I'm beginner in Japanese, and I was analysing some kanji. I was noticing the parts of 燃. I see a dog there, a fire, another fire, and then there is this 夕 with two strokes in the middle instead of one, that apparently, as far as I could look it up, doesn't actually have a meaning, or does it? If not, is there many kanji with meaningless parts like this? How does it come to be?

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    Just to clarify are you asking whether each piece of a kanji would in isolation have a meaning or are you maintaining that kanji get their meaning from the parts that compose them and asking whether there are exceptional bits that are meaningless?
    – virmaior
    Jun 7, 2016 at 5:27
  • I can't remember where I read this, but it said there that asking what the different parts of a kanji mean is like asking what the letter d in dog means. From this, I have always taken/understoond kanji as a whole and just used its parts as clues for what it might mean or how it might sound.
    – Keale
    Jun 7, 2016 at 10:17
  • @virmaior, hmm, sorry I'm not sure if I understand your question. But I'm not asking about every single stroke, if that's what you mean when you say "piece". I'm asking about more recognizable parts. Jun 7, 2016 at 16:53
  • Er, your question sounds somewhat like you're assuming that each part of a kanji has a meaning which helps to define the kanji as a whole. i.e., 燃 is somehow related in meaning to fire , fire, meat, dog (火, ⺣、肉、犬) (you refer to meaningless parts). This is largely a bad way to think about the parts of kanji.
    – virmaior
    Jun 7, 2016 at 23:05
  • This is different than recognizing that parts have names / meanings when considered in isolation. E.g., that the component on the upper right gets called いぬ "dog" and the component on the left gets called ひへん but that this doesn't entail that it means that when it functions inside of a kanji
    – virmaior
    Jun 7, 2016 at 23:08

3 Answers 3


Good question, with an unexpectedly complex answer.

'夕 with two strokes' is indeed a radical you can look up -- in particular it's the 肉 (meat) radical. Radicals can have different appearances (variants), just like the two appearances of the fire radical 火 in 燃.

燃 is a radical-phonetic compound made up of the fire radical 火 and the right hand side 然. In turn, 然 is composed of the fire radical as well as the components 肉 (meat) and 犬 (dog).

The reason why the fire radical appears here twice is this: the meaning of 然 in Old Chinese really was the same as 燃 (to burn)! Later in the development of the Chinese writing system, the sound of 然 was borrowed for its present meaning, and then the original character had the fire radical added to represent its original meaning.

A similar process, where for a certain character a new meaning comes to replace the old meaning, and a radical is added to represent the old meaning, happened to many other characters. One example is 雲, the original form of which was 云 (which is now used in its borrowed meaning of 'to say').

The original meaning of 然 was "to roast dog meat over a fire", which was broadened semantically to "to burn". Hopefully it's now clear why there's a 犬 in there.


To answer your general question though: "do all kanji parts have a meaning", the answer is no. A character can't necessarily be broken down entirely into semantic "atoms". See the Wikipedia article on phono-semantic compounds for an example of non-semantic character components.

  • Hmm cool. I looked up the 肉 kanji in jisho.org, and it puts "⺼" as a variant. Is this one you're talking about? It's pretty different though. So this one have a meaning, is there other kanji parts that doesn't? Edit: oh I think the character is not showing. Let me link an image: charbase.com/images/glyph/11964 Jun 7, 2016 at 2:42
  • That's the one. They are all variants of each other, just like the two variants of 火. Not all variants of a given radical may be listed in a typical character dictionary; there are some variants which are only found in a handful of characters. When used as a left hand side, another variant of the same radical ⺼ looks exactly like 月"moon" -- it can be seen in 脇 "armpit", which has a lot more to do with "meat" than "moon"!
    – jogloran
    Jun 7, 2016 at 2:45
  • Just as an added comment, if you go back and look at the old / ancient forms of characters, the modern graphical variants of kanji components are actually unified in form (i.e. 灬 = 火): zidian.kxue.com/zi/ran9_ziyuan.html
    – Brandon
    Jun 7, 2016 at 5:54

Yes, not all, but many parts constituting a 漢字 have meaning(s).

If you wish to learn what an individual element constituting 漢字 signifies, I recommend you read 「常用字解」 written by Dr. Shirakawa Shizuka, published by Heibonsha, as a handy and instructive manual.

常用字解 explains the origin of 燃 as follows:

The base of 燃 is 然, which signifies the action of burning (roasting) the meat of dog being offered as a sacrifice to the Heavenly God. The 月, a part of the character is a simplified form of 肉 (meat).

However, 然 grew to mean 然れども (but, however) side by side to the original meaning of 「然」 later, and it became necessary for Chinese to differentiate the usage of 然 from 'however' to "burn' by developing a new character. So, they added 火 (fire) to the existing 然 as a quick method. The creation of 「燃」 was made in Hang Dynasty after the 2nd century B.C.

An additional note in response to some of the comments and questions below:

月 when used as a 偏 (the left-hand)and 脚 (bellow part of 漢字) instead of 月 on its own, it’s called 肉月(にくづき), meaning the letter of 月 representing a part of body in such a way as 腕 (arm), 肌 (skin), 肺 (lungs), 腹 (abdomen), 胎(womb), 肋 (libs), 腰 (waist),股 (crotch), 腿 (thigh), 腸 (bowels), 肝 / 胆(liver), 背(back), 胃 (stomach), and 腎(kidney).

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    the lower part (I don’t know how to call it in Japanese) 「[脚]{あし}」でしょうか。違ったらすみません。
    – chocolate
    Jun 7, 2016 at 8:47
  • そうでした。念のために「大辞林」を牽いて見たら、「脚」の定義に㋒漢字の構成部分の名称。「想」「燃」などの幹事の下部にある「心」「’’’’」など、とありました。偏や旁、ウ冠などの言葉はよく使いますが、脚は知りませんでした。ご教示を深謝します。 Jun 7, 2016 at 11:11
  • Interestingly, I've been reading a book called 《白鱼解字》 that says the 肰 part is just phonetic and actually not part of the meaning. Similarly from【说文解字】然:燒也。从火肰聲。
    – martin
    Jun 7, 2016 at 14:16

Good question. Actually I thought about that myself several times and could not come up with a clear answer. Here I will just try to answer to your specific case.

If you look up 燃 on some dictionary, such as here, you will find that it just reports the radicals (部首) that in this case are 火 and 灬 (both fire).

Anyway, if you look 燃 up on a different dictionary such as Midori you will see that it actually you get a link to 然 and interestingly it decomposes this the character in 月、犬、and 灬. And if you look closely it makes sense. The top left part could indeed be a moon (EDIT: apparently it is actually "meat" and not moon, they just look the same).

Edit: So at least for this kanji yes, each part has a meaning apparently. As pointed out in another answer it seems that Midori's interpretation is not even correct though.

I could not find an online version of Midori so I will put a screenshot here:

enter image description here

  • 1
    Not correct, unfortunately. As I explained in my answer, 月 here is not "moon".
    – jogloran
    Jun 7, 2016 at 2:58
  • Really? Ok, then what reported in Midori is not actually correct? (I was writing the answer probably at the same time so I actually didn't see yours before posting mine).
    – Tommy
    Jun 7, 2016 at 3:01
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    It's not that Midori isn't correct, it's that the form of ⺼ (the meat radical) looks identical to (but is not) 月 when present as a left hand side.
    – jogloran
    Jun 7, 2016 at 3:01
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    If you're keen on investigating more, I highly recommend Qiu Xigui's Chinese Writing.
    – jogloran
    Jun 7, 2016 at 3:04
  • 1
    Awesome, thanks. I am not a professional linguist but I have always been keen with Asian languages (starting with Chinese actually) and lived/studied here and there so I am definitely keen to know more.
    – Tommy
    Jun 7, 2016 at 3:06

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