The Kanji 東動働重童-力 “power” (3)


In continuing the bushu 力 “power; strength”, we are going to look at the kanji 動 and 働 in this post. In the two kanji 動 and 働, the obvious starting point is the kanji 重.  When we look at ancient writing, discussing the kanji 重 further takes us to the kanji 東.

(1) The kanji 東 “east”

The kanji 東 is the kanji that we study at a very early stage (we need it for 東京 “Tokyo” /tookyoo/!). Your teacher tried very hard to make kanji meaningful to the class and may have said something like, “Can you see the sun, 日, inside a tree, 木, in this kanji?  Morning sun shines through the branches of a tree in the east.  So, the kanji 東 means ‘east.’”  Forty years ago, when I first started to teach Japanese and looked for a way to explain kanji, I also came across this explanation. Even then I felt doubtful about it. Apparently that was the explanation given in the Setsumon Kaiji, the utmost authoritative etymology source of Chinese characters.  So, it has been retold timelessly.

The history of the kanji 東(abc)The ancient writings tell us a different story. In oracle bone style, (a) in brown, and bronze ware style, (b) in green, it was a bag that was tied around a pole, with two ends tied tightly and the middle wrapped around as well.  The middles of these samples do not look anything like the sun.

History of the kanji 日

The History of the kanji 日

At the time of the oracle bone style and bronze ware style, shown on the right, the sun was a circle with a dot, long or short, in the middle, that signified that the inside was not empty.  It was only in ten style, (c) in red, when the middle dot became a line across.

What did a bag of stuff with a pole going through have to do with the direction “east”?  The answer is, “Nothing.” The writing was borrowed to mean “east.” Borrowing means it had no relevance to the meaning or sound of the original kanji. Borrowing a shape for a direction was not uncommon: the kanji 西 “west,” from a basket, 南 “south,” from a musical instrument, were borrowed. The kanji 北, “back to back,” was used phonetically for “north.”  This was just the ground work for the kanji in this post.

The kun-yomi 東 /higashi/ means “east.”  Another kun-yomi /a’zuma/ also meant “east.” The on-yomi /to’o/ is in 東京, 東海道 (“the Tokaido road” /tooka’idoo/) and 東北地方 (“northeast region” /toohokuchi’hoo/), 中東 (“Middle East” /chuutoo/).

(2) The kanji 重 “heavy; weight”

The history of the kanji 重(de)The bronze ware style sample, (d), of the kanji 重 consisted of a person on top, a bag that was tied around, and soil at the bottom. In ten style, (e), it had the shape of a person bending over at the top, and below that was the same as (c) in 東, and the dirt at the bottom. The person’s feet were connected all the way to the ground.  Together a person with a heavy bag standing on the ground meant “heavy.”

The kun-yomi is in 重い (“heavy” /omoi/), 重たい (“heavy” /omotai/), and 重み (“weight” /omomi/).  Another kun-yomi 重ねる (“to pile; lay something on the other” /kasaneru/), 重ね重ね (“repeatedly” /kasanega’sane/). The on-yomi /ju’u/ is in 二重 (“double” /nijuu/), 厳重に (“closely; strictly” /genjuuni/).

(3) The kanji 動 “to move” and the kanji 童 “young child”

The history of the kanji 動(fg)In the kanji 動, the left side 重 was just explained. If we jump to the ten style, (g), we see what we expect from the kanji 重, with the plough for 力 “power” on the right side. Together they meant applying power to move heavy stuff, or “to move.”  So far it makes sense, doesn’t it.

But what about the bronze ware style, as in (f)?  It had a large tattoo needle (辛) with a big handle, and an eye underneath at the top. (f) in bronze ware style was different from (d), 重 in bronze ware style. Why is that? Even though the ten style, (e) for 重 and (g) for 動, are closely similar, why are the bronze ware styles from which they developed so different? What a bother…, but we will not give up.  There is a reason. Ancient creators of writing used a tattoo needle in various kanji. The bushu 言 and 音 that we saw earlier were just a few of the examples. Another example of use of a tattoo needle was that a convict was tattooed as a punishment for a crime.

History of the kanji 童

History of the kanji 童

I remember that earlier I had come across a shape that was the same as (f).  It was the bronze ware style of the kanji 童, shown in (h) on the right. (f) and (h) had to be the same.  In 童, someone who had a tattoo, a convict, did a heavy manual work. (We recognize a heavy load and the soil in (h) and (i).)  The needle over an eye symbolized blindness to knowledge or not having freedom. Later on, the meaning of convict was dropped and the kanji meant someone who was ignorant. That is a young child. The kanji 童 means “young child.”

Now back to our kanji 動. The kanji 動 originally meant “to work hard” or “physical work.” The writing was later taken away to mean “to move” or “to move stuff,” which is the current use.

The kun-yomi 動く (“to move” ugo’ku/) is 身動きできない (“cannot budge; cramped” /miu’goki deki’nai/), 動き回る (“to move about” /ugokimawa’ru/).  The on-yomi /do’o/ is in 運動 (“exercise” /undoo/), 活動 (“activity” /katsudoo/) and 自動ドア (“automatic door” /jidoodo’a/).

(5) The Kanji 働 “to work; labor”

What happened to the original meaning of “working hard” that 動 had? That is where the newer kanji 働 comes in.  The kanji 働 was created in Japan to mean “to work (using one’s body).” So, there is no ancient writing existed. Logically a kokuji (国字), a kanji that was created in Japan, does not have an on-yomi. But the kanji 働 just took the on-yomi of the kanji 動 /do’o/.

The kun-yomi /hataraku/ means “to work for wages” and is in ただ働き (“work without pay” /tadaba’taraki/). The on-yomi /do’o/ is in 労働 (“labor” /roodoo/) and 稼働する (“(machine is) in operation” /kadoo-suru/).

The year 2015 is hitsujidoshi, “the year of the sheep,” written as 未年.The kanji 未 and the animal sheep have no relation, so it is just an arbitrary use. I would like to touch on the kanji 羊 to celebrate the new year in the next post. [1_6_2015]

2 thoughts on “The Kanji 東動働重童-力 “power” (3)

  1. The discussion herein about the kanji 東, prompted me to think about the real value of the “etymologies” in the Setsumon Kaiji (説文解字).

    The author (Xu Shen) dedicated his life to the compilation of that reference, which is regarded as “the utmost authoritative etymology source of Chinese characters.” However, Professor Imre Galambos (Cambridge University) states that “Xu did not intend to provide etymological information in his dictionary”(1). Instead, the book was designed as a teaching tool to aid the students to memorize the Chinese characters.

    An interesting point of view indeed. Especially when one encounters such explanations that simply do not hold water.

    1) Orthography of Early Chinese Writing: Evidence from Newly Excavated Manuscripts
    Budapest: Department of East Asian Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, 2006.
    Freely available at the author’s website
    Quote from page 61.

    • Kanji etymology interests some people as a tool to learn kanji and others as something to inform them about kanji that they already are very familiar with. Whatever the interest may be, I am hoping that by having three major ancient writing styles that are available to us in 21st century publication, our reader will enjoy figuring out the puzzle of each kanji on their own. -Noriko

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