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Majestic bamboo is firmly rooted in ancient kanji

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

My first exposure to bamboo in Japan, as a newcomer from the United States in the early 1980s, was the jaw-dropping sight of tabi-clad construction workers deftly scampering about on bamboo scaffolding ten stories high. Although this versatile natural resource — utilized in Japan and China for thousands of years — has largely been nudged aside by man-made materials, bamboo continues to play a role in many aspects of Japanese life, including its written language.

When the Chinese began to create Sino-Japanese characters some four millennia ago, they utilized pictographs representing key elements of everyday life. The kanji for bamboo, 竹 (take), pictures two stalks topped with spiky leaves. As a kanji component in two dozen Japanese general-use characters, the vertical lines of 竹 are abbreviated so they can be written in the top position, where they are always found.

算 (san, calculate), for example, is topped with bamboo, indicating the material used to make what looks to be a rectangular abacus in the middle (note the two bead bars); some kanji scholars view the bottom component as two hands holding the abacus. 筒 (tō, cylinder, as in 水筒 suitō, water/cylinder, thermos) pictures a bamboo object with the same (同) diameter at all points.

Other bamboo-kanji that represent objects produced in precardboard, preplastic ancient China include 箱 (hako, box), 筆 (fude, writing brush), and 箸 (hashi, chopsticks). 箸 was added to Japan’s official general-use kanji list last year, as was 箋 (sen, slip of paper, 処方箋 shohōsen, medical prescription).

Before the invention of paper, bamboo strips were a common writing material in China. Books were made of narrow bamboo slates vertically arranged, connected with string, and rolled up into scrolls, thus 簿 (bo, record, 簿記 boki, bookkeeping) and 籍 (seki, register, 戸籍 koseki, family register) include bamboo. 簡 (kan, simple) represents a bamboo record-keeping tablet with lots of empty space (間), indicating its simplicity.

符 (fu, tally, 切符 kippu, ticket) is comprised of bamboo and 付 (tsu-keru, attach), rooted in the ancient Chinese custom of cutting a bamboo tally in half and then rejoining the notched edges upon fulfillment of an agreement.

Kanji detective work into the roots of characters often pays off with helpful clues to their composition. Unfortunately, however, etymological studies do not provide an organized system for learning the shapes of Japan’s 2,136 general-use kanji. Two bamboo-kanji serve to demonstrate why internalizing a vivid story from your own imagination (or someone else’s) serves in many cases as the most effective memory aid for tying all the components of a character together with its meaning.

Quiz

Match each of the following bamboo-kanji from today’s column with its meaning and pronunciation below. Comprising components are given for each kanji.

1. 竹 bamboo + 目abacus + 2 hands = 算
2. 竹 + 同 same = 筒
3. 竹 + 間 empty space = 簡
4. 竹 + 付 attach = 符
5. 竹 + / (head thrown back) + 大 big = 笑
6. 竹 + burst forth = 笛
7. 竹 + 寺 temple = 等
8. 竹 + 月 body + 力 strength = 筋

a. cylinder ()
b. laugh (wara-u)
c. tally (fu)
d. calculate (san)
e. simple (kan)
f. muscle (kin)
g. flute (fue)
h. equal (hito-shii)

The bamboo crowning 笑 (wara-u, laugh) is in fact a longstanding miscopying of look-alike kanji-topper “plant life,” as seen in 花 hana, flower, and 茶 cha, tea. Wading through the array of diverging theories on the origins of 笑 is a time-consuming exercise in frustration. So instead, why not memorize the image of a big (大) man, head thrown back (the single stroke at the top of his portly body), laughing with spasmodic motions like bamboo leaves shaking in the wind?

It’s easy to see why the reedy 笛 (fue, flute) is topped with bamboo, but what explains its bottom component, 由 (yu, reason)? The creators of kanji often chose components for their phonetic — as opposed to semantic — value, as they did in this case. So you might want to remember the shape of 笛 with this mnemonic: Sound bursts forth (由 pictures a single rice plant bursting out of a rice field, 田) from a bamboo flute.

Try using your own imagination and life experiences to think of a memory story for these bamboo-kanji: 等 (equal, hito-shii) = 竹 (bamboo) + 寺 (temple); and 筋 (muscle, kin) = 竹 (bamboo) + 月 (body, variant of 肉 meat) + 力 (strength).

This summer — as you savor the eerie strains of the shakuhachi at your neighborhood obon festival, consume chilled zaru (bamboo colander) soba, or shield your home from the scorching sun with a bamboo window screen — take a moment to reflect on the cultural, practical, and linguistic contributions bamboo has made to Japan.

Answers

1.d 2.a 3.e 4.c 5.b 6.g 7.h 8.f

Explore component analysis of kanji further at www.kanjiclinic.com/kc8final.htm