The Kanji 斤匠析折逝哲誓—斤(1) “small axe; adze”


In the last post we looked at kanji that originated from a ruler’s ornate axe (王) and a warrior’s axe (士). In this post, we are going to look at another axe, 斤 “small axe; adze.” The kanji we explore with this topic this week are斤匠析折逝哲誓.

  1. The kanji 斤 “adze; unit of weight (a pound)”

history-of-kanji-%e6%96%a4For the kanji 斤, in oracle bone style, (a) in brown, it was an axe with a blade in the right angle to the handle. Unlike the origin of 王 and 士, it was not a weapon but was for cutting and shaping wood. It may be called adze. The word adze is not a familiar word to us, but may be to a craftsman. The writings in bronze ware style, (b) and (c) in green, and ten style, (d) in red, are not very easy for me to visualize, but to the best of my imagination in kanji I see the first two strokes as the blade and the second two as a handle in the right angle. An axe was also used as a weight. The kanji 質, which I hope to discuss later  among 貝 “cowry,”had two axes that were used to weigh. Incidentally, the word for an handheld axe is 斧 /o’no/ with 父 on top, which originated a hand holding an axe.



The kanji 斤 was used as a unit of weight. It is a regularly used term to have a modern easy breakfast for Japanese people. A Japanese bakery, small and large, produces a moist and flavorful loaf of bread, called 食パン /shokupan/. (How do we miss that quality, living in the U. S.!)  As a unit of weight, 一斤 “one kin” /i’kkin/ was 600 g. In baking, however, /ki’n/ is used for a pound (450 g).  食パン一斤 /shokupan i’kkin/ uses approximately a pound of flour. The photo on the right shows i’kkin.  A bakery usually bakes a longer loaf in a 3-pound baking dish (三斤 /sa’ngin/). When you go to a store to get sliced loaf of bread, the most common type is 六枚切り /rokumaigiri/ “a pound loaf of bread sliced into six slices.” It is just the right thickness to toast and spread butter on. Talking about Japanese loaf of bread makes me homesick. But, let us go back to more than 3000 years ago in China.

  1. The kanji 匠 “design; craftsman; master”

history-of-kanji-%e5%8c%a0For the kanji 匠, 斤 is inside a box or container 匚. Together they meant “to make a craft work using an axe; design” or a person who made craft work using an axe. It also included someone who excelled in his art.

The kun-yomi /takumi/ means “artisan; master craftsman.” The on-yomi /sho’o/ is in 意匠 (“design; idea” /isho’o/), 巨匠 (“great master” /kyoshoo/) and 師匠 (“teacher; master” in traditional art /shi’shoo/).

  1. The kanji 析 “to analyze”

history-of-kanji-%e6%9e%90The kanji 析 in oracle bone style had a tree on the left and an axe on the right. Together they signified “to split wood using an axe.” From that it meant “to divide or split something; analyze.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /se’ki/ is in 分析する (“to analyze” /bunseki-suru/), 解析 (“analysis, analytical reasoning” /kaiseki/) and 透析 (“dialysis” /tooseki/).

The next four kanji 折逝哲誓share the common shape 折.

  1. The kanji 折 “to break; bend; fold”

history-of-kanji-%e6%8a%98The kanji 折 has a bushu tehen “hand.” Its origin had no relation to a hand. Instead it was miscopied later on. (a) and (b) in oracle bone style had two separate plants that were placed vertically, and an axe was hitting as if it were separating or cutting the plants. They signified plants that were cut short. From that it meant “to break; bend; fold.” This component of “two separate short plants” remained throughout bronze ware style writings, (c) and (d). But in (e) in ten style the two short plants were connected and became a tehen. Setsumon also gave (f) as its ten style. (f) has two separate plants on the left side, which reflected earlier writing. The kanji 折 means “to break; bend; fold.” When a break happens, it creates a new occasion, so it also means “time; occasion.”

The kun-yomi 折る /o’ru/ means “to fold; break,” and the intransitive verb 折れる /ore’ru/ means “to bend; break; give in.” It is also in 折り(“occasion; opportunity” /ori’/), as in その折りに (“on that occasion” /sono-ori’ni/), 指折りの (“leading” /yubiori-no/) and 折り紙 (“origami folding paper” /ori’gami/). The on-yomi /se’tsu/ is in 折角 (“with much trouble; with special kindness” /sekkaku/), 屈折する (“to bend; twist” /kussetsu-suru/) and 左折禁止 (“No left turn” –a traffic sign /sasetsukinshi/).

  1. The kanji 逝 “to pass away; death”

history-of-kanji-%e9%80%9dThe kanji 逝 has a bushu shinnyoo “to move forward.” 折 was used phonetically for /se’e/. The kanji 逝 meant “to go; pass on; die.”

The kun-yomi /yuku/ means “to die; pass on.” The on-yomi /se’e/ is in 逝去 (“death; demise” /se’ekyo/), usually considered to be an honorific word. It is also in 急逝 (“sudden demise; unexpected death” /kyuusee/), which is less direct than 急死 /kyuushi/.

  1. The kanji 哲 “wisdom”

history-of-kanji-%e5%93%b2Adding口, a” mouth,” under 折 makes the kanji 哲. For this, it is explained as “decisively talking; to talk clearly,” thus “cleaver; smart.” But when we look at the bronze ware style writings, (a) and (b), we wonder whether there must have been more than speaking, because it had a 心 “heart” at the bottom. Could it be that one reflected deeply in order to see things fall into place as if they were cut decisively? In fact Setsumon also gave (d), which had a heart, rather than a mouth, as an alternative writing. The kani 哲 means “wisdom.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /tstsu/ is in 哲学 (“philosophy” /tetsu’gaku/) and 哲人 (“great thinker; philosopher” /tetsujin/).

  1. The kanji 誓 “to vow; pledge; promise”

history-of-kanji-%e8%aa%93When you add 言 “word” under 折 “to break; bend,” you get the kanji 誓 “to vow; pledge; promise.” 折 was used phonetically for /se’e/. The left side of (a) in bronze ware style was a tattooing needle and a mouth, which was the origin of 言 “word; saying”, and plants at the top. The right side was an axe. (b) contained the same components, in a different arrangement. Together they meant “to vow; pledge; promise.”

The kun-yomi 誓う /chika’u/ means “to swear; vow; pledge.” The on-yomi /se’e/ is in 誓約書 (“written pleadge; covenant” /seeyakusho/) and 選手宣誓 (“athlete’s oath of fair play” /se’nshu sensee/) at the opening of a sport event.

There are several more kanji that contain 斤, so let us continue this topic in the next post.  [November 27, 2016]

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