As a Japanese student, I wanted to know the truth about kanji (hànzì). Not made-up mnemonics to aid learning, but the messy, ugly, and infinitely more interesting truth. When one compare sources, however, it quickly becomes apparent how much of this work is still tentative—and, given the sparse early evidence, perhaps will always be. But—that only make matters more fascinating, as far as I’m concerned. These little jumbled squiggles really come alive with their myriad histories and stories.
This post lists a few resources I like when investigating characters. Most of them are in English, and easily avaiable to the student; though, of course, nothing compares with the wealth of native material in languages from the “hanzisphere”—Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. These pointers should be considered a first step in the world of character history. My primary intention is to illustrate how diverse the theories can be, as a counterpoint to the self-assured rhetorical style of most dictionaries.
- Richard Sear’s Chinese Etymology.
- Rick Harbaugh’s Zhōngwén.
- Howell/Morimoto’s Kanji Networks.
- ja.wiktionary.org .
Chinese-oriented sites tend to expect Chinese simplified characters (简体中文／簡体字) or traditional characters (繁體中文／旧字体), while Japanese sites often expect simplified Japanese (新字体). There are several tools to convert between these character forms.
For your convenience in comparing approaches, I made a simple tool to search several of these sites simultaneously:
- Kanjigen, a comparative Chinese “character etymology” tool.
- Morohashi’s Dai Kan-wa Jiten 大漢和辞典.
- Henshall’s A guide to remembering Japanese characters.
- Hongyuan Wang’s The origins of Chinese characters 漢字字原入門.
- Wieger’s Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification, and Signification: A Thorough Study from Chinese Documents.
- Noriko William’s The Key to Kanji.
- Bernhard Karlgren’s Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese.
- Harbaugh and Howell/Morimoto (with sites above) have paper versions as well.
- Most standard character dictionaries (Japanese kanwa jiten 漢和辞典, Chinese zìdiǎn 字典) will have some information. Specialized “etymological” character dictionaries are not hard to find.
- Baxter-Sagart’s reconstruction of Old and Middle Chinese pronunciations, academically respectable and freely available.
A few short reviews
- Sear’s Chinese Etymology: Scholars have questioned some of the explanations, but the most interesting feature of his site are the scans of oracle-bone, seal script, and other ancient forms; a truly commendable public service! It’s also a convenient tool to find out what are the phonetic and semantic components of a given character. Victor Mair has reviewed it.
- Zhōngwén is an old site, and annoyingly stubborn in using images for text, but it packs a lot of traditional-style info. Even though the search page says Big5 and GB, you can just input or paste Chinese text and not worry about ancient character encodings.
- I added ja.wiktionary as a representative of the typical unsourced explanations we find in monolingual dictionaries—except when the “character origin” (字源 jigen) section happens to be empty. Oh well. There are English and Chinese versions, but at least from my cursory overview, they seemed to be even less populated. The Japanese sometimes cite Shirakawa, whose analyses are controversial, but they’re tagged as such.
- Howell/Morimoto’s phonosemantic method is nonmainstream; it has been discussed at length on the Language Log.
- The Daikanwa is the Bible of character studies in Japan (and, I hear, it’s pretty respected in China too); but it’s expensive as hell, weights like fifty kilos, and your library won’t lend it.
- Henshall’s book is confused about its nature: it’s really much more useful as an introduction to character etymology than as a guide to remembering them, but because of its confusion it skimps on quoting sources (it’s always “some scholars” who think this and “others” who think that). At least it presents alternative theories, which is a Good Thing.
- Hongyuan Wang’s is short and grouped by theme, being intended to be read from cover to cover; it doesn’t work as a reference except for a few very common characters. Like Sear’s, the sweetest thing are the pictures of ancient forms—but be careful, since he sometimes uses cave drawings and such as random illustrations; don’t confuse prehistoric Australian art with hànzì forms!
- Karlgren’s a classic in Chinese philology, but his phonetic reconstructions are now considered outdated. Nonetheless, it’s still an interesting dictionary to see the phonetic correspondences of characters in convenient lists of “sound series”. There’s an update/errata of sorts by Schuessler, the respected author of the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (which is about the language itself, not characters).
Further suggestions are welcomed.