象形文字 - Kanji that represent concrete things

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象形文字しょうけいもじ are the most “primitive” of kanji. While their modern rendition in kanji form may have changed quite significantly and we might need some imagination to properly understand what they represent, if you look at their original representation in oracle bone script or seal script, the similarities become more obvious.

This said, the idea is very simple, 木 looks like a tree, and it means tree. 目 looks like an eye, and it means eye, etc.

Examples

There are a lot of these and writing all of them would be outside the scope of this article, but I have listed a few of them with increasing complexity just to give you an idea of what to expect:

    • It’s a man. I mean, look at it. It’s a man.
    • Droplets are falling from the sky. It means rain.
    • It’s supposed to be a cart pulled by a horse (later, a car). Also, it looks like a wheel rotating around an axle. In fact, it also means wheel.
    • It looks like a pair of breasts. It means mother.
    • It represents a large river that is split into multiple tributaries. A big river with a lot of long branches. Its meaning is “long” and, in more specific terms, that of “eternity”.

Exceptions

Same as above, some of these might not be very intuitive on a first look, but once you attribute a story to them they can be equally easy to remember. There are a lot of exceptions, but here are a few examples:

    • Originally, it was supposed to be a rack for hanging decorative musical instruments. Later, it became the symbol of a writing board, which then evolved into a meaning of education or skilled craftsmanship, and eventually fossilized into its modern usage of “artwork” or “business”.
    • Its original shape (耜) was a bit different from this. It is modeled to represent agricultural machinery. It later assumed the more general meaning of “by means of”.

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