Argument by kanji components: 静かさ、閑かさ

閑さや岩にしみ入蝉の声 shizukasa ya iwa ni shimi-iru semi no koe stillness:
the cry of cicadas seep into the rocks
Is there any meaning to the fact that Bashō wrote shizukasa “tranquility, quietude, repose” with the character 閑 rather than the (possibly) more common 静 ? Let’s look at a typical “argument by kanji components” explanation. There’s an interesting essay by “Toyonaga-sensei” (real name 豊永徳) at his personal page. The crux of his argument is based on the following character analyses, from the Dai Kangorin dictionary:
  • 静 is composed of 青 “to be blue, to be clear [weather]” plus 争 “fight”. It therefore suggests the state of calmness which follows cessation of conflict.
  • 閑 is composed of 門 “gate” plus 木 “tree, wood”. Its original meaning is “to fence in, to guard” (as when barring a gate). By association it came to mean “leisure, idleness” and then “calmness”.
Toyonaga-sensei’s conclusion is that Bashō chose 閑 to select a specific nuance: rather than the calm moment between bouts of activity, he’s suggesting the tranquility that permeates this poem’s rocky scenario – the calmness inherent to a place shut-in from the mundane world. Not “a moment of repose” but “a secluded haven”. Is this a good explanation? On the face of it, my first instinct is to be skeptical. Linguists are taught to keep in mind the priority of the spoken language: the word shizukasa existed before to any particular way of writing it. In the old Portuguese dictionaries we find that xizucca meant “calm; slow; settled down” [1, 2], and this was probably the semantic area of the Japanese word by Bashō’s day. The Chinese characters weren’t created to represent particular nuances of Japanese words, but to record Old Chinese words. Consulting Schuessler’s etymological dictionary, we find that 閑 originally represented *grên (Mandarin xián, Japanese kan) which meant “barrier, protect, restrain, train (horses etc.), be large (pillars etc.)” and also “be lazy, be slow”. 静 represented *dzeŋʔ (Mandarin jìng, Japanese sei) meaning “to stop, keep quiet; to be peaceful, at rest; to be pure”. The weakness of the “argument by components” method of literary analysis is that, often enough, the composition of Chinese characters is unrelated to the nuances of the words they represent, either Chinese or Japanese. However, in many other cases the characters do reflect meanings to some extent (or can be made to, with some imagination), and this is the case of the two characters here. What’s more, it’s true that the Japanese sometimes use multiple kanji ortographies in order to select different nuances of the same word. Is Toyonaga justified in applying this to Bashō’s poem? Is there any way of knowing whether Bashō felt that 閑 would suggest the nuance of “reclusion”? We could try to find out whether the orthography 「閑かさ」 was common in Bashō’s time and what words were usually represented with 閑 versus 静, but as it happens, one could argue right here from the same text. Toyonaga draws attention to the (always crucially important) prose text accompanying the poem. The scene portrayed by Bashō is in the area of a mountain temple (yamadera 山寺) in Yamagata 山形 (“mountain-shape”) called Ryūshaku-ji 立石寺 (“standing-stone temple”), where the mountain is made of “rocky crags piling upon boulders” (岩に巌を重て山とし). All this repetition of boulders and montains colors the “rocks” or “boulders” of the poem (the ones that the cicadas sing into) with an unmistakeable hue of Buddhist-Taoist seclusion – a recurring theme in Bashō’s poetry, and also in the literary tradition that he works with (haiku poetry is thickly woven with references, and this one echoes a poem by Du Fu about “cicada’s voices gathering in the old temple” 蟬聲集古寺). Even more to the point: Bashō tells of how “the doors were all shut (扉を閉て) and not a sound could be heard”, and he says that the place was “renowed for its tranquility” (seikan 清閑). Notice the word seikan uses the 閑 character! I don’t have a contemporary Japanese dictionary at hand, but modern ones do ascribe the meaning of “reclusion” to seikan, suggesting the -kan part is being used with its original Chinese overtones. Considering this repetition of the character and the fact that the entire text portrays seclusion, even explicitly mentioning the closing of gates, I think it’s entirely plausible that 「閑かさ」 was chosen deliberately in order to suggest a “secluded tranquility”. Kudos to Toyonaga-sensei’s sensibility! (For more information on this poem, see the 芭蕉db and John R Wallace’s page.)

5 thoughts on “Argument by kanji components: 静かさ、閑かさ

  1. The breakdown of kanji into purely semantic components is nearly always dubious, but that’s not to say that later Japanese writers didn’t occasionally do just that! I recall reading somewhere that Komparu Zenchiku put great emphasis on the story of the Dragon King’s daughter in the Lotus sutra because he broke the 妙法 in the 妙法蓮華経 down to 少女水ヲ去ル or something like that, and believed that it referred to the girl herself.

  2. Is there any way of knowing whether Bashō felt that 閑 would suggest the nuance of “reclusion”?

    I feel like you can make a pretty good argument for this just from the facts that (a) in classical Chinese, 静 and 閑 are two separate words, 閑 having the meaning of “reclusion” + (b) Basho was well versed in the Chinese classics.

  3. That’s a good point that I entirely missed, as I did (originally) the fact that 閑か is a known, dictionarized alternative to 静か when writing shizuka (meaning 閑 has seen some use to represent the word). I missed it because I had just copy-pasted Bashō’s old-style okurigana into the dictionary. Ops. (Also, apparently English prefers “seclusion” to “reclusion”? cool! I don’t think we have any words left in Portuguese built from se- + -claudere.)

    To be extra sure, I’d still like to make sure that shizuka(sa) wasn’t commonly written with 閑 in Bashō’s time (or at least that 静 was equally or more common), else the whole thing could be a happy coincidence. But the argument based on knowledge of Chinese still holds and seems more likely.

    At any rate I find arguments by Chinese stronger than textual analyses based on kanji components. There are cases when Japanese writers deliberately play with components, yes (“the phenomenon X is a combination of Y and Z because the character for X is made of components Y+Z” seems to be a common trope). But I don’t think Bashō thought “I’ll use 閑 because it’s made of ‘gate’ 門 shut down with ‘wood’ 木”, but rather felt something like “I’ll use that character 閑 kan because, as I know from Chinese texts, it means seclusion”. This latter case is probably much more common than the first – everyone used to do kanbun, after all, and even if they didn’t, the shades of meaning were often maintained in Japanese texts by those writers who did (e.g. 合う vs. 会う vs. 遭う). It’s just that kanji components often (but not always) are related to the Chinese meanings (cf. 会意形声文字), which means that often (but not always) argument-by-kanji-components will work, even if the writer wasn’t actually analyzing the components.

    Besides, even when the components aren’t historically related to the word meanings, it’s easy to reinterpret them as such, because meanings and associations are elastic and imagination is powerful… (an unusually fitting example is )

  4. (Also, apparently English prefers “seclusion” to “reclusion”? cool! I don’t think we have any words left in Portuguese built from se- + -claudere.)

    Yes, but a person who prefers seclusion is a recluse, not a secluse. (Although apparently the word “secluse” was a respectable adjective in the late 16th century.)

    I agree, by the way — ideally we’d have a fabulous corpus and write scripts in R to demonstrate that 閑 and 静 appear in different contexts etc. Note also that although 閑 is in the Joyo kanji list, it isn’t associated with any native Japanese word — it just has the Sino-Japanese reading “kan”. (Although is the spelling 長閑 for “nodoka” MEXT-approved? Not sure.) So it isn’t even taught until secondary school, and if it appeared on a kanji test and a high schooler offered the reading “shizuka” they would be marked wrong.

    My subjective impression is that it was much more commonly used in Edo times, but this may also be because the IDEAL of seclusion was more of a cultural force back then. (One of my favorite pre-modern Japanese books is the 閑吟集, for example, which Basho was surely familiar with even if it didn’t directly influence his work that much…)

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