84. The "Steam" Radical: 气

The 气 radical is one of my favorites, not just because of the jazzy racing stripes and cheeky hook but also because it's strikingly empty inside. How perfect for the "steam" radical to enclose nothing but air!

I distinctly recall my shock at seeing this radical in 汽 (94: steam) at the Sado Island ferry terminal. Over the stairs to the right it says 佐渡 (さど: Sado) and then 汽船 (きせん: steamship):

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Everything looked wrong about 汽, as if someone had forgotten to finish the character! But I kept seeing 汽船 on signs in the building, and I accepted that it must be correct!

To my amusement, 气 pops up in these non-Joyo kanji in which a Joyo character fills that space beautifully:

氣 (spirit, mind; air, atmosphere, mood; breath; flavor)

氛 (mist; cloud appearing as an omen; indication of something bad; disaster) 

氤, which isn't used alone, only in 氤氳 (the state of spirits filling the air), where 氳 is also non-Joyo

I'm talking about 米 (rice), 分 (to divide), and 因 (cause), respectively.  

The Japanese don't know the kanji in that list except for 氣, which is the variant of the following character:

気 (11: spirit, mind; air, atmosphere, mood; breath; flavor)

This is the only Joyo kanji that features an on-duty 气 radical. In 汽 (94: steam), the 气 is a mere component, whereas the "water" radical 氵 is on duty. 

The Vitals on 气

Aside from being our radical, the four-stroke 气 is a non-Joyo kanji meaning "breath," according to Kanjigen. This radical has no variant shapes.

The Japanese refer to 气 as きがまえ. The き alludes to 气 and its on-yomi キ. And がまえ is the voiced version of かまえ (構え: structure), the position name for a radical that encloses other elements.

In English we can call the 气 radical "steam" or "vapor."

Kanjigen says that 气 etymologically represents the curving trajectory that one's breath seems to take as it emerges from one's mouth! That explains the curve above the hook in 气, a curve that used to be more pronounced. 

The same source presents an etymology not for 気 but for the old shape 氣. In that analysis, the 米 does indeed mean "rice," and the whole character symbolizes the steam that rises when rice cooks. 

Incidentally, 气 (qi, ignoring tones) is the Simplified Chinese character that corresponds to the traditional 氣 and the Joyo 気 (which exists only in Japanese). When people talk about vital energy in the context of acupuncture and the like, they refer to qi (pronounced "chi"), which the Chinese represent as 气. However, 气 is not the "chi" in "tai chi"; that is 太極 in both Traditional Chinese and Japanese (where it's read as たいきょく). Meanwhile, the Japanese represent the breathing exercise "qigong" with 気功 (きこう), which is indeed 气功 in Chinese.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

A Kobe apparel shop uses an eclectic font for its name, 乱痴気 (らんちき). That term means "the state in which one is upset and loses reason" and "the state in which many people are in a melee and are confused."