28 June 2016

Gruesome Kanji - slaves and slavery

Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess.... That almost undefinable feeling that we all strive for in one way or another. Unfortunately, one gets the impression that the common people in ancient China didn't have an awful lot of it. Given its importance to the human condition, its no surprise that the concept is written using a relatively simple kanji: 幸, a pictograph of some shackles.
This isn't a phonetic borrowing and the leap from shackles to happiness is surprisingly short: if a slave was punished, chances are they would be put to death. If they were lucky, they'd just be clapped in chains. Happiness is all relative.

The original character for 'railway station' 駅 was 驛. Here you can see a beady eye 目 looking over the shackled prisoners 幸 from one to the next 睪. In the same way, a station is where you move from one horse 馬 to the next. The derivations of the meanings of kanji is often difficult for us to appreciate, but this would have been more obvious to the ancient Chinese reader as 睪 and 驛 were pronounced the same way.

辛 looks similar to 幸, but the two are not directly related. 辛 is a needle, and its modern meaning of 'hard going'  tsurai or 'spicy'  karai (both, confusingly, written 辛い) are from the sense of prickling with needles. However, 辛 does appear in characters related to people in less than fortunate circumstances for a slightly different reason.

童 means 'child', and is in words such as 児童 jidō 'child', 童話 dōwa 'children's story' and 童謡 dōyō,  'a children's song' or 'nursery rhyme'.

The original character has a needle 辛 above an eye 目 and a weight 重 at the bottom. This needle is a tattoo needle, and indicates that the person has a mark above their eye. In other words, a person with a marked forehead that carries heavy weights: a slave. From there it meant someone who was not a full person, and by extension a child. Marking slaves with a tattoo was a common practice, and was used in Japan up to the Edo period as a means of identifying criminals. The actual mark depended on the region. One method was to write the kanji for 'dog' in three stages for each crime committed 一 ナ 犬 ; the fourth punishment would be death.

The kanji 僕, which, although is used as the male first-person pronoun boku, is also read shimobe to mean slave or servant.
The original character again shows a needle 辛 marking a person's forehead, and 其, a winnowing basket. The basket is filled with grain, and then the grain is repeatedly tossed into the air as the wind carries away any chaff, the worthless part. The person also has a tail (the ↟), i.e. caught by the tail. So we have a caught, worthless, marked worker: a slave. The needle and the winnowing basked merged together into 丵 and then were replaced by 菐 which had the same sound as the original character, despite having a different meaning.

The Winnower, Jean-Francois Millet 1848

The character for people (as in 'the people of a nation') 民 comes from a pictograph of an eye being stabbed by a needle. 
A common punishment for slaves was to blind one eye. It made them easily identifiable should they try to run away, as well as being gruesomely oppressive enough. The character then became a way of referring to slaves: 'hey, you know, those people who we stab in the eye', and from there to mean 'those people', 'the people'. At first it may seem inappropriate that China includes the character in its modern name: 中華民国. But it's a reminder that, ideologically at least, the oppressed are now the ones calling the shots.

1 comment:

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