When you’re studying your kanji, have you ever thought that some kanji look suspiciously like the thing they’re supposed to be representing? In terms of the big kanji picture, this actually happens quite rarely. Most kanji don’t look anything like their meanings. I mean, sure. 顔 looks like this one guy’s face I’ve seen this one time, but I think that was just a coincidence. So why do some kanji look like the things their supposed to represent? Why isn’t everything like this? It has to do with turtles.
Guess how kanji was made. Guess! Did you choose C) By burning turtles? If so, you win the jackpot (and you also have a sick, sick mind). Well, okay, the turtles were scraped from their shells first, so technically they were just throwing turtle shells into the fire, but either way the experience can’t be good for turtles.
A long, long time ago (we’re talking around 4,000+ years ago), Chinese monks, shamans, or something inbetween were burning turtle shells and other animal bones. It’s thought that they’d look at the cracks that would form in these items in order to interpret messages from the Gods. This means that the earliest kanji were just cracks in turtle shells that kind of looked like something.
After a bit of this, people started seeing patterns in the bone and shell cracks. This became what is thought to be the first kanji. Using these patterns, people started writing back to the gods, asking them more specific questions like “when should I plant my crops?” or “what should I wear today?” Thus, kanji was born.
Now, this story is just a hypothesis on the origins of kanji, but it’s the one that I happen like the best. All this happened a really, really long time ago, and it was before the advent of writing, obviously. It certainly beats out the idea of legendary figure Cangjie, who had four eyes and four pupils and caused the deities and ghosts to cry millet from the sky. Anyways, I’ll let you choose the one you like best.
Kanji That Looks Like Something
Because (at least in the hypothesis we’re using) kanji came from cracked turtle shells, you can assume that these cracks must have looked quite a bit like something from real life. In fact, if you look at some of the earliest kanji records you can sort of see that. Of course, finding and interpreting the cracked turtle shells is most likely impossible now, but there are records of people writing back to the gods. This is probably as close as we’ll ever get.
Take this chart by ancientscripts.com for example.
Some things aren’t very obvious, but others you can kind of say “okay, yeah, I see it.” If you want to go into imagining turtle shell cracks, you can probably take an extra few shifts back in time and see that as well. This is where kanji came from, and you still see a lot of these basic shapes in kanji today!
Modern Kanji Lookalikes
Because kanji has evolved so much over time, there are very few “pictogram” kanji in use anymore and only the simplest of kanji still look like the items they represent. In 100AD it was thought that only 4% of all Chinese characters could be considered pictograms. That seems like a lot to me, but I guess a lot has happened in the last 1900 years.
I’m sure this is not all of them, but here’s the kanji I could think of that look like pictograms. Just by looking at these you take a stab at what they mean, even with no prior kanji knowledge.
一, 二, 三 (One, Two, Three)
Obviously the first three numbers look like one thing, two things, and three things. After the first three they don’t continue, but it was a nice ride while it lasted.
串 Skewer, Shish Kebab
Um, this kanji looks delicious, ammiright?
Reminds me of some kind of entrance covered with cloth, draped aside.
You shall not pass!
To me, it looks like either a pot for holding ashes or a crevice you might see in crypt.
Does the shape of Domo’s mouth seem familiar? Coincidence? I think not.
Looks like the moon streaking across the sky.
Still looks like a few mountains, though not as much as in the ancient Chinese characters example.
See that river flowing by?
Kind of square, but that’s how we roll in kanjiland. The line in the middle is like the equator.
Now the sun is going over the ground to break that day.
Kind of like the sun, but longer. I imagine this represents when the moon isn’t full as well, so you kinda have to mix the two ideas into one pictogram.
木 Tree, and 森 Forest
Sort of looks like a tree. The forest is just three trees (aka more than one tree).
This kanji always makes me laugh.
Same with this one.
田 Rice Paddy
See the four rice fields with irrigation going between them? So, apparently modern rice farming was around before kanji… or was it? Might be something to look into.
There’s a big eye with a pupil in the center. Lookin’ good!
I bet there are other pictogram-style kanji out there too. Can you think of any to add to the comments?
The Making Of Modern Kanji
Now if you think about ancient kanji and its overall need to look like something (pictogram), you can start to see how kanji creation might progress over time.
First you have to think about combining the pictograms. When an ancient Chinese scholar saw 木 cracked into a shell multiple times, he probably interpreted it as a “forest.” Or when someone saw 日 and 一 together, and came up with 旦 (daybreak). Because it was all interpretations of messages from the gods, these people could just come up with whatever they wanted, as long as the combined meanings made sense.
Also you should think about the agendas going on. I’m sure someone would see a crazy looking crack and be like “hey, this totally means you need to get rid of all your gold, otherwise you’ll have bad luck. Sorry, it says it right here.” Whatever it is, there’s a lot of room for making up new kanji on the fly and passing it off as a divine message. I’m pretty sure that’s what my mechanic does when he looks at my car, too.
Once the important “look-a-like” kanji were established, though, I imagine things got more and more complicated. The more kanji you see, the more you realize that complicated kanji is just several uncomplicated kanji put together, like puzzle pieces. Oftentimes the meanings of these kanji are represented by the meanings of the smaller kanji as well. For example, 男 (man) consists of a rice paddy (田) and the kanji for power (力). All man is good for is the power in your rice field, it seems. Other times it doesn’t make as much sense. It all comes down to the interpretation of the person coming up with the new kanji.
Then, finally, I imagine a time when kanji creation is totally out of control. Things stop making sense, because every new kanji is less like the pictograms they came from. By using the meanings of the newly established kanji people are able to come up with even newer kanji that make even less sense than before.
Thus, modern kanji was born. Sure, it went through several other changes, simplifications, and standardizations between then and now (making it even less like pictograms), but at least you can rest easy now knowing a probably reason why kanji makes almost no sense at all in the modern era. But, that’s all to be expected. You can’t draw more and more complicated pictograms to represent the thousands of things you need to represent. That would make writing nearly impossible. They had to simplify and get away from the whole pictogram idea eventually, and I’m glad they did.
P.S. We’re working on a kanji learning web app that tries to make sense of kanji. You can sign up for a future beta invite here.