■ character, kanji, graph

Also known as Japanese characters, Chinese characters, Sino-Japanese characters, Chinese-Japanese characters, logographs, logograms

Literally, the word 漢字 kanji means Han writing, as in the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE). This word is also used in Korea where it is pronounced hanja. Most 漢字 were developed before the Han dynasty, however, and some were even invented in Japan, so the word 漢字 may be considered a misnomer. On the other hand, the character also refers to the Hans, the overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group of China, and in China, Mandarin is commonly referred to as 漢語.

Origin and Development
漢字, known simply as in Chinese, have been found from at least 3500 years ago. These 漢字 are found on tortoise shells and animal bones such as cow shoulder blades or scapula. They were inscribed on the bones for divination purposes, a practice known as scapulimancy 太占. The bone was thrown into a fire and the future devined from cracks 占形 that appeared in the bone. See 漢字についての考察 for photos of 甲骨文字, characters used in scapulimancy.

At sites where the earliest characters have been found, however, over three thousand characters are already in use, indicating that their true origin lies much further yet in the distant past. Perhaps they were originally written on an impermanent medium such as the ground and have been forever lost.

六書: 漢字 are classified into six different methods of composition shown below, known collectively as the 六書. Many elements in 漢字 may be seen in Egyptian hieroglyphics ヒエログリフ, perhaps the only other well developed logographic system in the world.

Transmission to Japan
According to 古事記, 王仁 brought two books to Japan from Korea, a textbook 千字文 and 論語. According to 日本書紀, 王仁 brought them in year 16 of the 応神 imperial era, though modern sources put it around the year 400. To see 論語 in Japanese, see http://www.edp.eng.tamagawa.ac.jp/~sumioka/rng/rngframe.html. For Chinese (with a wonderful online instant character-English look-up dictionary) and English, see The Analects by Confucius.

Understandably, 漢字 can be difficult to remember, and organization to make them easy to find in a dictionary is complex as well. Around 100 CE, 許慎 deciphered around 10,000 characters in his 説文解字 and ordered them according to a classification system. The meaning part of the 漢字 was generally made the classifier 部首, commonly called a radical.

The number of 部首 was cut to 214 in the Kangxi Dictionary 康煕辞典, published in 1716. After World War II, China and Japan independently simplified many 漢字, so that many formerly identical forms can no longer be recognized across the language divide. Learning to recognize simplified forms takes little time, though it is not a common pursuit. With these simplifications, many 漢字 lost their classifier.

Any separable part of a 漢字 may be called a radical, though even when used to mean classifier, the word radical may be misleading as by definition a radical should be the "root" of the 漢字. A more appropriate term is grapheme; when a 漢字 consists of two graphemes, these may be called hemigrams or hemigraphs. Classification in dictionaries is supposedly according to the meaning component, so that to the uninitiated, it is unclear which grapheme in a 漢字 is the classifier. Rose-Innes and then Nelson broke new ground by organizing their Kanji-English dictionaries according to a logical system, where the character may be found according to a methodical search. Even with this streamlining, Nelson says that 88% of the 漢字 still fall in their traditional places, so use of a native Japanese 漢和辞典 is not as hard as it might sound. Later, Spahn and Hadamitzky further streamlined Nelson's process by eliminating some of the special counting cases for certain classifiers, making it easier for beginners to jump right into the system.

When 漢字 were introduced, the Chinese pronunciation was borrowed along with the 漢字. Lacking tones and the complex sound system of Chinese, pronunciations were greatly simplified, leading to many 漢字 homophones. Nelson lists 105 different 漢字 for the pronunciation kan かん in his 最新漢英辞典 (second revised edition).

Since olden times, the Japanese language has undergone sound changes so that readings of 漢字 no longer match their original borrowed pronunciation. To a large extent, these sound changes are regular or frequent, so that domestic phonetic patterns can be learned.

Other 漢字 aspects

Particularly the beginning student will find the study of 漢字 to be frustrating. For many students of Japanese, 漢字 are the initial, intermediate and final barriers to the language; for many, however, success in the language requires fostering a positive attitude towards them.

The initial introduction to 漢字 may lead to disaster because the student becomes lost trying to remember too much information at once. Long stroke sequences, pronunciation, meaning and compounds are required for each 漢字. After several 漢字, the process of learning the stroke sequence becomes easier, so the student should not despair over this point.

Later, the student may encounter walls at the 50-character, 100-character and 300-character marks. This may be a combination of data overload on one hand and realizing how far away mastery of the often-quoted goal of 2000 characters remains.

After learning several hundred 漢字, the student's Japanese has generally improved a great deal towards fluency, and they find that they are able to read most signs. It can be tempting to mistake this feeling of euphoria for true literacy as 漢字 learning has to continue until most 漢字 have been learned.

At this level, however, sight recognition is sufficient for many 漢字 rather than mastery of each pronunciation, so the road gradually becomes easier. The student has also developed a sense of the 漢字 radicals (component parts or graphemes), so that rote learning of strokes is no longer necessary and 漢字 can often be memorized in a few moments of examination.

The biggest hurdles to literacy are quantity and depth. The standard set of 漢字, known as 常用漢字 consists of 1945 characters. Characters tend to average about two readings each; that is, on average, each character has two pronunciations. In addition, no character can be learned in isolation: Knowing basic compounds called 熟語 is an important part of being able to say, "I know that 漢字." So with 2000 characters, two readings and at least two 熟語, the beginning student is faced with at least 8000 blocks of individual data to be learned.

If language is said to be alive, then each 漢字 has a life of its own. The forms 書体 of 漢字 have been modified many times over the century, and the student can study its forms back to its origins and etymology. Through 書道 calligraphy, the manner of writing each 漢字 can be learned for different styles as well. With a good 漢字 dictionary called a 漢和辞典, the Chinese pronunciations in different eras can be studied as well as the change in pronunciation 漢字 have undergone through the ages can be learned. For the true aficionado, numerous name readings and obscure native readings are available as well. In the end, the complete study of a single 漢字 entails a great deal of study and familiarity with a 漢字 may result in a strong feeling of affection.

Further information
As indicated above, the aspects of 漢字 are endless, and this entry touches only briefly on a few of them. A key source, particularly for the 六書 above, is 大字源, a one-volume 漢和辞典 with useful endpapers. 大漢語林 provided hard-to-find information concerning readings. Spahn & Hadamitzky as well as Nelson provide a wealth of information about the 漢字 in their Kanji-English dictionaries. Any 漢和辞典 will provide information as well, though they tend to be written with literary and scholarly terms in mind. The Internet is another valuable source, though like the 漢和辞典, a good grasp of Japanese is required.

Vocabulary notes:

意字: いじ iji

: いち ichi

異体字: いたいじ itaiji

: うえ ue

: うま uma

占形: うらかた urakata, written also as 占方, 卜兆 and 卜象

応神: おうじん oujin, an era began in 270 according to Nelson's Japanese-English Character Dictionary. Such early 年号 imperial dates are probably inaccurate.

: おおとり ootori, a giant mythological bird

音読み: おんよみ on'yomi, called the Chinese or pseudo-Chinese pronunciation

会意: かいい kaii

諧声: かいせい kaisei

仮借: かしゃ kasha

: かぜ kaze

: かわ kawa

: かん kan, Han, as in the dominant ethnic group in China and the Han dynasty. 漢 has other meanings, including China in general.

漢音: かんおん kan'on, also known as 正音(しょうおん) shou-on

漢語: pronounced as han-4 yu-3 in Mandarin; literally, Han language

慣用音: かんようおん kan'you-on

漢和辞典: かんわじてん kanwa jiten, a kanji dictionary for Japanese people

許慎: きょしん kyoshin, known by his Chinese name as Xu Shen

訓読み: くんよみ kun'yomi, called the Japanese or native pronunciation

形声: けいせい keisei

: ご go, a region in southeast China in the lower reaches of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River.

康煕辞典: こうきじてん kouki jiten

甲骨文字: こうこつもじ koukotsu moji, oracle bone characters

孔子: こうし koushi, Confucius

古音: こおん ko-on

呉音: ごおん go-on, known also as 対馬音(つしまごえ) Tsushima-goe、百済音(くだらごえ) Kudara-goe and 和音(やまとごえ) Yamato-goe.

国字: こくじ kokuji, also known as 和字(わじ) waji or 倭字(わじ) waji.

古事記: こじき kojiki, an eighth century chronicle of ancient times in Japan with much fabrication

最新漢英辞典: さいしんかんえいじてん saishin kan'ei jiten The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary

杯・盃: さかずき sakazuki, sake cup

指事: しじ shiji

熟語: じゅくご jukugo

象形: しょうけい shoukei

象形文字: しょうけいもじ shoukei moji, pictographs. 象形文字 also commonly refers to hieroglyphics.

上古音: じょうこおん jouko-on, literally, ancient pronunciation

常用漢字: じょうようかんじ jouyou kanji, a list of 1945 漢字 prescribed in 1981 by the 文部省(もんぶしょう) Ministry of Education for use in newspapers and education. This list replaced the 当用漢字(とうようかんじ) list. For a list of elementary level 漢字 by year, see Kanji List. For a complete list arranged in Japanese a-i-u-e-o order, see The Joyo Kanji.

書体: しょたい shotai, character form

書道: しょどう shodou, calligraphy; literally, the way of writing

西安: せいあん seian, Xian

説文解字: せつもんかいじ setsumon kaiji

千文字: せんもじ senmoji, literally, a thousand characters

: zi-4 in Mandarin; literally, writing. 字(じ) ji is also sometimes used in Japanese to refer to characters.

: ずい zui

: そう sou

俗字: ぞくじ zokuji

大漢語林: だいかんごりん daikan gorin, a publication by Taishukan Shoten (大修館書店)

大字源: だいじげん daijigen, a publication by Kadokawa (角川)

: つき tsuki

転注: てんちゅう tenchuu

長安: ちょうあん chou-an, an area in China known historically in English as Changan. It is currently known as 西安.

: とう tou, Tang (as in the dynasty) or China in general

唐音: とうおん tou-on

当用漢字: とうようかんじ touyou kanji, a list of 1850 漢字 prescribed in 1945 by the 文部省 for use in newspapers and education. For a list of these characters, see http://koudan.com/kanji/toyokai.htm.

涙・泪: なみだ namida, tear (from the eye)

日本書紀: にほんしょき nihon shoki, also known as 日本紀(にほんぎ) nihongi, translated under the English name of Nihongi, is an eighth century chronicle of ancient Japan times with much fabrication.

年号: ねんごう nengou, imperial era. The beginning of each imperial reign begins a new era, and until modern times, most emperors and empresses proclaimed additional eras during their reign.

ヒエログリフ: hierogurifu, hieroglyphics, the characters used in ancient Egypt and generally referred to as 象形文字

百姓読み: ひゃくしょうよみ hyakushou-yomi

表意文字: ひょういもじ hyoui moji

部首: ぶしゅ bushu

太占: ふとまに futomani, scapulimancy. This word is generally used for the practice of divining from deer scapula in Japan. The Chinese practice included at least also tortoise shell devination. There does not seem to be a word to cover this in English or Japanese.

真仮名: まがな magana

万葉仮名: まんようがな man'you gana

万葉集: まんようしゅう man'you-shuu

: めい mei, みょう myou or みん min

峰・峯: みね mine, mountain peak

文部省: もんぶしょう monbu-shou, the Ministry of Education and Science now known as the 文部科学省(もんぶかがくしょう) monbu kagaku shou, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

: ひ hi

六書: りくしょ rikusho

論語: ろんご rongo, the Analects, compiled by the disciples of 孔子 after his death

王仁: わに wani, a Chinese scholar in Korea who moved to Japan.

Created by Benjamin Barrett with contributions from Jon Babcock.

Revised on 2000/11/21 by BB with contributions from Tom Gally, Jim Lockhart and Masako Sato.

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