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]