Easiest Lecture of Kanji History – Only One Ancient Characters Existing Today

list of some Japanese Kanji characters

Kanji is a symbol in Japanese writing system.
It has unique shapes completely different from alphabet, therefore sometimes attracts tourists from abroad and some souvenir are sold with Kanji printed. You may have seen T-Shirt on which some Kanji letters are printed.

Japanese Kanji t-shirt

In this post, let’s see history and structure of Kanji.

Origin of Kanji Date Back to 1300 B.C.

The origin of Kanji is very old. It is regarded that Kanji was born in ancient China. It started to be used in Hwan-huou civilization, one of the four greatest civilizations of the world, and is only existing characters since that period.

The name of Kanji (漢字) consists of two Kanji characters, which can be divided into Kan and Ji, each means Kan and characters, respectively. Kan is the name of a race lived in current China, and they occupied majority in the era (and until today). The character they used named after the name of the race to Kan-ji. In present, Kanji are used in Japan, Korea and Taiwan in addition to its origin China. In 20th century, however, Kanji was officially abolished in the countries except for Japan and China. Having said that, Kanji has the second largest writing system until now, which has more than 150M people using it. (The largest writing system today is of course the Latin characters a.k.a. alphabet)

list of some Japanese Kanji characters
Examples of Kanji Characters

Each Kanji Has Individual Meaning

Kanji is classified as logogram in which each character represents one word; each character represents a part of language and morpheme. Character study has focused on this point and researched Kanji from shape, pronunciation and meaning. On the other hand, alphabet in Latin writing system is a segmental script in which combination of characters represents one word.

Why Each Kanji Has Individual Meaning?

It is because the origin of Kanji is a hieroglyph. It is said that people used footprints of birds as a reference and invented the origin of Kanji. The oldest Kanji found today was found in a historic remain in Yin era of China, and the characters are inscriptions on bones and tortoise carapaces. This type of characters is a kind of hieroglyph which basically inscribe what people see. Especially very beginning inscriptions on bones and tortoise carapaces are more like “drawings” rather than characters.

For example, “horse” is inscribed like the left side of the following characters.

transition of Japanese Kanji character of "horse"

It is quite natural that characters have been changed its shape as time passed by, affected by writing tools, media to be written, writing velocity and writing method. The “horse” inscribed like a horse drawing had evolved to right side as time passes and finally reached the right side which is the Kanji horse written today.

In Conclusion

As we saw, Kanji has a long history. And its structure and writing system is quite different from alphabet. Therefore, Kanji has huge variety and each character has different meanings. Kanji printed on souvenir T-shirts has its meaning, of course! Try to find out meanings of Kanji around you, and you many find unexpected meanings.

blog author hiro

Author - Hiro

Lived in Kyoto in school days, I was impressed by profundity of history and tradition of the city. Had a job to join the three major festivals of Kyoto: Aoi, Jidai and Gion festivals. Love Kyoto and Japanese culture.
Manager of OrientalSouls.com, selling items of Japanese culture, tradition and craftsmanship. I'll introduce interesting information about Japan!

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