “to dance” 踊る. How do we use the two kanji differently in Japanese? My instinct was that 舞 was used for more traditional art forms of dancing that had a formal choreography and that 踊る was more general. But I was not sure enough to leave it like that for our readers. So, I looked up the good old Kojien dictionary, which is like looking up the Oxford Dictionary for English. For 舞, it says, …even though the distinction between 舞 and 踊 is not clear, in 舞 (/mai/), [a dancer primarily makes] movements across a stage in ways such as suriashi “shuffling feet,” whereas in 踊り (/odori/) [he] uses rhythmic and energetic movements of hands and legs…(Kojien 1969.) The kun-reading /ma’(u)/ is in 舞いを舞う (“to dance a choreographed dance gracefully” /mai o ma’u/). The phrase repeats the words of same meaning like 歌を歌う (“to sing a song” /uta’o utau/) and 踊りを踊る (“to dance” /odori o odoru/). The on-reading /bu/ is in 舞台 (“stage” /bu’tai/), 歌舞伎 (“kabuki play” /kabuki/) and 舞踊 (“dancing” /buyoo/).

3. 乗 (乘) “to ride on”

History乗rrThe kanji 乗 does not appear to have two feet, but the history shows us that it did come from two feet too. In oracle bone style, it was a person standing on top of a tree. So it meant to climb onto the top of a tree. In bronze ware style, his two downward feet got focused and became symmetrical shapes facing two opposing directions. In ten style, the more stylized two feet were placed on top of a tree and a person 人 got separated at the top. That was how I had interpreted the three styles of ancient writing for the shinjitai 乗 and was in line with what I had written in my 2010 book.

This time the explanation by Shirakawa (2004), that the origin of 乗 was “two people climbing a tall tree,” caught my attention.  Where did “two people” come from? I was puzzled. Then, when I looked at the kyujitai, in blue, I recognized the elements of the kanji 北 “north,” which had originated from two people sitting or standing back to back. Other sources such as Kanjigen says it was “a person climbing a tree with his two feet (the right foot and the left foot).” Whichever interpretation we take, in kanji it got simplified and it is hard to see any shape of feet from those straight lines. The kun-reading 乗る “to ride” is in words such as 乗り物 (“vehicle; public transportation” /norimono/), 乗り気 (“eagerness; enthusiasm” /noriki/). The on-reading /jo’o/ is in 乗車する (“to get on a car” /joosha-suru/), 乗客 (“passenger” /jookyaku/), 便乗する(“to take advantage of” /binjoo-suru/).
549st乗70mmThe stroke order of 乗 is similar to that of 無, in which the long horizontal line is the third stroke.

The schedule for next few postings may be irregular due to lack of Internet access. I wish you a good summer. [July 20, 2014]

P.S. If your browser does not show ヰ,it is the old katakana /i/ that we do not use any longer in Japanese.

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