The Kanji 北背死化花真 – Posture (4)


In the last post, we looked at kanji that had two standing people who are facing in the same direction, either to the left – 従縦, or to the right – 比皆階陛. In this post we are going to look at six kanji that contain a single 匕 in two groups: Group A 北背死 from 匕, and Group B 化花真 from 匕.

A. The component 匕 “person; ladle; short knife”

History of Kanji ヒperson; ladle; knifeThere is no kanji used in Japanese by itself. We look at it as a component here. In ten style, in red, it was a standing person who was facing right, putting his hands forward. His legs were bent a little. In bronze ware style, in green, one sample looked as if he was sitting and another looked like he was standing. In ten style, in red, it was the mirror image of the kanji 人. In kanji it became the shape of a katakana hi.  It carried the meaning “person” and also a “ladle; spoon” or a “short knife,” as in 旨.

(1) 北 “north”

History of Kanji 北In the oracle bone style and bronze ware style of the kanji 北 it was two people standing with their backs to each other. It originally meant “to turn one’s back on each other.”  From early times on, the writing was also used to mean “north.” People built a house facing south and the back faced north. Turning away from an enemy also meant a “defeat.” In ten style, the two standing people with their backs to each other became the shape that was consistent with what we saw in the last post, one of each from the ten style writing of 従 and 比. 北 meant “to be defeated; north.”

北-明朝体教科書体比較Now let us take a moment to compare how different a Mincho style 北 and a textbook style (教科書体) 北 look.  (a) is in the mincho style font that came in a Mac, and (b) is in the kyokashotai style (by Iwata). The stroke order is shown underneath. The difference in the two styles is evident in the left side. In (a) the left side looks very similar to the left side of the kanji 状, in which the vertical stroke goes straight down. In (b), the approximation of model handwriting style, the third stroke goes up touching the bottom of the second stroke. In reading or kanji study, we should be aware that there are two different styles used, one for print or online text and another for handwriting.

The kun-yomi is in 北向き (“facing north” /kitamuki/), and 北側 (“north side” /kitagawa/). The on-yomi /ho’ku/ is in 北米 (“North America” /hokubee/) and 東北地方 (“northeast region” /toohokuchi’hoo/), /-bo’ku/ is in 敗北 (“defeat” /haiboku/) and /hok-/ is in 北海道 (“Hokkaido Island” /hokka’idoo/).

(2) 背 “one’s back; to breach a trust”

History of Kanji 背In ten style of the kanji 背, it had two people with their backs to each other and underneath was “flesh.”  Because the writing 北 came to be used more for “north; defeat,” in order to mean “one’s back,” the body part component (月) was added. It meant “one’s back.” The bushu nikuzuki shared the same origin as the kanji 肉 “flesh; meat.”  One’s back is the opposite of the front. Doing something behind someone’s back also meant “breach of trust; to revolt.”

The kun-yomi /se/ is in 背中 (“one’s back” /senaka/) and 背伸びする (“to stretch up; try to do beyond one’s ability” /seno’bi-suru/). Another kun-yomi /se’e/ may be used in 背が高い (“tall in stature” /se’ga taka’i/ or /se’ega taka’i/). The kun-yomi 背く /somu’ku/ means “to revolt: violate.” The on-yomi /ha’i/ is in 背景 (“background” /haikee/) and 背信 (“betrayal” /haishin/).

(3) The kanji 死 “to die”

History of Kanji 死In the two oracle bone style samples of the kanji 死, it had a person looking over the remains of a deceased person. He was mourning. It is a touching sad scene, the mourner kneeling down with his head bending over the remains.  Shirakawa (2004) noted that in ancient times the body was left in the field until it weathered to become a skeleton and after that the bones were collected for burial. So what the person was looking at was not the body but the bones. In bronze ware style the person was standing up, and in ten style the person became the shape that we are now familiar with from the last post. The bones on the left became the bushu kabane , which appears in other kanji such as 残列例. (Kabane is the old word for a dead body.) The mourner became the shape 匕. Oddly it ended up that the mourner looks like he is showing his back to the bones. As we are about to see in B, the right side of 化 came from a dead body. But ironically the right side in the kanji 死 was not a dead person but a live person who was mourning.

The kun-yomi 死ぬ /shinu/ means “to die.” The on-yomi is also /shi/ and is in 病死 (“death due to illness” /byooshi/), 死語 (“extinct word or language” /shi’go/), 必死で (“frantically” /hisshide/).

B. The kanji component 匕 “dead person”

History of kanji 匕 (body)The component匕 (if your browser does not show it, the first stroke crosses over the second stroke) meant a dead person. The ten style sample is in the same shape as the right side of the 化 below. Some scholars interpreted this shape as a body in a sitting position as a form of burial. We do not have an earlier style sample. History of Kanji 老(frame)However, our readers may recall that the kanji 老 “old” did have earlier writing samples. [January 31, 2015]  I am copying it on the right side. In (c) and (d) we can recognize a person who fell. The kanji 老 originated from someone with a very long hair (the top) who was close to death (the bottom). In addition to these, and the oracle bone style sample for the kanji 化 below, I feel more confortable saying that 匕 was a fallen person.

(4) The kanji 化 “to change shape; transform”

History of Kanji 化In the oracle bone style and bronze ware style of the kanji 化, the left side was a standing person facing left. The right side was an image of a 180 degree turn of the left side. That was a person upside down — a person dead. I find this image a little disturbing. I used to explain to our class that the kanji 化 consisted of a person standing and then sitting and that the change of one’s posture meant “a change of state.” Then our students would respond with approving nods. But now, faced with these ancient writing samples, I have to change my explanation, disappointedly. A change was not a matter of posture, but a matter of life and death.

The kun-yomi is 化ける (“to change for” /bake’ru/), お化け (“ghost” /oba’ke/) and 文字化け (“character corruption; misconversion (on a computer)” /mojibake/).  The on-yomi /ka/ is in 化学 (“chemistry” /ka’gaku/), 文化 (“culture” /bu’nka/), 近代化 (“modernization” /kindaika/). Another on-yomi /ke/ is in 化粧する (“to put on makeup” /kesho’o-suru/).

(5) The kanji 花 “flower”

History of Kanji 華・花What about the kanji 花, then?  Again, I used to explain to our class that the kanji 花 had a neat story: The top, the bushu kusakanmuri, means plants; a flower changes its form from a bud to a full bloom and eventually withers. Now this too has turned out to be a half a story. Oh, well.

On the left side, in bronze ware style, it was a plant with lots of flowers, and in ten style it added plants at the top, which became the kyujitai 華. The kanji 華 meant “flower; gorgeous; showy.  The kanji 化 and 華 had the same sounds, and later on a new kanji 花 was created and it means “flower.”
The kun-yomi 花 (“flower” /hana’/) is in 花盛り (“flowers at their best; flowering” /hanaza’kari/), 生け花 (“flower arrangement” /ike’bana/) and 花火 (“firework” /ha’nabi/). The on-yomi /ka/ is in 開花する (“to bloom” /ka’ika-suru/.)

(6) The kanji 真 “truth”

History of Kanji 真Let us look at one more kanji that contained a fallen or dead person. The kanji 真 has the kyujitai 眞. This kanji belongs to a small group of kanji that I call humpty dumpty kanji, in which a person or building was placed upside down. (Other kanji include 逆県幸 and 厚, as discussed on our kanji study site http: in Lesson 10 Section 1). In ten style, the top was the shape匕, a fallen or dead person, and the bottom was 県.

History of Kanji 県 (frame)The kanji 県  The development of the kanji 県 from the kyujitai 縣 was a gruesome one, as shown on the right. In bronze ware style it was a tree on the left, and a rope that was attached to a head on the right side. Together they meant hanging on a tree the severed head of someone executed for a crime. The gruesome meaning was dropped and it meant “to hang up; append.” The authority that had the power to execute was in a jurisdiction. The kanji 県 means “prefecture.”  For the original meaning of “to hang on; append,” the kanji 懸 is used.

Now back to the kanji 真. The kyujitai faithfully reflected the ten style writing, but in shinjitai the top became a truncated 十 and the bottom became a straight line and a katakana ハ.  The kanji 真 meant “truth.”  How could a dead body and something upside down together mean “truth,” I wondered.  Shirakawa’s explanation is interesting. He says, “The deceased can no longer undergo any change. That is the ultimate eternal truth that he reaches.” Wow… It makes me pause for a while.

The Kadokawa dictionary has a totally different explanation, however. It takes the view that the top was a ladle or spoon (which was the meaning A above). The bottom was interpreted as a tripod pot to cook food. It meant putting food into a pot using a ladle until you are full.  Being full meant “true.”  A much lighter explanation.

The kun-yomi /ma/ is in 真面目な (“serious; earnest” /majime-na/). It is also used as an intensifying prefix in words such as 真っ白 (“completely white” /masshi’ro), 真っ先に (“first; at the very beginning” /massa’kini/). The on-yomi /shi’n/ is in 真実 (“truth” /shi’njitu/), 写真 (“photograph” /shashin/), and 真剣な (“serious” /shinken-na/).

In the next post, I hope to begin exploring kanji that came from a posture other than standing. [April 5, 2015]

2 thoughts on “The Kanji 北背死化花真 – Posture (4)

  1. The discussion about the kanji 化 prompted me to review the 新漢語林:


    Two years ago, I was unable to understand those lines due to lack of grammar knowledge. However, after looking the ancient forms, I thought that “upside-down bodies” meant “a change in life”. Hmmm….

    “In this world of change naught which comes stays, and naught which goes is lost.”——Mad. Swetchine.

    • Thank you very much for the explanation from another reference.
      It is so true that seeing is believing 百聞は一見にしかず. The images used in my posts are not of photographic accuracy (I use a photo copy sparingly because I respect other people’s copyright.) Nonetheless, hand-copied graphic images help us to see why a particular kanji was analyzed in a particular way. -Noriko

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