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.
In common with 婦, the basic character of 掃 is 帚. The 扌 hand classifier was only added considerably later. The first form in the tortoise plastron and bone characters is extremely simple; it clearly is just the form of a 箒 ‘hôki: broom.’ As the tortoise plastron and bone characters were created by a group of ancient clerics the cleaning this character originally refers to should be imagined as a sacred act or duty. It was humbly conducted in the mausoleum for worshiping the ancestors. Besides using the broom for sweeping as is done in the present, it was established etiquette to sprinkle well-smelling liquor with the broom for exorcising and purifying the mausoleum. It may be compared to the present burning of incense for the ancestors.
The upper part of the unabbreviated character 帚 shows a hand, and the middle line extending to the right shows the part of the hand including the joint which is especially important when sweeping. In the shortened character form of the Common Use Character, however, nearly only the fingers remain. 帚 also appears in 歸, the older character of 帰 ‘kaeru: return.’ It shows military returning from war at the ritual of reporting at the mausoleum bringing worship meat. At this time, there also was the custom of exorcising and purifying the mausoleum with a broom and liquor.
The original character is 獨. 蜀 means a male animal. 虫 does not show an insect but the male genitals. As the male animal often separates from the herd, from this behavior of separation and acting alone resolutely and independently, it got the meaning ‘hitori: alone.’ The 犭 animal classifier was added later in the Tenbun (Zhuàn Wén) seal, after basic Chinese characters had been formed already in the Yīn (Shāng) and the Zhōu dynasty.
The works of Dr. Shirakawa also teach that in the realm of usage of Chinese characters since the period of the Yīn (Shāng) dynasty, the animal classifier was used as an expression of contempt and discrimination regarding other peoples or countries.
In Japan, before a unified German state came into existence, in the time leading to the opening of the country during the final years of the Tokugawa period, the characters 独逸 (abbreviated 独) were used for the German speaking people although the reading ‘doku’ does not fit the pronunciation at all. Early documents show that in 度逸 or 都逸, 度 and 都 were alternative characters also read ‘doitsu’ in combination with 逸, but the above version still is in use since 150 years. Regarding countries, however, the use of the animal classifier probably is not appropriate. Dr. Shirakawa has explained this as the ‘Superior Country In The Middle Ideology of the Japanese’ (‘Superior Country In The Middle Ideology’ is a term for the nationalist thought that China is situated in the middle of the world, its culture being superior to others). In the captions of his dictionaries for this character as well as comparable characters used for other countries, there generally is no recognition of such a usage for country names.
The meaning originally shown by the character 德 originally is not the ethical notion of virtue attributed to it in later times. For its understanding one has to go back to the world of early animism and curse magic.
The character 行 shows a crossroad and 彳. The classifier of 徳 is its left half and means a junction. As place where a lot of people pass, it is an important spiritual place, too. Naturally, accidents occur more frequently there, which is why it becomes an object for the exorcism of evil spirits.
As in the case of 蔑 or 省, the 目 (including the strokes above) which is seen in horizontal position in the right upper part of the character shows curse decoration. 省 means to show military power towards a region or country. Its upper part and the upper right part of 徳 has the common origin of patrolling with eyes that have curse power. What concerns the character 徳, from containing the element 彳 the objects of patrol conducted by eyes with curse decoration are the evil spirits at crossroads and junctions; it shows them being exorcised and ‘tadasu: put right’ again.
Previous character forms are often close to that of antiquity. Here, 徳, the form of the Common Use Characters since 1948 has one stroke less than its previous form 德 and is a form close to that of the bronze inscriptions.
Later, 心 was added to the character form for the first time on the bronze vessel 大盂鼎 ‘Dà Yú Dĭng: Big Tripod (made by) Yú’ in a long inscription amounting to 290 characters from the early period of the Western Zhōu dynasty, directly after the Yīn (Shāng)-Zhōu revolution. From this time on, the meaning of 徳 changed from referring to the curse power of the eyes toward the mental inner virtue as existing in the mind.
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.
Dr. Christoph Schmitz is a scholar of the work of Dr. Shizuka Shirakawa, Japan's leading authority on the origin of Kanji, or Chinese characters. Dr. Schmitz also researches the history of philosophical thought as well as Japanese thought. A native of Cologne, Germany, he currently resides in Tokyo, Japan.
His interest in Kanji was aroused while he was studying the history of Japanese thought based on the understanding of Japanese and general history, philosophy and the history of philosophy at universities both in Germany and Japan. The absence of convincing explanations of the relationship between Kanji forms and their meaning in the world of Western higher education made him lose his trust in established Kanji education. In 1997, reading an interview with Dr. Shirakawa about his work, he started his research. After teaching history of philosophy and Kanji for adult education classes in Germany, hoping to introduce Dr. Shirakawa's work and meritorious achievements to the world, in 2001, he met Dr. Shirakawa for the first time. In the following year, he became a research student at University of Tokyo Faculty of Law.
In December 2003, he started translating 'Jouyoujikai' (Basic Kanji Dictionary), a primer on Kanji written by Dr. Shirakawa with the consent of the author. To tackle the manifold difficulties of this yet unseen project took him almost three years. His aim is to base Kanji learning on natural understanding.
Few Japanologists seem to have read the proclamation of the Japanese prime minister from 9 December 1954, in which capitalization of nouns in alphabetical transcription of Japanese is sanctioned. After all, it still is nothing less than the official Japanese transliteration system. Accordingly, capitalization is applied in this translation to clearly mark nouns for learners who often do not know which word is a noun, and which is not. Thus, to counter the weakness of modern English spelling which does not clearly mark nouns, I come back to the traditional English capital spelling of nouns as usual some hundred years ago.
There are a lot of problematic or false notions widely used in the field that can mislead learning once they hoaxed the mind of the unwary, which is why I use terms that learners will find more convincing, like the following.
Tortoise Plastron, not Tortoise ‘Shell’
Those thousands of tortoises used for divination seem to have died in vain. Few term coining scholars ever took the pain to verify which one of the two shells of these tortoises was used; a rough translation with ‘shell’ or ‘carapace’ misses the specific meaning of the Kanji 甲 and gives an unclear view of the matter. The flat belly plate was used in what amounts to a percentage of more than 99 % of cases, the carapace, however, which is the hooked back shell only in very rare exceptions: It is too hard to be carved in. The character 甲 shows the flat ‘plastron’ with the vertical and horizontal notched natural ‘lines’ of the belly or breast shell.
Revisiting in 2016
This introduction with its casual explanations intending to help a first easygoing acquaintance with Shirakawa's character explanations is now complemented with your comprehensive dictionary "The Keys To The Chinese Characters"!
Giving the full contents as only a dictionary can, it renews and supersedes a part of the terminology given here.
With its technical terms and methodical approach enriched with many citations from and references to the classics, a meticulous commentary and copious indexes you will have a powerful instrument to master your study and enjoy deepening your understanding.
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.
Its original character is 气. Again, the original character of 气 is 乞, the form of moving clouds. 気 can be thought of as the basic unit of energy, be it air, atmosphere, weather, vapor, or breathing.
In ‘Explanation of Common Use Kanji,’ the last character dictionary of Dr. Shirakawa, for the first time in his dictionaries, we find his explanation commenting on the vital role of 米 ‘rice’ nurturing 気 spirit or energy. By the way, also Jacob Chang-Ui Kim from Korea gave a similar view in his English explanation of Kanji.
Food is what supplies living beings with energy. Without eating, one cannot live and there is no vitality. From ancient times on, rice is the basic food and basis of energy in East Asia.
The upper part of 気 can also be thought of as the rising steam from rice boiling, and it therefore may even be regarded as a pictograph. In Japanese, 気 came to be used in a lot of expressions describing human feelings and states of mind. In East Asia as a whole, it has become the basis of martial arts culture built on the importance of breathing techniques, as Chinese shadow boxing and Aikidō.
In ancient Greek philosophy, with ‘pneuma,’ there is a very similar notion. The Stoa, a classic school of thought that commends pantheism and a life style following the laws of nature, taught that ‘pneuma,’ the most fine matter like air, is the carrier of ‘logos,’ or world reason, extant everywhere in the universe. In this sense, 気 is (was) a common way of thinking in East and West.