The Kanji 鼎員円損貞偵具敗–貝 (3) “three-legged cooking vessel”

  1. The kanji 鼎 “three-legged bronze cooking vessel”

History of Kanji 鼎The kanji 鼎 is not a Joyo kanji, but it is the base of many kanji that contain the shape 貝 that meant “three-legged bronze vessel.” It generally had three or four legs at the bottom and two “ears” at the top. It was used to cook various foods together, including sacrificial animal meat. The food in this vessel was prepared to be used as offerings to an ancestral deity. (a) and (b) in oracle bone style, in brown, and (c) in bronze ware style, in green, had the features of “ears” and three or four legs. The top of (d) in bronze ware style and (e) in seal style, in red, became 目.

The kun-yomi 鼎 /kanae/ means “three-legged bronze vessel,” and is in the phrase 鼎の軽重を問われる /kanae-no-keechoo-o toware’ru/ means “to have one’s ability called in question.” The on-yomi /tee/ is in 鼎立する (“to be a three-cornered contest” /teeritsu-suru/).

  1. The kanji 員 “number of people; one’s occupation; person”

History of Kanji 員(a) and (b) in oracle bone style and (c) in bronze ware style was a three-or four-legged bronze ware vessel. It was originally used as a counter for such vessels, and later for “number of people” or just “person.” A rounded or square shape at the top was interpreted as a shape of the opening at the top. A three-legged vessel had a rounded opening whereas a four-legged one had a square opening. (e) in seal style kept the opening as a square shape, and the legs became two. The kanji 員 meant “member; staff; people.” It is also used for a word to describe a person’s occupation, or a person who is engaged in that occupation.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /in/ is in 人員 (“number of people or staff” /jin-in/), 会社員 (“company employee” /kaisha’in/), 公務員 (“government employee” /koomu’in/). 事務員 (“administrative staff; clerical worker” /jimu’in/), 満員 (“full house; no vacancy” /man-in/) and 定員 (“seating capacity; quota” /teein/).

  1. The kanji 円 “round; circle”

History of Kanji 円The seal style writing and the kyuji (圓), in blue, had 員, a round top three-legged vessel, inside an enclosure (), which signified something all around. It meant “round; circular.” It is also used for the unit of Japanese currency “Japanese yen.” The shinji is 円. The Japanese currency unit (円 /en/ “Japanese yen”), Chinese currency (元yuan), and Korean currency (wong) all originated from the kanji 圓. Japanese yen’s symbol is ¥, a letter “Y” and an equal sign (=) through it.

The kun-yomi 円 /maru/ is in 円みのある (“rounded” /marumi-no-a’ru/). The on-yomi /en/ is 日本円 (“Japanese yen” /nihon-en/), 百円 (“a hundred yen” /hyaku-en/), 円形 (“round shape; ring shape” /enkee/), 楕円形 (“ellipse; oval” /daenkee/), 円周 (“circumference of a circle” /enshuu/) and 円熟した (“matured; mellowed” /enjuku-shita/).

  1. The kanji 損 “loss”

History of Kanji 損The seal style writing comprised , a bushu tehen “hand; an act that one does using a hand” and 員 “three-legged bronze ware vessel” to cook food for offering to a deity. Together they meant a hand damaging the contents of a pot or, perhaps, one of the legs. (Those bronze ware vessels were extraordinarily heavy, and we can easily imagine that the legs could have been damaged.) The kanji 損 means “to damage; impair; loss.”

The kun-yomi 損なう /sokona’u/ means “to suffer; impair; mar.” Another kun-yomi 損ねる /sokone’ru/ means “to hurt; offend,” as in 気分を損ねる (“to hurt one’s feeling” /ki’bun-o sokone’ru/). It also makes up a verb to mean “failed,” as in やり損ねる (“to fail to do” /yarisokone’ru/). The on-yomi /son/ is in 損害 (“damage; harm” /songai/), 損失 (“loss” /sonshitsu/) and 破損する (“to suffer damage; suffer breakage” /hason-suru/).

  1. The kanji 貞 “right; faithful”

History of Kanji 貞Oracle bone style (a) and (b) was smilar to 員, which was a bronze ware cooking vessel for offerings, and was used phonetically for /tee/ to mean “to inquire about a god’s will; divination.” In bronze ware style (c) and (d) had 卜 “divination” on top of the vessel. It originally meant “to hear the will of a god by divination.” Seeking the god’s will gave the meaning “right; straight; faithful.” The kanji 貞 means “right; upright; faithful.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /tee/ is in 貞淑な “feminine modesty; virtuous” /teeshuku/), 貞操 (“chastity; honor; virtue” /teesoo/) and 貞女 (“virtuous woman; good faithful wife” /teejo/).

  1. The kanji 偵 “scouting; detective work; to investigate secretly”

History of Kanji 偵The seal style writing comprised イ “person” and 貞, which was used phonetially for /tee/ to mean “to listen to deity’s voice; inquire.” Together they meant a person investigating carefully by listening and inquiring. The kanji 貞 means “right; straight; faithful.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /tee/ is in 探偵 (“detective” /tantee/), 偵察 (“scouting; reconnaissance; patroling” /teesatsu/) and 内偵 (“private scouting; secret investigation” /naitee/).

  1. The kanji 具 “contents; be amply provided”

History of Kanji 具(a) in oracle bone style and (b) and (c) in bronze ware style had a bronze ware vessel at the top and two hands held up at the bottom. Together a vessel that was full of offerings of food was held out reverentially with both hands. Two upward hands generally signified reverence or a polite act. Full contents of a vessel gave the meaning “contents” and also “being amply provided.” In (d) in seal style the legs dissappeared. The kanji 具 means “contents; to be amply provided (often in a set).”

There is no kun-yomi in Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /gu/ is in 具 (“topping; main ingredients” /gu/) as in ちらしずしの具 (“toppings for chirashi-zushi” /chirashizu’shi-no gu/), 具体的な (“concrete; specific” /gutaiteki-na/), 道具 (“tool” /doogu/), 家具 (“furniture” /ka’gu/) and 器具 (“equipment” /ki’gu/).

The shapes of the two different origins, “cowrie” and “three-legged bronze ware vessel,” were distinctively different in oracle bone style as well in bronze ware style. It is only seal style that the two merged and became 貝 (except the kanji 鼎).

There is one kanji that I held back from the last week’s article — the kanji 敗.

  1. The kanji 敗 “to lose; loss”

History of Kanji 敗For the kanji 敗 in oracle bone style the right sides of (a) and (b) were the same — “a hand holding a stick,” which signified “to hit; cause an action.” The left sides, however, came from two different origins. (a) was a bronze ware legged cooking vessel to prepare for an offering, whereas (b) was a cowrie. A bronze ware vessel being used for cooking for offering to a deity and a cowrie being used as money signified something valuable. In bronze ware style, (c), the left side had two cowries. Or, could they be two vessels? Then when I compared the bronze ware style writings for a cowrie and those of a legged-bronze ware vessel in other kanji, there appeared to be a difference — a legged bronze ware vessel had short sideways lines, signifying legs of the vessel.  So (c) in 敗 can be interpreted as having two cowries. A valuable cowrie broken in two by a hand meant “loss.” The right side 攴 in (e) became 攵, a bushu bokuzukuri “to do; cause something to happen” in shinji. The kanji 敗 means “loss; to fail.”

The kun-yomi 敗れる /yabure’ru/ means “to lose a fight.” The on-yomi /hai/ is in 勝敗 (“victory and defeat; result of a match” /shoohai/), 敗北 (“defeat” /haiboku/), 失敗する (“to fail; fail; make a mistake” /shippai-suru/), 腐敗する (“to become corrupt; degenerate” /huhai-suru/) and 成敗する (“to punish” /se’ebai-suru/), a slightly archaic word.

The history of the kanji 敗 having both a cowrie and a legged bronze ware vessel in oracle bone style puzzled me a little, and I wondered if there was any significance to it. Another reason why I held back the kanji 敗 from the last post was that I wondered if the double shapes in (c) and another kanji (則) shared the same origin or not. I am inclined to sort the kanji 敗into a sub-group “cowrie” of 貝 for the time being. I shall discuss the double shapes in the kanji 則 in the next post. Thank you very much for your reading. -Noriko [July 2, 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]