For this section of The Pillow Book, it would be interesting to know precisely which characters Shônagon was thinking about, so we should be wary of how exactly our chosen edition arrived at its kanji. Unfortunately I know next to nothing about the different manuscript lineages, but since the 11th-century original was kana literature (wabun), I suppose that’s a bit of a moot point anyway—we can’t have primary evidence of her intentions. Therefore, for this post, I’ll just use the University of Virginia’s E-text version, which is based on the 1929 Yûhôdô 有朋堂 edition, itself based on the Nôinbon manuscripts:
Here’s William Morris’ translation, courtesy Dorothy Disse:
Words That Look Commonplace but That Become Impressive When Written in Chinese Characters:
- A dew-plant.
- A prickly water-lily.
- A walnut.
- A Doctor of Literature.
- A Provisional Senior Steward in the Office of the Emperor’s Household.
- Red myrtle.
- Knotweed is a particularly striking example, since it is written with the characters for “tiger’s stick.” [i.e. 虎杖] From the look on a tiger’s face one would imagine that he could do without a stick.
And here’s Meredith McKinney’s newer translation:
Things that look ordinary but become extraordinary when written
- The dew plant.
- The prickly water lily.
- Doctors of literature.
- Acting Master of the Empress Dowager’s Palace.
- The arbutus tree.
People write the name ‘knotweed’ with characters meaning ‘tiger’s staff’. A tiger doesn’t look as though it would need a staff!
Let’s assume, as a working hypothesis, that the characters from the Yûhôdô edition above are plausible interpretations of the ones Shônagon meant.
- 覆盆子: This actually is the Chinese word for “raspberry” (modern Mandarin fùpénzǐ). In Japan the three characters were borrowed together as a way to write the word “strawberry”. If read as Sino-Japanese (SJ), it would result in something like *fukubonji; and, if interpreted semantically, the characters would suggest cover-tray-[suffix]; neither option has anything to do with the Japanese word ichigo (I don’t know if the word was etymologically transparent to Shônagon, but it’s thought to derive from ichibigo, of unclear meaning but definitly unrelated to covers or trays). Giving the courtly taste for complex writing and Shônagon’s notorious affinity with Chinese characters, I’m guessing that it must be precisely this mismatch that drew her attention.
- 鴨頭草: This can be read as tsukikusa (moon-herb?), an alternative e name for tsuyukusa (literally “dew-herb”), Commelina communis. The characters mean “duck-head herb”, which again has nothing to do with the Japanese morphemes, much less the sound (Mandarin: yātócǎo, SJ: ôtôsô). Apparently “duck-head” was a poetic expression for a shade of green (though, judging from Wikipedia, the current Chinese name is “duckfoot herb” 鴨跖草).
- みづぶき： Online dictionaries agree with Morris that midzubuki “water-butterbur” is an older name for what’s now called onibasu “devil lotus”; i.e. the prickly water lily, Euryale ferox (“ the stems, flowers, and leaves which float on the surface are covered in sharp prickles”; therefore “prickly”, “gorgon”, oni, ferox). Unfortunately this text doesn’t suggest us which Chinese characters were used, and why Shônagon would be interested in them.
- 胡桃: C. hútáo “barbarian-peach” (SJ would be *kotô or *utô), with the writing borrowed for Japanese kurumi. “Barbarian” here refers to Central Asians. I don’t know where kurumi came from (obvious guess: kuri “nut, chestnut”, mi “fruit, seed, nut”?), but it’s surely unrelated to both barbarians and peaches. The characters are used in both modern Chinese and Japanese to denote walnuts (Juglans spp.), not chestnuts (Fagaceæ spp., J. kuri), so I don’t know why McKinney chose the latter (there’s a footnote but I can’t read it in the Amazon preview).
- Bunshô Hakase and Kôgôgû-no-Gondayû: Perhaps these ritsuryô formal positions were not prestige enough to Shônagon’s tastes, and yet they sounded impressive when written with a string of kanji?
- 楊梅: Myrica rubra. Not a true myrtle (Myrtaceae) but a “bayberry”. McKinney has instead the arbutus (“madrones” or “strawberry tree”, Ericaceæ). C. yángméi “willow-plum” (SJ yôbai, attested), while the native J. is yamamomo “mountain-peach”.
- By now the reader must have guessed how it goes, right? Fallopia japonica is J. itadori, possibly coming from “pain-stopper” due to its medicinal properties. The Chinese name, from which the Japanese kanji ortography, is 虎杖 hǔzhàng (SJ *kojô), “tiger cane”, which again is utterly incongruent with Japanese sounds and meanings.
In conclusion, Shônagon probably found obscure borrowings to be very wokashi.