39. The "Child" Radical: 子

Isn't this the most appetizing 子 you've ever seen:

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

This picture from Nagoya features three types of pastries, all involving chestnut, 栗 (くり), which is a non-Joyo kanji. As the label indicates, the leftmost pastry is a 栗子 (くりこ: baked bun filled with a whole chestnut and red bean paste). The unwrapped pastry is also a 栗子. Next comes a 栗あん, which contains a chestnut paste. The last label merely says 栗; that bun contains chestnut cream. We don't care about those last two because they have no connection to 子. Oh, who am I kidding? I want them all!

As an autonomous kanji, 子 has an array of meanings:

子 (25: child; noun suffix; sign of the rat; "child" radical)

Of course it's the last definition that interests us most here.

What Is the Name of the 子 Radical?

The Joyo kun-yomi of the 子 kanji is こ. It follows that the Japanese primarily refer to the "child" radical 子 as こ. That name pertains to these kanji, in which 子 is the on-duty radical:

学 (10: study, learning, science)

字 (28: character, letter; word; section of village)

季 (448: season)

孝 (860: filial piety)

存 (926: to exist; know; think)

When the 子 radical shifts to the left of a kanji, こへん works well as the radical name. (The へん, or 偏, means "left side of a kanji.") Three Joyo kanji feature an on-duty こへん radical:

孫 (538: grandchild; descendant)

(1229: solitary)

(1241: hole; Confucius)

The cross stroke of the こへん tilts up, producing 孑, the variant form of the radical. You can draw both 子 and 孑 in three strokes.

Nine Joyo kanji (including 子 itself) feature 子 as the on-duty radical, and you've now seen them all!

Photo Credit: Christopher Acheson

Hakodate, Hokkaido, seems a bit chilly!

The name 十字街 (じゅうじがい) looks as if it would mean "town of 10 characters," but 十字 can mean "cross," as in "character" (字) shaped like a "cross" (十). One term for "crossroads, intersection" is therefore 十字路 (じゅうじろ: lit. “roads crossing in the shape of the 十 kanji”). Hokkaido is full of downtowns with the place name 十字街, a word literally meaning "town developed around the crossroads."

Why Are Children in These Kanji?

It's surprising to see 子 in several of the aforementioned kanji, so let's turn to etymological analyses to see why there are so many children in these parts. The newer edition of Henshall (which is the source of all etymological information in this Radical Note, unless otherwise indicated) says that in the 子 kanji itself, the 子 shape is based on the pictograph of an infant. From that book we also find the following:

学 (10: study, learning, science)

The traditional form of this character is 學, where the 子 means "child." The whole character once symbolized "a building whose purpose was to help people in some way." 

字 (28: character, letter; word; section of village)

This character combines "roof" and "child," with the ensemble originally meaning "to raise" or "to bring up." 

A Japanese person once told me the idea behind 字 is that characters proliferate like children under a roof. That appears to be a fun myth. Kanjigen says that 字 means "to bring up children with great care and propagate them under a roof," an etymology that mentions nothing about characters.

Photo Credit: Noriji Otani

Hey, look at that! In this sign for a language school in Taiwan, the very cool, large character to the upper right is the non-Joyo 學, which people use only in Chinese nowadays. The sign includes seven instances of 子 as an autonomous character or as a component. Just to the left of the palm tree, we have three examples in a row! Aside from 學 and 子, the character of interest to us is 遊 (to play), which appears here with 辶 instead of 辶 because the Traditional form of the "movement" radical features an extra dot.

More Etymologies

Let's examine the role of children in several other kanji featuring the 子 radical:

季 (448: season)

Views about the etymology differ, but the 子 might convey "young," as in "young grain," given that the 禾 on top represents "grain plant," possibly "foxtail millet." One scholar believes that 季 originally meant "young grain," later losing its connection to crops and coming to mean "young child." (Apparently, that scholar doesn't say how 季 came to mean "season.") Another scholar argues that the "season, three-month period" sense emerged much later, with three months being the time required to grow and ripen grain.

孝 (860: filial piety)

Several scholars believe that the top of this character (耂) originally symbolized "old person bent over with long hair," which conveyed "old person." The 子 meant "child." Together these halves meant "child makes efforts for old person"—namely, for the parents and ancestors. However, one researcher believes that the early form contained not 子 but rather 丂 ("floating plant"), which contributed the associated sense "to bend." (I guess filial piety requires you to bend over backward!)

孫 (538: grandchild; descendant)

The 子 in 孫 means "child" or "offspring" in every interpretation Henshall cites. Scholars differ as to whether the right side was originally 糸 ("thread"), 系 ("joined threads"), or 幺 ("fine thread," representing "small"). With all three possibilities, the common thread (!) is that the whole character means "those who follow children," which is to say "grandchildren."

(1229: solitary)

The 子 means "child," and the 瓜 was originally a pictograph of a "gourd on a vine." The 瓜 phonetic conveys "nothing to rely on" or "suddenly separate, lone" (depending on which researcher you ask), so the whole 孤 character represents "orphan." An orphaned gourd?! What a hard, cruel world this is!

(1241: hole; Confucius)

The 子 is definitely "child," but the meaning of the remainder is unclear. One scholar takes the 乚 to be the "curve of a mother's breast," which somehow makes the 孔 character symbolize "hole in nipples." At least I think that's what Henshall is saying. If so, he is taking a leap that I don't follow. Another scholar interprets the curve as "bend and go through," referring to a "baby about to be born" and therefore "orifice of childbirth." This all boils down to "hole," with "Confucius" being a phonetic loan.

Photo Credit: Kevin Hamilton

I love seeing repeating components, and this sign treats us to back-to-back instances of 子 in the top line, where we find 子学. Of course, these kanji belong to separate words. In all, I spot seven instances of the 子 shape!  Here's what the sign says:

学校法人  共立女子学園
Kyoritsu Women's Educational Institution

学校法人 (がっこうほうじん: (legally) incorporated educational institution); 共立* (きょうりつ: a proper name); 女子* (じょし: woman); 学園 (がくえん: campus)

Kyoritsu Women's University

大学 (だいがく: university)

Kyoritsu Women's Junior College

短期大学 (たんきだいがく: junior college)

The cover of this test prep book gives us the thrill of seeing 字 and 学 side by side, though again they're part of different words:

Kanji Study

漢字 (かんじ: kanji);
学習 (がくしゅう: study, tutorial)

What Does 子 Mean as a Zodiac Symbol?

As I write this, we're beginning 2020, the Year of the Rat. The Chinese represent this zodiacal rat with 子, which the Japanese pronounce as ね.

How did 子 come to mean "sign of the rat"? I think it's curious that someone chose to associate children with rodents! It's hard to find answers about this, but my proofreader muses that it makes sense to associate 子 with rats as that animal is known for reproducing prolifically.

He discovered a website with this fun but tangential story: When Buddha was dying, hordes of admiring people and animals heard the news and rushed to be at his side. The animals are listed in the zodiac in the order in which they arrived. The rat made it there first, so it's the initial zodiac sign in the list of 12. The page goes on to say that the rat didn’t spread the news to any cats because cats were always unkind to rats, so cats didn't make it into the group of zodiacal animals!

Another proofreader sent me New Year's greetings with this charming bit of writing: 

Why did the mouse come first? Legend has it that a long time ago God said to all kinds of animals, "I'll have a running race. The first 12 animals will be celebrated for a whole year each year." The cow knew it would come in last, so it started before dawn. (It reminds me of long lines on Black Friday!) The cunning mouse climbed up to the cow's head and sat there. Near the very end, the mouse jumped down and finished first!


Image by Paolo Marino

The zodiac signs, which repeat every 12 years, are part of a more complex 60-year system called the sexagenary cycle. Each of the 60 years has a name consisting of two Chinese characters. The initial character comes from a counting system that starts with 甲, 乙, 丙, 丁 (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th) up through 癸 (10th), a non-Joyo kanji. Those numbers also correspond to five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), each associated with yang and yin in alternate years.

So 2020 is a “yang metal rat” year, rendered in Chinese as 庚子 (with the non-Joyo 庚, "7th") and beautifully depicted above by Paolo Marino with his image of an armored rodent!