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}