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Yasuhiro Kawagoe

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Chinese characters are interesting !

Yasuhiro Kawagoe
Professor of Modern Chinese History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Chinese characters are interesting

The variety of Chinese characters makes them very interesting.

Even Chinese characters which appear simple and normal at first glance possess a shade of unexpectedness and surprise. To be paradoxical, simple Chinese characters are the most difficult. Actually, in the case of characters with many strokes and difficult readings, not many such characters possess a variety of meanings or readings. Conversely, characters with few strokes and simply readings actually have many more meanings and readings.

The greatest number of strokes in a single Chinese character is 64. There are two characters which possess 64 strokes. The first is a character in which 興is written four times; front, left, right and back. In the same way, the second is a character in which 龍 is written four times. According to the Comprehensive Chinese Character Dictionary (Taishukan Shoten) written by Tetsuji Morohashi, the former character has a Chinese reading of sei and a meaning of "unknown," while the latter is read as tetsu or techi and has a meaning of "many words." There are no other readings or meanings for these complex characters.

Let's compare these complex characters with "一," a Chinese character written with a single stroke and placed first in all Chinese character dictionaries. Although the Chinese readings for "一" are itsu and ichi only, the Comprehensive Chinese Dictionary lists a total of 25 example meanings. 23 of these meanings exist in the Chinese language and 2 in the Japanese language.

It is commonly known that Chinese characters have a Han reading, a Wu reading and a Tang reading. However, there are also a general accepted or popular reading (negatively described as a peasant's reading) and a Japanese reading. As a result, a single Chinese character can be read in multiple ways, giving the characters a truly wonderful variety.

How is 子子子子子子子子子子子子 read ?

There is sometimes debate regarding whether 日本 should be read as nihon or nippon. 日烏 (another name for the sun) is read nichiu. Other various readings for 日 include jitsugetsu for 日月之食 (solar eclipse and lunar eclipse), nikkei for 日系, hyuuga for 日向 (Miyazaki Prefecture), hiyorimi for 日和見 and muika for 六日. jitsu is the Han reading, nichi is the Wu reading, and hi, ka, and hyuu are Japanese readings. When 日本 is read using the Han reading instead of the Wu reading, it is pronounced as jippon, which is close to the English name of Japan.

Both nihon and nippon originate from Chinese readings for 日本 (the origin of the sun), which means the land of the rising sun. 日本 was contained in the imperial letter written by Prince Shotoku of Japan and delivered to Emperor Yang by the Japanese diplomat Ono-no-Imoko. There is no law stipulating which reading should be used. However, the reading of nihon is commonly used for complex words such as 日本画 (nihon-ga), 日本髪 (nihon-gami) and 日本語教育 (nihongo-kyouiku).

As illustrated above, a single Chinese character can have multiple readings. Even more, since a single character possesses a variety of meanings, other interesting readings are possible. Allow me to introduce a good example of such readings.

What is the reading of 子子子子子子子子子子子子, a phrase made by lining twelve instances of the character 子 ? The correct reading is nekonokonokoneko, shishinokonokoshishi (猫の子の子猫,獅子の子の子獅子). This reading was defined by Ono-no-Takamura, a famous poet, scholar of Chinese characters and man of many illustrious achievements who lived in the Heian Period.

Research and Chinese character dictionaries

Every day, I use a great number of Japanese-Chinese dictionaries in order to decipher and analyze research material written in classical Chinese. Without doubt, the dictionary which I refer to the most is the Comprehensive Chinese Character Dictionary written by Morohashi. Consulting dictionaries is in no way an arduous process. In order to research a word, I start with the Morohashi's dictionary and spread numerous other dictionaries on my desk for me to browse through. This process is enjoyable because I make numerous discoveries. More than 1,000 years ago, the Japanese language incorporated large amounts of Chinese and became a language which is capable of expressing metaphysical concepts. One of the joys of studying Chinese characters is the opportunity to visit the origin of the Japanese language.

I have published two books which feature a variety of Chinese characters. In these books, I classify the characters according to my personal interests, introduced related historical facts and episodes, and explore associated matters. These two books are titled Musing on the History of Four-Character Words (Taishukan Publishing, 2002) and Chinese Character Ecology-Mastery of Characters to Improve Japanese Language Ability (Sairyusha, 2005).

Stated formally, both of the books explore the intrigue or ecology of Chinese characters. Put softly, the books are a collection of essays written of the top of my head, meandering through the world of characters. However, at their essence, these books are the product of my intense daily use of dictionaries. They are an unexpected by-product of the historical research which is my main profession.

Prevent mistakes when writing Chinese characters

Incidentally, how many Chinese characters exist? In 1716, the Kangxi Dictionary compiled by the order of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Edited by Zhang Yushu and Chen Tingjing, the dictionary contains more than 49,000 characters. When such a large number of characters exist, there are numerous characters which closely resemble each other, thus resulting in great confusion. This means that it is easy to make mistakes when writing, memorizing or printing characters. I'm sure that everyone has had an experience when they did not even realize their mistake until it was pointed out by another person.

The following are just a few examples of mistakenly written characters that I often see in my line of work. Of course, the character on the left of each pair is written correctly.

陝西(Shanxi)-陜西,新疆(Xinjiang)-新彊,楊貴妃(Yang Guifei)-揚貴妃,[画竜点睛](the finishing strokes)-[画竜点晴],鍾馗(protective deity)-鐘馗,匈奴単于(ruler of the Xiongnu)-匈奴単干,宋代(the Song dynasty)-宗代,対馬宗氏(So clan, the governor of Tsushima Island from 13th to the late 19th century)-対馬宋氏,[怏怏不楽](joyless)-[快快不楽],刺史(director in the ancient China)-剌史,而已(predication)-而己,徳冨蘆花(Roka Tokutomi; novelist)-徳富蘆花,徳富蘇峰(Soho Tokutomi; critic)-徳冨蘇峰

For some reason, many soba noodle shops have the name 辰巳庵 (tatsumi-an). However, there are few cases in which the name is written correctly on the shop's sign. The name is often mistakenly written as 辰已庵 or 辰己庵. This is because a correct distinction is not made between 已己巳 (ikomi). Similarly, the characters 戊戉戌戍 are often confused. A large number of students mistakenly write the phrase 戊戌政変 as 戌戊政変 or 戊戍政変. Indeed, it is rare to find students who can write the phrase correctly.

戊戌(bojutsu) is one of the names of years in the Oriental Zodiac. The Hundred Day's Reform [Bojutsu no Seihen] occurred in1898, the year of Bojutsu. This incident involved Xi Taihou and was the most famous political incident in the history of China.

There are many four character words which refer to how it is easy to incorrectly write characters due to similar patterns. Some examples include 魯魚之謬(Rogyo no Ayamari), 魯魚章草(Rogyo Shoso), 魯魚亥豕(Rogyo Gaishi), 魯魚帝虎(Rogyo Teiko), 魯魚陶陰(Rogyo Touin), 焉馬之誤(Emba no Ayamari), 烏焉魯魚(Uen Rogyo) and 烏焉成馬(Uen Seiba). Respectively, these 4-character words refer to how it is easy to incorrectly write the similar characters of 魯/魚, 章/草, 亥/豕, 帝/虎, 陶/陰, 焉/馬, 烏/焉 and 成/馬.

Since there are many Chinese characters with similar forms, it may be possible to reduce the number of 魯魚之謬 (mistakes) by first instilling the idea that it is easy to incorrectly write characters. It would be extremely inconvenient if a mistake like 魯魚之謬 occurred. Therefore, Arabic numerals such as 1, 2 and 3 are not used on real estate sales contracts and checks. At the same time, this prevents the crime of falsifying numbers. Since long ago in China, the characters 壱(one), 貳(two), 参(three), 肆(four), 伍(five), 陸(six), 漆(seven), 捌(eight), 玖(nine), 拾(ten), 佰(one hundred), and 阡(one thousand) have been used for the number from 1-10, 100 and 1,000 in government documents and certificates. The character 陸 is used for 6 (六) because the Han reading is riku. Although the Wu reading is roku, this reading is mainly used in Buddhist-related terms.

If many Chinese characters have similar forms which cause them to easily be written incorrectly, then what can be done to prevent literal errors? I believe that the best method is to remember characters by sight rather than to practice writing them. I mean that characters should be stared at intently. If such methods are used to remember characters by sight, then you will naturally understand the differences in Chinese characters used in sentences. For example, you will understand the different readings of characters in cases like 快快にして楽しまず(Kai-kainishite tanoshimazu) and 怏怏にして楽しまず(Ou-ounishite tanoshimazu). Such understanding can be engraved in your memory for a long time.

Yasuhiro Kawagoe
Professor of Modern Chinese History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Born in Nichinan City, Miyazaki Prefecture in 1946. In 1976, completed the Doctoral Program of the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University. Served as a Full-Time Instructor and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University, before being appointed Professor in 1991 (also teaches at the graduate school). Holds a PhD in history. His many written works include Research on Chinese Classical Literature (Kokusho Kanko-Kai, 1978), Historical Research on the Emperor of the Kenbun Period, Ming Dynasty (Kyuko Shoin, 1997), Research on Foreign Country Information in the Ming Dynasty (Kyuko Shoin, 1999), Military System and Politics of Ming Dynasty China (Kokusho Kanko-Kai, 2001), Scandal in Ming Dynasty China-Indigo Ball Prison and Accomplices (Fukyo-Sha Publishing), The Ming Dynasty Great Wall Group (Kokusho Kanko-Kai, 2003) and The Chinese Emperor Kidnapped by Mongolia-The Strange Fate of Zhengtong Emperor in the Ming Dynasty (Kenbun-Shuppan, 2003).