There may be some people who wonder what at all 笑う ‘warau: laughing’ has to do with 竹 ‘bamboo,’ as the Chinese characters supposes. As, among living creatures, laughing is a characteristic of human beings this character also somehow has to depict the image of a human being.
The part 竹 ‘bamboo,’ which became the classifier actually is a part of the body, the arms. It is the form of a female shaman calling for a divine message, laughing in an ecstasy-like state of mind, dancing while waving the hands over her head. Therefore, the ancients thought that laughing brings human beings close to the gods.
There is neither a tortoise plastron and bone character nor a bronze inscription of 笑. For the first time it appears in the Tenbun (Zhuàn Wén) seal. What has now become the so called grass classifier at the top of 若, of which tortoise plastron and bone inscriptions do exist, also shows hands and is the form of a dancing female shaman with raised hands. The meaning ‘young’ of the character 若 probably came from the female shamans usually being young of age. Furthermore, its other meaning ‘maybe’ has its origin in that transmission of a divine mission was not guaranteed. Later, starting with the form of the bronze inscriptions, 口, the shape of a prayer writing receptacle was added and from there it developed into the present character form.
Until Shirakawa Kanji science became known, the 口 of 石 was traditionally explained as a piece of stone lying below a cliff. The tortoise plastron and bone characters, however, show that 口 is a sacred receptacle for putting in prayer writings. As was introduced in the explanation of 暦 ‘koyomi: calendar,’ 厂 shows the form of a steep cliff, and cliffs were regarded as places of strong spiritual power and were used for various religious services, worship and rituals. Other characters showing the relation between stones and spiritual power are 宕 and 祏. 宕, which shows a mausoleum, has 石 below 宀 a mausoleum roof. 祏, which means an ancestor tablet, combines the 示 altar classifier with 石. From 石 appearing in characters related to rituals and worship, it may be inferred that stones also functioned as altar.
Not only in antiquity, but also in the present, people with strong spiritual sense warn to take stones away from nature and bring them home as one pleases as spirits can easily dwell in these basic elements of nature. In Japan, especially in shrines, worship of stones can often be seen.
This character which came to have the meaning ‘koyomi: calendar’ shares its background with 歴, a character with the same origin. Both have a military background, showing an official commendation for meritorious deeds in war held below a 厂 precipice. Frequently, the final decisive battle was also the day of the termination of war. After victory, the individual merits of the soldiers were commended. This day became the memorial day of the end of war in calendars. All over the world, this way of thinking about memorial days seems to not have changed a lot since this origination of Kanji since 3000 years ago.
Places below precipices often were places for rituals. They were thought of as very strongly spiritual places. A gate was made with two 禾 marking trees below a precipice.
Although in other places the form taken is that of architecture made from stone, like in Europe, e.g. in Rome, the cities of the Roman Empire, later also the arc de triomphe in Paris, and with other triumphal arches, the custom of erecting military gates commemorating victory in war also can be seen in other parts of the world.
As this character is related to dating, the element 曰 below is likely to be misunderstood as representing that for 日 ‘sun, day.’ Here, however, as the military gate was made below the precipice and as this shows the communication with the gods, it shows 曰, read ‘etsu’ in Japanese, originally a receptacle for ‘norito,’ prayer writings to the gods.
This character cannot be seen among the tortoise plastron, bone, or bronze inscription characters but from the Tenbun (Zhuàn Wén) seal script on. Certainly, it can be divided into a left and right part. It, however, would be too rash to jump to an A+B style mathematical explanation. Dr. Shirakawa summarizes: “The meaning is to realize an oath.”
Rather than a mere superficial interpretation like that of a 言 ‘kotoba: word’ that 成る ‘naru: realizes,’ one has to take the customs and religion of ancient China into consideration here. As was pointed out in the explanation of 信, the 口 of the lower part 言 is a vessel for putting in prayer writings. The meaning of the upper part with its four horizontal lines is hard to understand from the form of the Common Use Kanji. Its original form and meaning has to be understood in the context of the tattoo and ritual body painting culture. It shows the form of an instrument, a needle with a handle for tattooing. Already this part 言 only has the meaning of words of oath to the gods.
The part 成 shows the form of the ritual of completion performed after the making of a 戈 ‘hoko: halberd’ is finished, adding a decoration. This means that the left and right character parts have their origin in religion.
This is the Kanji 史 ‘Shi’ from 歴史 ‘Rekishi: history.’ Surprisingly, the background of the meaning of 史, however, is not known. In China, historiography started at a very early stage in history. This fact is closely related to the character. The first character form already appears in the tortoise plastron and bone characters. As in 信・吉・哲 and the like, the part 口 here also is a ‘norito’ prayer receptacle. It shows the form of holding a wooden stick which is attached to the ‘norito’ prayer receptacle. It is the form of the ritual of worshipping the spirits of the king’s ancestors. Like 祭る ‘matsuru: to worship,’ 史 also has the reading 史る ‘matsuru: to worship.’ From the meaning of worship itself its meaning shifted to that of the person who conducts the act of worship. The world of ancient China is not based on the principal of separation of religion and state. The role of holding and carrying the ‘norito’ prayer receptacle is a religious service typical for a cleric and at the same time like that of a public servant in the Royal household.
使 and 事 are characters of the same lineage. Worship of the Royal ancestors became the model for ancestor worship of the whole people and it can be said that its record is history itself.
It is a character combining the person-classifier and 言. In this combination, it appears for the first time in the so-called Old Script. 言, however, can already be seen in the tortoise plastron and bone characters. As already explained in the character explanations on 吉・哲・仁, its lower part 口 has the meaning of a receptacle for putting in prayer writings. The meaning of the upper part with its four horizontal lines is hard to understand from the form of the Common Use Kanji. Its original form and meaning has to be understood in the context of the tattoo and ritual body painting culture which was already introduced in the character explanation on 清. It shows the form of an instrument, a needle with a handle for tattooing. Therefore, 言 is not simply a word, but means to place the tattoo needle on the prayer receptacle and to accept the tattoo penalty in case one does not keep a promise or oath to the gods. Originally, this tattooing has the background of offending the gods and can be regarded as one of the corporal punishments as were usual in Chinese society. According to Shizuka Shirakawa’s research, in contrast to the general image of Confucius, Confucius was the natural child of a priestess or shrine maiden. The world of the gods Confucius seldom made a subject. Based on words like that of Analects Chapter 12, 顔淵 Yán Yuān and others, however, 信 ‘trust’ became to play a role as a notion in social politics. In Japan, the value of 信 ‘trust’ was pointed out anew by Itō Jinsai (1627-1705), the inaugurator of the ‘Old Meaning School.’ When asked which of the trio – food, army, trust – was the most valuable, Confucius answered that food is more important than the army, but that the trust of the people is an even more important, absolutely vital principle. Certainly, fasting of individuals or even a people for their belief can be seen in religious and political struggle.
The upper part of this character now is 折 (‘oru: to break off, to bend’), in the previous character forms, however, it is considerably different. 斥 is the form of an ax, 扌, however, in this case, does not mean a hand. That the ax is used with the hands is common sense and does not have to be mentioned in full detail. Here, it shows the object being made with the ax.
Like at the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, there are so called god ladders to be used by the Kami (gods) when ascending to and ascending from heaven. It is a wooden ladder as one often finds at sacred places in China. The扌 of the upper part of 哲 is a god ladder and shows the making of a gods ladder with an ax. As the 口 of the lower part is a receptacle for putting in ‘norito’ prayer writings, this character represents the heart and mental state when welcoming the gods. Therefore, since antiquity it had the meanings ‘akiraka: clear’ and ‘kenmei: wise.’ This adjective was also often used for kings. There also is the character form with 心 ‘heart’ instead of the 口 ‘norito’ prayer receptacle which in a representative ancient dictionary is defined as having the meaning of “It is 敬 ‘Kei: reverence’.” The Zhu Xi school (in Japan ‘Shushigaku’) which exerted profound influence on East Asian thought for hundreds of years and became the political thought and philosophy of the Japanese Tokugawa government from the 17th to the 19th century had made 敬 the guiding principle. The meaning of this character 敬 thus is defined as identical with this previous character form of 悊.
Also, long before this, there was the variant character form 喆 (tetsu). Based on the dictionary Shuō Wén Jiě Zì, Setsumon Kaiji (Explanation of Simple Graphs and Analysis of Complex Characters) from the later Han period, Dr. Shirakawa also introduces the equivalent 嚞 made up of three 吉.
left: bronze inscription
right: so called Old Script from the Shuō Wén Jiě Zì
It shows the form of putting 士, a small broadax on top of a 口 prayer or benediction receptacle. Dr. Shirakawa’s Kanji research has first proved that 口 does not mean the human mouth but a ‘norito’ prayer receptacle already fifty years ago. As can also be understood from the character form 王, which shows the head part of a broadax, one generally thought that extraordinary spiritual power resides in weapons like a broadax. What regards the putting of something on the ‘norito’ prayer receptacle, it is similar to the character 悟 (吾) which shows a double lid. Here, however, it is the small broadax, symbol of the warrior class, which was an action widely spread among people to further enhance the effect of prayer. Therefore, it generally is used for benedictions, including also military affairs.
Although there is praying and requesting from God also in monotheism, there is no ‘auspicious’ - ‘inauspicious’ judgment like in Oriental religions when praying and asking for inquiring the chance of realization of a prayer. In Japan, it is usual to draw a ‘omikuji: written fortune oracle,’ at a shrine, in monotheism, however, this is absolutely unthinkable. Such a religious view letting people reflect on their lives by judgment in terms of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness shows that originally there is a basic Oriental tradition of being clear and definite about personal prayers. In this respect, there is no room for the thesis of an original ambiguity of Japanese or East Asian culture as often propounded by Japanese and non-Japanese authors.