In my presentation today I talked a little bit about the translation of the Chinese word Qixi into Japanese, becoming Tanabata. I would like to talk in more detail about this strange translation. Perhaps this post will be useful to those unfamiliar with Japanese language and the functions of kanji.
First, this is what we are looking at:
These are two Chinese characters. On the left we have the character read qī which means seven. On the right we have the character xī which means night.
Combine the two and we have qīxī meaning “seventh night.” These are the basics of Chinese writing and reading. Japanese is a bit more complicated.
As we have learned Japan has three writing systems, all developed from the Chinese writing system. The writing system that specifically uses Chinese characters is called Kanji. However, Japan did not take the Chinese language, but implanted the writing system into its pre-existing language, thus translations differ. There are multiple ways of reading certain Chinese characters.
When I say reading, I do not mean finding the definition from the combinations of characters, but how the combined characters are pronounced.
The main two forms of reading kanji are called kun-yomi (meaning reading) and on-yomi (sound reading). Kun-yomi are characters that are based on the Japanese pronunciation of the kanji. On-yomi are characters based on the Chinese pronunciation of the kanji and usually appear in compounded kanji, where two kanji are side by side.
What makes Kanji difficult is the changing of the pronunciation or reading of the word. It makes things even difficult when we talk about jukujikun.
Jukujikun is when the pronunciation of the word has nothing to do with the kun-yomi or on-yomi reading; however, the meaning of the Chinese character remains the same.
If we read 七夕 in it’s kun-yomi reading it would be shichiseki (seven night). However it is actually read tanabata. A pronunciation completely different from Qixi or Shichiseki.
Scholars are still unsure as to why shichiseki was changed to tanabata, or had come to gain the pronunciation of tanabata, but there has been general agreement over one theory. There is a purification ritual in Japan where a woman is chosen to weave a sacred cloth called the tanabata and give it to the Gods to wish for an abundant harvest and to rid themselves of dirt and negative phenomena. The story of tanabata involves the Star Weaver, a woman who is important for her weaving. Most likely this pronunciation was attached to 七夕 as a reference to the act of weaving a sacred cloth.
Many legends in Japan were passed down through an oral tradition and there is no clear origin. The first time authors recorded stories about youkai they had to come up with a Chinese character that reflected its name, but translations from Chinese to Japanese or Sanskrit to Japanese are not simple. Understanding these differences and complications can be beneficial when researching Japanese topics. The English definition of a Japanese word is not always sufficient.
Group Death has been progressing smoothly with the construction of our podcast. We have created an outline and designated which members will focus on which point of our research. We are also thinking of possible being creative with the music and visual components of our podcasts, but we are still trying some things out.
See you next time when we violently kill other subjects that you might not have specific knowledge about!
Works Cited/For more information (if you can read Japanese):