Japanese
Chinese
Graphical etymology
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tree; wood
on: BOKU MOKU
kun: ki ko-
names: gu mo moto
strokes: 4
radical: (no. 75)
tree; wood; coffin; wooden; simple; numb; one of the eight ancient musical instruments 八音 yīn;
pinyin:
strokes: 4
radical: (no. 75)

Graphical etymology

木 is a representation of a tree.¹ In modern regular script, it shows a vertical stem, horizontal branches at the top, and roots at the bottom. It appears to be without leaves. Cecilia Lindqvist argues that since a tree looks like that for most of the year “[t]he picture is harsh but realistic.”² However, that presupposes a specific region with specific trees. It does not correspond to the countless paintings of evergreen pine trees that China is famous for.

A few oracle bone inscriptions show larger irregular top branches as in , but most show a symmetrical shape left-right and top-bottom, with the roots depicted as large as the top branches: . This stylistic trend is also visible in bronze inscriptions, and often the branches and roots are curved, as in the small seal shape . The top down symmetry was abandoned in clerical script, which introduces the small horizontal top branches and large, exaggerated outward reaching roots.³ However, while style and ease of writing seems to have been much more important in the development of 木 than preserving a recognizable or “realistic” impression of a tree, 木 remains sufficiently iconic that one needs to be told only once that it depicts a tree to remember and recognize it as such.

Notes

  1. Ochiai, 2016, p. 296-297.
  2. Lindqvist, Chapter “Bamboo and Trees”.
  3. See resources below for larger impressions.
2019-07-01

Resources

(Oracle bone inscription of )
(Oracle bone inscription of )
(許慎’s small seal impression of )
(clerical script for )

Additional details for 木

Morohashi: 14415 6.0001
Item no. in Henshall: 69
SKIP code: 4-4-3
Four corner code: 4090.0
Korean reading: mog; mo
Unihan English meanings (for Chinese):
tree; wood, lumber; wooden
Unihan on: BOKU MOKU
Unihan kun: KI
Unihan pinyin: mù
U+6728
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