May 20th, 2002


Kanji 101: Sho

I have a scanner in the undergraduate library, and some Swedish fish candy! Life is good. Today's kanji theme: convoluted etymologies. And characters named 'sho', actually. Too bad there isn't a kanji for 'swedish fish'. I should invent one, with two of those stick figure jesus fish and the square Ku mouth-shape that shows up in the kanji for mouth and eat and command and othersuch.

The piece on top is a drawing of a spiky bamboo plant. The piece on the bottom is a human stick-figure with bowed head. This is literally 'plant with bowed head' and originally referred to a certain type of thistle with thin stems and heavy flowers. From there, the meaning evolved to 'thin stem'/'thin line' and came to mean creases around the mouth, ie, laugh lines. The modern meaning of this character is actually laugh/smile.

I love the poetic imagary behind this character. The associate of thistle - a spiny, unpleasant plant that bears vivid and surprising flowers, a weed of sudden beauty and changability - with the concept of laughter. Laughing at oneself, laughing at those times when life is such that your only real choices are laugh or cry.

There's also an element of survival-by-laughter to this kanji, I think. The wind uproots the oak tree, but glides over the bowed heads of the thistles. From personal experience, I can assure you laughter is one of the best ways of dealing with stress.

(This kanji is dedicated to lumiere, who requested one for laughter. Thanks, I really like this one.)
  • Current Mood
    silly silly

Kanji 101: sho (A different sho, anglicized sometimes as shou)

Look at this one as a circle with a line through it (in the middle) and a long needle (with a few cross-pieces and a truangular handle at the very top) poking through it from top to bottom. This isn't as obvious in my calligraphy as it could be.

The kanji for 'needle' is identical except for having a dot to represent the eye of the needle in the same place the bisected circle is on this one, so it is believed they were intended as paralells - that this is a tattoo needle, and the circle represents the pattern being inked. Traditionally, slave were tattooed on the foreheads to set them apart, and so this character came to mean 'identifying mark' - a way of telling people apart. The modern meaning is 'sign' or 'badge', as well as 'pattern' - ways of recognizing things.

As you may know, the Japanese borrowed the kanji writing system from the Chinese, so sometimes, if the meaning of a given kanji continued to evolve after a certain historical point, it means different things in Japanese and Chinese. This is the case with this kanji. In chinese, it came to describe a certain kind of beauty, derived from 'pattern' - an elegance of order and arrangement and details and knowledge. Certain poetic forms with tight, elegant rules, for example.
(I find, since English doesn't really have a good word for this concept, I tend to have to stop myself from using this kanji to describe particularly well-written code, or particularly elegant mathematics.)