Kanji Radical 女 おんなへん-女好妹要妻安 – “woman”

Kanji 女 Stroke Order

Kanji 女 Stroke Order

In this post we are going to look at the kanji that contain a bushu onnahen 女 “woman; female; feminine.” The stroke order is shown on the right: The long horizontal line is the last stroke. Some readers may find this stroke order “counter-intuitive,” as many of my former students lamented in their kanji quizzes. It is a hiragana /ku/ く, a katakana /no/ ノ and a kanji 一. The slang /kuno’ichi/ (くノ一) means “female ninja.” Well, at least that is what you hear in ninja movies and anime stories. (I wouldn’t know about the world of ninja.) But for us, it is useful to remind us of the correct stroke order of the kanji 女.

(1) The kanji 女 “woman; female; feminine”

History of the Kanji 女It is not surprising to find an abundance of ancient writings for the kanji 女. In oracle bone style (in light brown), (1) and (2), it was a person kneeling with arms crossed in front. The pliant posture of the person meant “a woman.” The direction in which a woman faced was the flip side of each other. As noted in earlier posts, in oracle bone style the direction that a figure faced did not seem to carry any particular meaning, whereas in later writing facing right meant looking back or a backward movement. In bronze ware style (in green), in the right one, (4), the line that signified the body and the legs lost a sharp bend that showed kneeling that (3) had. And yet in ten style (in red) the bent knee returned. Her left hand got elongated to reach the floor.

A few posts ago, I treated the left side of the bushu ninnyoo,儿, as a hand. I have also left the possibility of a different interpretation, a leg. But here both 女 and a ninny, 儿, in ancient writings seem to direct us to view that it was a hand. Based on that interpretation, we are going to say that in kanji 女 the first strokes came from two hands and the last horizontal stroke represented the body and legs. I find it a little odd, so I am welcoming other interpretations from readers.

The kun-yomi 女 /onna’/ means “woman,” and is in 女の子 (“girl” /onna’noko/), 女らしい (”woman-like; feminine” /onnarashi’i/) and 女っぽい (“feminine with sex appeal” /onnappo’i/). Another kun-yomi /me/ is in 女々しい (“womanish” /memeshi’i/), The on-yomi /jo/ is in 女性 (“woman” /josee/), 長女 (“first-born daughter; oldest daughter” /cho’ojo/) and 男女 (“both sexes; a man and a woman” /da’njo/). Another on-yomi /nyo/ or /nyo’o/ is a go-on and is in 女房 (“wife; my wife” /nyo’oboo/).

(2) The kanji 好 “to like; favorable; good”

History of the Kanji 好In the first three oracle bone styles of the kanji 好, (1), (2) and (3), a woman was sitting on her heels with a child on her knees. It suggested the tender loving way in which a woman cared for a child. It meant “to like; fond of; good; beautiful.” In bronze ware style, the position of the woman and the child in (4) was the mirror image of (5). In ten style, (6), the woman was placed on the left and the child on the right. Only a left-facing woman remained in ten style. In fact, based on the way the knee was bent, the woman even appeared to be showing her back to the child. But this is because by the time of ten style shapes were not writing from images but just writings. Ten style was the last ancient writing before rei style (隷書 /reesho/), the first kanji style which went through dramatic standardization of shapes. As a bushu onnahen, the last stroke goes up slightly.

The kun-yomi /suki’/ means “to be fond of; like,” and is in 子供好きな (“being fond of a child,” /kodomozukina/) and 好きずきな (”a matter of individual taste or preference” /suki’zuki-na/). Another kun-yomi 好む /kono’mu/ means “to favor; like,” and is in お好みの (“favorite; of one’s choice” /okonomino/). The on-yomi /ko’o/ is in 好青年 (“nice young man; congenial youth” /koose’enen/) and 好物 (“favorite food” /ko’obutsu/).

(3) The kanji 妹 ”younger sister”

History of the Kanji 妹In oracle bone and bronze ware styles for the kanji 妹 “younger sister,” the left side had a tree with a line at the top. The line at the top signified that the tip of the tree was still growing and not matured yet. It was the kanji 未 “yet,” as in 未だ 〜ない (“not yet” /ma’da/) and 未来 (“future,” from the meaning of “yet to come” /mi’rai/). The right side was a “woman.” Together they meant a female member of the family who was yet to grow, which was “younger sister.” In ten style, the positions of 未 and 女 switched.

The kun-yomi /imooto/ means “younger sister.” The on-yomi /mai/ is in 姉妹 (“sisters” /shi’mai/) and 弟妹 (“younger brother and sister” /teemai/.)

(4) The kanji 要 “essential; important; to require; to need”

History of the Kanji 要In the history of the kanji 要, the shape 女 was not present originally. In oracle bone style the middle was a pelvis, and two hands were placed on the hip. It meant “waist” or “hip.” The waist is the center of one’s body and is important. So this writing came to be used to mean “essential.; important.” We have two shapes in ten style. The left one had the hip with both hand and two legs at the bottom. In the right one, because a woman has a more prominent hip, 女 was added at the bottom, but it still meant “essential; important; to require; to need.”

For the original meaning of “waist; hip” a new writing was created by adding a bushu nikuzuki “body part”, 腰 (“waist” /koshi/). This way of kanji formation – in which a shape that originally meant a part of a body got taken away to mean something else and that a new kanji had to be created for the original meaning by adding bushu nikuzuki “part of a body” – is quite common. We have already seen it in 殿 “feudal lord; palace; an official way of addressing someone” and 臀 “hip,” Another pair, 北 “north” and 背 “back; to betray,” is also a good example.

The kun-yomi is in 要る (“to need; require” /iru/). The on-yomi /yo’o/ is in 要因 (“factor“ /yooin/), 要領 (“the gist” /yooryo’o/), 重要な (“important” /juuyoo-na/), 必要な (“necessary” /hitsuyoo-na/), and 要する (“to require” /yoo-su’ru/).

(5) The kanji 妻 “wife” and 夫 ”husband”

History of the Kanji 夫In order to understand the origin of 妻 (“wife” /tsu’ma/), looking at the history of the kanji 夫 (“husband” /otto/) may be useful. The history of the kanji 夫 is shown on the right.  In oracle bone style, bronze ware style and ten style, it was a man, 大, with a line at the top. The line at the top signified a ceremonial or formal hairpin that a groom wore at the wedding. It meant a “bride groom.” From that the kanji 夫 meant “husband; man.”

History of the Kanji 妻For the kanji 妻 “wife,” no oracle bone style or bronze ware style writing is available. In ten style, the top was a hair accessory that a bride wore; the middle was a hand from the side; and the bottom was a woman. Whose hand was it?  Two different views are possible– the hand could be the bride putting her hand on her hair accessory to signify her wedding; or a groom’s hand taking her as his bride. I tend to take the latter view. Together they meant “wife.”

The kun-yomi is in 妻 (“wife” /tsu’ma/). In modern Japanese, when you refer to your own wife, the word 家内 /ka’nai/ is usually used. Someone else’s wife is 奥さん and 奥様 /o’kusan; o’kusama/ and never /tsu’ma/ in speaking. The on-yomi /sa’i/ is in 夫妻 (“married couple; husband and wife” /fu’sai/) and 妻子 (“wife and child” /sa’ishi/),

(6) the kanji 安 “peaceful; inexpensive”

History of the Kanji 安In all of the ancient writings for the kanji 安 shown on the left, a woman, 女, was placed inside a house. It meant “quiet; secure; peaceful.” An inexpensive thing is less strenuous to obtain, so it also meant “inexpensive; cheap.” In a first-year Japanese class in a university program, whenever this kanji was introduced in the context of 高い and 安い (“expensive” /taka’i/ and “inexpensive” /yasu’i), I could almost predict female freshman students would react with disgust or at least annoyance to this kanji, thinking that a woman is cheap. But a woman sitting inside the house peacefully is the original meaning.

Another thing is that when I was copying the photos of ancient writing in Akai (1985 and 2010) last year to be used for the Visual Kanji video tutorials, I noticed that 安 in some of the oracle bone and bronze ware styles had an extra line at the bottom. I wondered if it was just a flaw in the making of the inscription or not. But the same thing happened in copying the kanji 保 “to keep.” Shirakawa’s explanation is that this was a ceremonial piece of clothing to protect someone from evil.

The kun-yomi is in 安い (“inexpensive” /yasu’i/), 安らかな (“peaceful’ /yasu’rakana/), 安上がり (“inexpensive; less cost” /yasua’gari/), 安値 (“low price” /yasu’ne/) and 目安にする (”to use as rule of thumb” /meyasu-ni-suru/). The on-yomi /a’n/ is in 安心 (“security; ease” /anshin/) and 不安な (“anxious; restless” /huanna/).

In the next post, I would like to discuss the kanji 母毎海悔毒梅, which originally contained the same shape as 女. [11-24-2014 Japan time]

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