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Volume 4: Kanji Form Categories

Kotoba zamurai articles are written to be a non-systematic approach to learning unusual, but useful words. While these not-so-serious articles are written with the upper-beginner to intermediate in mind, even beginners should be able to get something out of them. If not, I may have wasted 15 minutes of your life... I will leave it up to you to take the chance.

Volume 4: Kanji Form Categories

六書: What is it? Today we will look at how etymology of kanji are categorized. That is, there are 6 ways the ancient Chinese used to explain how each kanji is put together. Some kanji may have more than one way. These 6 categories are called 六書 pronounced りくしょ (not ろく)

Why am I reading this? Well, probably because you have nothing better to do. But other than the obvious, knowing what these are can be very helpful when using a Japanese kanji dictionary since it will probably explain the kanji's origin.

象形 しょうけい
Kanji that look like (or originally was supposed to look like) the object it represents

sun - originally somewhat round with a dot in the middle - not sure what the dot was for (if you know please post a comment below)
moon, month
mountain - a mountain ridge
tree - a tree with low hanging branches
person - a person with no arms doing a split
child - a child needs a hug

指事 しじ
These are kanji whose meaning is somewhat abstract and is expressed as a kind of code.

up, above - the small line is above ground level
heaven - the biggest line is above the man on earth
book - made from a tree (木)

会意 かいい
This is where 2 characters are put together to create a new meaning.

ratio, compare - two people(人)
watch, care for - hand (手) and (目)
(mountain) pass - 山 (mountain), 上 (up) and 下 (down). This is a 和製漢字, for more click here

形声 けいせい
These are kanji with 2 parts usually one for the pronunciation and one for the meaning.

河 river - sound: 可 (permission) + meaning 水 (water - the three strokes on the left)
問 ask - sound: 門 (gate) + meaning: 口 (mouth)
枯 wither (as in a plant) - sound 古 (old) + meaning 木 (tree) & 古 (old)

転注 てんちゅう
These are kanji that have the original meanings changed (転) to new meanings.

The common example (at least in dictionaries that I consulted!) is the in 音楽 (music) originally only dealt with music, but since listening to music is pleasurable, 楽 also took on that meaning -> 楽しい

仮借 かしゃ
These are kanji where the meaning is totally ignored. They are borrowed only for their sound.

This can also be called 当て字, ateji - which are kanji used usually for the pronunciation (but can rarely also have meaning like 倶楽部 for Club [together+fun+group = ku ra bu])

Examples of foreign words:
あめりか - America
亜細亜 アジア - Asia

Examples where a new meaning developed

「来」 kuru/rai (to come) originally meant "barley."The pronunciation 「らい」 was kept but the meaning was dropped and replaced with "to come"

*In both cases, the original meaning of each kanji is ignored and only the sound is used. With 転注 ten chuu, the original meaning is changed not totally ignored.

Note: I believe I have a handle on these last two forms (転注・仮借) but I should consult a few big kanji dictionaries to make sure. If you see something wrong or have anything to add, please leave a comment! - Thanks

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Pre-Kanji sun-symbol

The circled dot seems to have been a common way to make a simplified drawing of the sun in ancient times, it also happened in the west. If you think of the dot as the disk of the sun and the circle as the bright glow around the sun it may make more sense. Perhaps people originally drew 'rays' in much the way we draw rays in now (in cartoons and children's drawings), but if you look at some of the other sun symbols, you can see they tend to be a circle with a concentration in the center (where the rays intersect).


These are such ancient symbols that getting a definitive origin seems unlikely - they were still figuring out how to write when these symbols were developed! But it seems to me looking at the array of symbols, that the circled dot is just simpler to write than any of the other sun-cross variations. Whether the ancient Chinese started with a circled dot or shrank their rays to a dot over time, I couldn't say.

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