Oracle Bone Writings at Tokyo National Museum and the Kanji 王旺皇士仕


In the previous two posts, we began discussing kanji that originated from a sharp-edged object -刀 and 刂, a bushu rittoo, “knife; sword.” In this post we are going to look at kanji that came from a warrior’s axe – 王 and 士. Before our exploration I would like to start this post by sharing with our readers some of the photos of oracle bone style writing that I took a year ago at the Tokyo National Museum in the Ueno area in Tokyo (東京国立博物館 東洋館) because they support our exploration of the relevance of historical writings to modern kanji.

Oracle Bone Writings -Photo (1)

Photo 1-Oracle bone writing at Tokyo National Museum

On this display, there were fourteen pieces of animal bone or tortoise bottom shell with oracle bone writing. They were displayed in a glass case with an explanation in Japanese underneath (Photo 1). It had good lighting from the ceiling. In this section of the museum, taking a photograph is allowed as long as you do not use a flash. When I tried to take a photo, however, ceiling lights reflected on the glass, and it was not an easy job, on top of the fact that each piece was tiny. Let us look at a couple of them here.

Oracle bone writings - Photo 2

Photo 2- Oracle bone writing

Photo 2 on the left had four writings –丁亥卜王 in kanji. 丁 is said to have come from the top of a nail, thus a small square or circular shape. The small square is also interpreted as an area rather than a nail (Ochiai 2014).  亥 was a skeleton of an animal. Here the two writing 丁 and 亥 were used to indicate the name of the day on which they sought divination. The third writing, 卜, was “cracks in the bone appearing as divination,” and the fourth writing, 王, was a king’s large ceremonial axe with its blade at the bottom and the handle at the top. This piece of four writings was a fragment of a sentence and all we can tell is that it meant “on the day of 丁亥 we sought divination about the king…” This piece was from the early 12th century B. C. and was carved on an animal bone.  The person who inscribed the writing must have used a sharp narrow chisel. As I look at this piece, I feel as if his precise and decisive strokes on the bone have come alive after more than three thousands years. In every stroke we can see vividly how the sharp chisel entered, carved and was lifted.

Oracle Bone Writing Photo 3

Photos 3 – Oracle Bone Writing

The third photo that I share on the right contains many writings on the belly side of a tortoise shell. It dated back to the 11th century, B. C. Even though it is chipped at the edges it gives us a picture of what oracle bone writing was about.

It is in three sections, the top, the middle and the bottom (the yellow lines were added here). Within each section you read downward from the top left and move to the next line to the right. The display notes help us to transliterate these 3200 years old writings to our modern kanji. (The writing in parentheses were filled in by a curator):

The top section: (Left) 辛酉卜; (Center)貞王今夕; Right (亡) 囗 with 卜 inside

The middle section: (left)己未卜; (Center)貞王今夕; Right 亡and 囗 with 卜 inside

The bottom section: Left 癸丑(卜); Center 貞王(今); Right 夕亡 and 囗 with 卜 inside

Generally speaking, divination writing starts with the name of the year, such as 辛酉, 己未 and 癸丑 on this piece of tortoise shell. The third writing 卜 meant “divination,” and the fourth one 貞 also meant “divination” (originated from 卜, and 貝 a “cooking pot for a religious rite”). What was asked in divination was described in the next several writings — On the three separate days they sought to divine whether there would be a calamity to the king (王) on those nights (今夕).

Oracle bone writing being the record of divination for a ruler, the writing for “king,” 王, appeared on many pieces of oracle bone writing. We have looked at another one in a previous post. Please refer to the earlier post for another example –The Kanji 徳待役後従- ぎょうにんべん (1) on October 25, 2015.

Now that we have seen actual archaeological artifacts, let us resume our regular exploration, starting with the kanji 王.

  1. The kanji 王 “king”

history-of-kanji-%e7%8e%8bThe oracle bone style writing for 王, (a) in brown, was similar to the shape in Photo 1. In bronze ware style writing the bottom line of (b) was thicker and had a curved edge, which was the blade of a king’s ceremonial axe. The second horizontal line was closer to the top line. The same proportion remains in (d) in ten style, in red. In kanji the proportion of the three horizontal lines became even.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi 王 /o’o/ means “king.” It is in 国王 (“king” /kokuo’o/), 王国 (“kingdom” /ookoku/), 王者 (“king; champion” /o’oja/) and ローマ法王 (“the Pope” /roomahooo’o/).

  1. The kanji 旺 “vigorous”

history-of-kanji-%e6%97%bahistory-of-kanji-%e5%be%80For the kanji 旺, the bronze ware style writing had a footprint (止) at the top and a standing person with an emphasis on his legs at the bottom, together signifying “to go.” In ten style the crossroad was added, which made up 往 “to go,” as shown on the right, taken from a previous post. The sun (日) for “bright light” was added on the left side. Together light spreading intensely meant “vigorous; thriving.” In kanji, the right side became 王 only.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /o’o/ is in 旺盛な (“thriving” /oosee-na/), as in 食欲旺盛な (“having good appetite” /shoku’yoku oosee-na/).

  1. The kanji 皇 “imperial”

history-of-kanji-%e7%9a%87For the kanji 皇, in bronze ware style writing the bottom was 王, and the top was a crown with jewels in the middle. It meant “king; imperial.” In ten sstyle, the crown got separated and took the form 自, which became 白 in kanji. The kanji 皇 means “imperial.”

There is no kun-yomi in Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /ko’o/ is in 皇室 (“royal family; imperial family” /kooshitsu/), 皇后 (“empress” /koogo’o/), 皇太子 (“crown prince” /koota’ishi/), 皇族 (“members of royal family”/koozoku/). Another on-yomi /no’o/ is in 天皇 (“(Japanese) emperor” /ten-no’o/).

  1. The kanji 士 “warrior; man”

history-of-kanji-%e5%a3%abThe kanji 士 originated from a smaller axe that was placed with the blade side down. Just like the kanji 王, some bronze ware style samples had a thick bottom to indicate the blade of the weapon. The kanji 士 meant a “warrior; man.”

There is no kun-yomi in Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /shi/ is in 武士 (“warrior; samurai” /bu’shi/), 兵士 (“soldier” /he’eshi/), 士気 (“moral; fighting spirit” /shi’ki/) and 力士 (“sumo wrestler” /ri’kishi/).

  1. The kanji 仕 “to serve”

history-of-kanji-%e4%bb%95For the kanji 仕, in bronze ware style it was a warrior’s axe, which was the same as 士. In the second bronze ware style writing, a standing person was added on the right side. Together they meant “a person who serves” or “to serve.” In ten style, the two elements were switched, placing the element that was used phonetically on the right side in line with the general rule in kanji. The kanji 仕 means “to serve.” In Japanese it is also used to mean “to do.”

The kun-yomi 仕える /tsukae’ru/ means “to serve; be in personal service; work under.” It is in 仕事 (”work; job” /shigoto/), 仕分ける (“to classify; sort out” /shiwake’ru/), 奉仕活動 (“volunteer service” /hooshika’tsudoo/), 仕方 (“way of doing” /shika’ta/) and 仕方がない (“cannot be helped” /shikata-ga-na’i/).

In this post we have seen photographs of ancient oracle bone writings, the oldest evidence of the proposition on which our study is based – that kanji evolved step-by-step over a long time from events or items in real life as ancient people saw them. – Noriko  [November 13, 2016]

P.S. This week I have learned at the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library (東京中央図書館) in Minami Azabu (南麻布) that there are various collections of oracle bones in Japan. The most notable is at Kyoto University. The photos of the “rubbing” of these bones were published in 1960-1968 by Shigeki Kaizuka (貝塚茂樹), Kyoto University. Another collection is with Tokyo University. I do not know if these collections can be viewed if we make a request in advance.  I would like to try that in my next stay in Tokyo. The experience of looking at real pieces is so different from looking at the “rubbing” of the pieces in print. [January 29, 2017]

The Kanji 徳待役後従 – ぎょうにんべん(1)


In the last post we have seen that an image of a crossroad became a bushu yukigamae (行) in 行街術衛. A crossroad was where an action took place. On the other hand, when half a crossroad () was used, the move or motion seemed more apparent. We would imagine that half a crossroad () must have derived from the full shape of a crossroad (行). But, from what I see in oracle bone style samples, both shapes already existed by then, as we will see in 1. The name gyooninben comes from the on-yomi /gyo’o/ of the kanji 行, even though the kanji 行 belongs to the bushu yukigamae group in the traditional kanji dictionary.

Since our exploration on this blog started almost two years ago, we have touched several kanji that had a gyooninben as component. This post is to revisit those kanji from the point of view of the gyooninben. (For sample words, please see the original posts.)

  1. The kanji 徳 “virtue; merit; good (acts)”

The first kanji that we came across that contained the bushu gyooninben was the kanji 徳 in connection with an eye (Eye Wide Open (2) 直値植置徳 posted on March 25, 2014.) We saw that the shape 直 originally came from an eye looking straight ahead that was signified by a vertical line. The horizontal line at the top (十) was originally a bulge in the vertical line to emphasize that the line was straight. The angle at the left bottom below 目 was an emphasis of  being straight.

History of Kanji 徳rFor this post I have added a couple of  samples for the kanji 徳. The two oracle bone style sample (a) and (b), in brown, are mirror images − We have seen many times that in oracle bone style whether a component faces right or left did not carry a particular meaning. Each had an eye looking straight ahead, and a crossroad. The writing meant that one behaved oneself in a straight manner. In the second bronze ware style sample, (d), in green, a heart was added. One had to act straight using not only his eyes but also his heart. In ten style (e), in red, a crossroad became more prominent. In kyujitai (f), in blue, the extra line above 心 was the remnant of an angle that 直 had. So the kanji 徳 is a heavy loaded kanji that meant “a way of life in which one should follow his own heart in a straightforward way.” If you live that way you would be someone of “virtue; merit; good (acts).” I am overwhelmed by morality of this kanji every time I see it.

  1. The kanji 待 “to wait”

History of Kanji 待The kanji 待 was discussed along with kanji that contained 寺 as its component (The Kanji 寺-持待侍特時詩等 “to hold; sustain” on January 24, 2015.) In that post, we noted that even though the kanji 寺 “temple” had lost its original meaning, when 寺 was used as its component it kept the original meaning of “to sustain; hold.” In the kanji 待 in bronze ware style, the left side was a crossroad. The right side was a footprint at the top and a hand at the bottom, signifying “to sustain; hold.” Holding back from crossing a crossroad meant “to wait.”

  1. The Kanji 役 “battle; military service; role”

HistoryofKanji役The kanji 役 was discussed with the kanji that contained the bushu rumata/bokuzukuri (The kanji 役投段殺-rumata posted on October 10, 2014.) The bushu rumata/bokuzukuri generally means “to hit,” from someone hitting with a stick. The two oracle bone style samples did not contain a crossroad at all. Instead they had a person on the left, either standing or kneeling. The right side was a hand holding a long object, which was a weapon, with an emphasis on its tip. Together they meant a person readying to go to battle or patrol of the border. It was an ordinary person conscripted for military duty. In ten style the left side became a crossroad, signifying “to go to the front; a soldier leaving for battle.” The kanji 役 originally meant “battle; military service.” From a call to duty, it also meant “role one assumes.”

  1. The kanji 後 “rear; back; behind; after”

History後rThe kanji 後 was discussed in One Foot at a Time (1) 後夏降麦来 on July 5, 2014. That was the first of several articles that discussed various shapes that came from a footprint (footmark). We also compared a forward facing footprint, such as 止, and a backward facing footprint, such as suinyoo 夂. For the kanji 後, the two bronze ware style samples shown here shared a crossroad and a skein of threads without fringes and a backward foot. The left sample had a forward foot as well, which in ten style was dropped. The skein of threads without the fringes signified “short or small.” Together they meant taking short steps or walking backward that resulted in “coming behind or be late in time.” The kanji 後 means “rear; back; behind; after.”

  1. The kanji 従 “to follow”

History of Kanji 従The kanji 従 was discussed in connection with two people standing side by side (The Kanji 人仁従縦比皆階陛 – Posture (3) on April 5, 2015.) The first oracle bone style sample (a) was just two people standing viewed from the side, signifying “a person following another.” In the second oracle bone style sample (b), a crossroad was added on the left side, giving the sense of forward motion. In bronze ware style (c) a footprint was further added below the two people adding the sense of walking. In ten style (d) this footprint was moved to the left, just below a crossroad. When a crossroad and a footprint were aligned vertically, they usually became the precursor to the bushu shinnyoo. However something interesting took place in this kanji. In kyujitai (e) this footprint moved back to the original position, below two people, leaving the crossroad back in its original shape. The two people were kept as two small 人, which became the two stroke ソ shape in shinjitai.  Unless we are shown the original shapes we would never have guessed that the current shape 従 originated from just two standing persons.

Yesterday in Tokyo I had a chance to see a few actual pieces of oracle bone writing that dated from the 13th century B. C. The visit to this small museum (Taito-ward Calligraphy Museum 台東区立書道博物館 in Tokyo near the Uguisudani station on the Yamanote Line) was on my agenda for my visit to Japan this time, but for various reasons it was only yesterday that I was able to visit it. This museum originated from a private collection by an artist-calligrapher before the WWII and was donated by his family to the Taito-ku (ward) in Tokyo more recently. Unlike many art museums in Japan, which started as private collections of wealthy art loving industrialists who had amassed a fortune in modern times, this collection is a modest one and the layout of of the exhibit is rather outdated and not as easy for a visitor to see the objects because of poor lighting. Nonetheless the opportunity to see first-hand the actual archeological pieces was exciting to me. It was also very timely for discussing the kanji 従 in today’s post.

甲骨文(王従)台東区立書道博物館rrOn the right, (A) is a piece of an animal bone with oracle bone writing carved, taken from the article in Yomiuri Shinbun (October 20, 2015). (B) is what I  reproduced from the photo. The left side may be incomplete because it is not legible. (C) is the kanji based on my reading with the help of the accompanying article in the paper. (This exhibit did not give out any literature that I was able to bring home.)  It reads vertically from the right top to the left bottom. It says “The king (王) asked for a forecast (貞) on whether he would make a certain tribe chief (sanzui and 止) follow (従) him or not.” A new sentence starts from the third writing 王, 従, then moves to the left writing. Even in this tiny piece of cow’s bone (the piece is only one inch-wide), we see two samples of the kanji 従 – They were two people standing, one following another.

Oracle bone writing was the record of fortune-telling or divination in answer to a prayer or question made to the god by a ruler. The belly side of a tortoise or a piece of animal bone was heated, and the cracks that appeared were read as the answer from the god. From the contents of this piece, we glimpse the nature of 甲骨文 /kookotsubun/, literally “shell and bone writing,” to be divination. English name goes by its function and it is called “oracle bone” writing. Oracle bone writings were “discovered” as ancient writings only in 1899. The discovery of oracle bone style writing since then has changed the understanding of the ancient Yin 殷 (Shang 商) dynasty and the origin of Chinese characters. Some were brought to Japan. I am hoping to see several more items at the Tokyo National Museum next week. (For bronze ware style writing, I was able to see some items of superb quality at the special exhibit brought from China held at the same museum several years ago.)

This post was revisiting the kanji we had looked at before from the point of a gyooninben. I will continue with a few new kanji with gyooninben next time. [October 25, 2015]

P.S. I have learned that there are various collections of oracle bones in Japan. Most notable one is in Kyoto University. The photos of “rubbing” of these bones were published by Shigeki Kaizuka in 1960, 1968. Another collection is with Tokyo University. I do not know if these collections can be viewed if we make a request in advance.  I would like to try that in my next stay in Tokyo. An experience of looking at real pieces is so different from looking at the “rubbing” of the pieces in print.  [January, 2017}

Two Hands from Below (1) 共供異興兵具 -“hand” (5)


In this post, I am going to discuss the kanji that have “two hands from below”: 共, 供, 異, 興, 具 and 兵. We immediately spot that they all have a shape that is like the kanji 八 squashed flat a little. They are hands trying to lift something.

1. 共 “together”

Two hands from belowIn the kanji共, in oracle bone style, in brown, and bronze ware style, in green, a hand from the right side and another hand from the left side were holding up something in the middle. The use of both hands and raising something above suggested he was handling with care because it was something important to him. In ten style hands the thing got separated and in kanji they became two components. The meaning focuses on the point that “two” hands were used, rather than on the point of “raising.” It means “to share; do something together.” The kun-yomi makes a phrase “~と共に“ (“together with〜” /〜to tomo ni/) and the on-yomi makes the words such as 共有する (”to share” /kyooyuu-suru/), 共著 (“co-authoring” /kyo’ocho/), 共演者 (“co-stars” /kyooe’nsha/) and 共同で (“collectively; sharing” /kyoodo-de/.)

2. 供  “to keep company; make offering to”

History供In bronze ware style, the components were same as that of 共, and in ten style, by adding a ninben, it indicated the act that a person does with both hands, which was “to make an offering to” or “to keep someone company; accompany someone.” There are two kun-yomi for 供. They are in お供え (“an offering (that one leaves on an altar table)” /osonae/) and お供する (“to accompany a person” [humble style] /oto’mo-suru/). There are also two on-yomi for 供. /Kyo’o/ is in 提供する (“to sponsor; supply; furnish” /teekyoo-suru/)  and /ku/ is in 供物 (“offering at alter” /ku’motsu/). If you guessed that this must be a go-on because it appeared to have a bearing on Buddhist practice, you are right. Naturally the reading /mo’tsu/ for 物 is a go-on too, as seen in 荷物 (“luggage” /ni’motsu/).

You probably have seen the word /kodomo/ written in both 子供 and 子ども and wondered why in hiragana. Because the kanji 供 means “accompanying,” some people consider it to be pejorative. Even in this age of children’s rights, I am quite puzzled by this logic. Now that we have a chance to see the origin of the kanji 供, I still do not see what the fuss is about.

3. 異 “odd; peculiar; different”

History異大盂蘭鼎ー異写真I once showed to the students of my second-year Japanese class the photo of bronze ware style inscriptions in the famous huge bronze ware pot called Daiutei (大盂鼎 Dà Yú Dĭng), and asked them to decipher the writing. The writings were in bronze ware style.  One by one they guessed and enjoyed this new game. And someone said, “There is a guy doing rap!” [The photo on the right (Ishikawa 1996)] Indeed he looked like that. Looking at a photo of ancient artifacts in that way makes the kanji alive. The kanji historians’ interpretation is that he was putting on a fearsome mask over his face to turn himself to another character. From that it meant “peculiar; different.” The kun-reading is in the adjective 異なった (“different” /kotona’tta/) and in the verb (~と) 異にする (“to differ from~” /to koto’-ni-suru/.) The on-reading is in 異説 (“conflicting view” /isetsu/) and 異常な (“unusual; extraordinary  /ijoo-na/).

Notes:  After some exchanges of the comments with a reader on the interpretation of the ancient writings of the kanji 異, I have written its follow-up article entitled “Kanji 異 Revisited and 典其選殿臀” posted on September 26, 2014. Thank you.

4. 興 “to raise; resurrect; start”

History興In oracle bone style, a pair of hands at the top and another pair of hands from below were holding something in the middle. In bronze ware style and ten style, the top and the bottom separated. Shirakawa (2004) says that what was in the middle was a vase which contained sake that a priest sprinkled around to wake up the spirit of the earth. From people trying to raise something together at once it means “to raise; start; to resuscitate.” The kun-reading is in 興す (“to start something new; revive; resuscitate”/oko’su/). The on-reading /kyo’o/ is in 興味 (“interest” /kyo’omi/), 即興で (”extemporaneously” /sokkyoo de/).  Another on-reading /ko’o/ is in 新興の (”newly-risen” /shinkoo-no/). Lately, you see the word 町おこし (“revitalization of a locality” /machi-o’koshi/) quite a lot in the news. Even though the media tend to use the hiragana, it is in this meaning, that people do something to revive the locality by creating an event or project.  Because it is a Japanese word, it is not that necessary to use this kanji, however.

5. 具 “filling; to be equipped”

History具In oracle bone style and bronze ware style what two hands were holding above was a tripod (鼎 /kanae/) or cowry (貝 /ka’i/). A tripod was used to cook sacrificial animals for a religious ceremony, and cowry was used as currency in ancient times. So both are things that had important substance. From placing something important with both hands, it meant “filling; to be equipped.” The kun-reading is in 具わる (“to be equipped with” /sonawa’ru/) and the on-reading is in 具 (“topping/filling on food” /gu/), 具体的に (“concretely” /gutaiteki-ni/), because you would give the details, and 金具 (“hardware/metal fittings” /kanagu/).

6. 兵 “soldier”

History兵Just as I was about to write that “the top of the oracle bone style (the first one) was an axe,” I thought “I do not think I can convince my readers.” So, I went back to my source (Akai 2010) and found the second one, which showed the blade of an axe better. An axe was a weapon, and someone who held a weapon is a soldier. So it meant “soldier.” In writing the kanji 兵, the third stroke starts a little below the beginning of the second stroke, much like the kanji in the upper right of the kanji 近 (“near”), in which 斤 was used phonetically. The old Japanese word for solider was /tsuwamono/, and this kanji is sometimes read as /tsuwamono/. The on-reading is in 兵士 (“soldier” /he’eshi/), 兵器 (“weapons” /he’eki/) and 派兵 (“sending military” /hahee/).

There are a couple of more shapes taken from a hand that I have not touched yet. I will discuss them in the next post, to wrap up the discussion on various shapes that originated from a hand. [May 31, 2014]

Which Hand Helps? – 又右友有左 – “hand” (1)


(1) Ancient Japanese King’s Seal

The kanji and bushu shape 又 originated from a right hand that showed three fingers and a wrist. Back in February, I talked about the oldest artifact in kanji related to Japan, the gold seal of the Japanese King of Na 漢委奴國王 given by a Chinese Han emperor, in 57 A. D. [Link to the article.]  On this one inch square solid gold seal, in 又 on the right side of the third kanji 奴, we could see four fingers, instead of three fingers. Going through reference books, I still have not come across another example like that. Very intriguing. In discussing the shapes that came from a hand, I would like to start with 又  in this post.

(2) The Kanji 又 “also; or; again”

History又This shows the development of the kanji 又: Oracle bone style is in brown; bronze ware style in green; ten-style (official seal style) in red; and the last one in textbook style kanji. The bronze ware style here even suggested a thumb at the bottom (it was shorter and bending a little at the tip.) The shapes were all a right hand and meant “right side.” When one helped someone, he lent a right hand. So, this writing came to be used to mean “to help; helping hand,” and it appears in numerous kanji as a component. In the kanji, by itself, however, it lost the meaning of “right hand” and “help.” The kanji 又 /mata/ means “also; in addition to; again,” and also used in words such as 又貸し (“sublease” /matagashi/) and  又は (/mata’wa/) “or; alternatively.”  There is no on-reading.

(3) The Kanji 右 “right side”

History右Since 又 “right hand” was taken over by the meaning “to help,” a new writing was created by adding 口 “a mouth/word (to put in a word for),” as shown in bronze ware style and ten style. From a right hand that helped, it meant “right side.’ But in the kanji, the meaning “to help” disappeared, and instead, a left hand expresses that, as we will examine in (5). Shape-wise, in the kanji the middle long stroke became a horizontal line. It is used in words such as 右の方 (“the right side /migi no ho’o/) and 右手 (“a right hand” /migite/) in kin-reading, and 右折禁止 (“no right turn” /usetsukinshi/) and 右派 (“conservative faction of a political party” /u’ha/) in on-reading.

(4) The Kanji 友 “friend”

History友Here we have two right hands. The third and fourth bronze ware style had a 口 “mouth/words” underneath. They meant two (or many) people pledge to help each other. The writing meant “amicable relationship” and “friend.” It is used in words such as 友達 (“friend” /tomodachi/) in kun-reading,and 親友 (“close friend; best friend” /shinyuu/) and 友好国 (“ally (country)” /yuuko’okoku/) in on-reading.

(5) The kanji 有 “to exist; have”

History有Another kanji that shared the same oracle bone style as the kanji 又 was the kanji 有. In this case, it meant “to have.” In bronze ware style, the left sample had two short lines and the other sample had a piece of meat (月) under a right hand. The shape 月 had a few different meanings: “moon”; “a piece of meat” (think of the kanji 肉 “meat”); and a “boat.”  A right hand holding a piece of meat meant “to have” or an indication of “existence.” It is used in words such as 有る (“to exist; to have” /a’ru/) in kun-reading and 有名な (“famous” /yuumee/) and 所有物 (“possession” /shoyu’ubutsu/) in on-reading.

(6) The kanji 左 “left side”

History左The oracle bone style was a mirror image of 又. So, it must have been a left hand. It makes sense, doesn’t it?  In bronze ware style and ten style, the shape 工 was added. The kanji 工 came from a carpenter’s tool, a work table, or a craft and it means “craft.” One holds the crafted work with his left hand to work on. So, the kanji 左 meant “left.”  The kanji 左 is in 左側 (“left side” /hidarigawa/) in kin-reading, and 左右 (“both sides” /sa’yuu/) in on-reading. Because the left hand helps what the right hand does, it also meant “to help” when used as a component in some kanji, such as  佐 “to assist,” as in 補佐 (“aid; assistant” /ho’sa/).

There are several different shapes of kanji components that originated from a hand. I would like to discuss those in the next few posts. [May 4, 2014]

The Kanji Radical 辰 (2): Tilling Tool-農辱


This is part 2 of the kanji radical 辰 discussion.

Just a week ago or so on the Asahi Digital and Yomiuri Shinbun Online, I came across short newspaper articles that reported that an archeological excavation group had unearthed 38 pieces of bivalve shells in a 20,000 to 30,000 years old stratum in Okinawa, the southern most prefecture. Some bivalve shells had been chipped into the shape of a knife. They are called 貝器 (“shell tool” /ba’iki/.)  When I read about this finding, the origin of the kanji 農 came to my mind. This is what I wrote in The Key to Kanji:

K2K_A846農イラストThe top came from 田 ‘rice paddies,” and the bottom 辰 depicted a clam extending a fleshy foot.  Sharp pieces of shell were attached to a wood stick to make a tool to till the soil or for weeding. The kanji 農 means ”farming” or “agriculture/ (Williams The Key to Kanji 2010: 248)

HIstory農Since then other reference materials (Akai 1985 and 2010) have come to my attention. The ancient writing on the left may give us a fuller picture of how the kanji 農 came about. In oracle bone style, (a), the top had trees, suggesting a wooded area and the bottom had a shell, which is the same shape as the oracle bone style for 辰 that we have seen in part 1.  In bronze ware style, (b) and (c), the top was rice paddies, the bottom was a shell, and (b) had two hands next to the shell.  In ten-style, (d), two hands were placed around the rice paddies at the top.

Unlike the four kanji we saw in part 1, 辰 was used to mean a tool to till the field, as given by my 2010 explanation. The kanji 農 meant “to till the field using a tilling tool to which hard shells are attached.” The kanji 農 by itself is not used in Japanese, nor does it have any kun-reading. It is used in words such as 農業 (“agriculture work; farming” /no’ogyoo/), 農村 (“agrarian village,” /nooson/) and 農民 (“farmer, peasant” /noomin/.)  The on-reading is /no’o/ and does not take the sound from 辰 as other kanji in part 1 did. Instead, 辰 contributed to its new meaning directly. This way of forming a new kanji (that is, two components equally contributing to a new meaning without adding a sound) is called 会意文字 (“semantic composite writing” /ka’ii-moji or kaii-mo’ji/), which literally means “two meanings meet (to form a new meaning).”

辱HistorySBy adding the bushu 寸, “hand,” to the clam shell, 辰, we get another kanji, 辱.  It originally meant working in the field, with a hand using a tool.  The on-reading is /jo’ku/.  The two components 辰 and 寸 created a new meaning without using the sound of /shi’n/.  So, this too must be a semantic composite.  That would be our thinking.

However, as it turns out, this kanji has a totally different meaning. It means “to humiliate; insult” in words such as 侮辱する (“to insult” /bujoku-suru/) and 屈辱的な (“humiliating” /kutsujokuteki-na/.)  The kun-reading is 辱める (“to humiliate” /hazukashime’ru/.)  Very potent words!  How did it come to mean that?  The answer is, “We do not know.” Sorry. Even ancient kanji scholars scratched their heads.

For that sort of kanji, the compiler of the most important first kanji dictionary called 『説文解字』 (/setsumon-ka’iji/, Shuowen Jiezi in Chinese) made a category called 仮借文字 (“borrowed writing” /kashaku-mo’ji/.) The literal meaning of kashaku is “temporary borrowing.”  Only a few of thousands of kanji belong to this category. Among the familiar kanji, 彼, 我 and 東 come to my mind.

So, now we have seen three types of kanji formation, 形声文字 “semantic-phonetic composite writing,” 会意文字 “semantic composite writing,” and 仮借 “borrowed writing.”  In the classification of 六書 (/ri’kusho/, Liushu in Chinese) in Setsumon-kaiji, in addition to those three categories, the compiler gave three more categories. They are 象形文字 (“ideographic writing” /shookee-mo’ji/ such as 日、象 and 雨; 指事文字 (“ indicative writing“ /shiji-mo’ji/) such as 二, 上 and 下;  and 転注 (/tenchuu-mo’ji/, No one is sure what it means nor is there a specific kanji.)  For more information on Setsumon-kaiji, please refer to Chapter 2 Kanji Formation Types and Dictionary Section Headers in Williams (2010: 15-18.)

辰StrokeOrder2Before I end my two-part discussion on the bushu 辰, I am going to add the stroke order information just in case you are wondering. [2-24-2014]

The Gold Seal of the Ancient Japanese King 漢委奴国王印


[I am reposting this slightly modified article, which I inadvertently deleted a few weeks ago.]

Gold Seal of Ancient Japanese King (57 AD)

The image on the left is a picture of the famous gold seal of the Japanese King of Na that was given by a Chinese Han emperor in 57 A.D.  It is the oldest record of kanji writing that is related to Japan.  The image on the right is an impression on wax.  It reads, from the right to the left, Kan no Wa no Na no kokuoo 漢の委の奴の国王 “(Seal of) Japanese King of Na given by Han Emperor.”


The red image on the left is an impression of a rubber stamp of the replica. It is easier for us to see the writing.  I would like to draw your attention to ancient writing in the center of the bottom row. Its kanji form is 奴. The left side (女) is a woman sitting with her hands crossed in front. The right side (又) is another radical shape called yoo or mata, and it pertains to a hand or an act that one does using a hand.

Kanji Radial 又The two ancient forms for 又 are shown on the right.

Look closely at the area marked in a blue box on the imprint of the seal in red. By contrast to the two ancient writings on the right, which showed three fingers, do you see an extra line in the seal?  It is another finger!  The seal maker must have reverted to the original meaning of a hand with fingers. It was a delightful discovery when I obtained the replicas from the Fukuoka City Museum.

Later on the kanji 奴 developed two different phonetic letters in Japanese: The right side 又 became a katakana nu ヌ; and the cursive style writing of the kanji 奴 eventually became a hiragana nu ぬ.[February 2, 2014]