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Is there, even if it's speculative, any explanation to the squareness of kanji characters?

Why are 口, 回 or 円 not circles or round like の, for example?

Was making circles with early day tools too clumsy? If at the beginning they had to scratch a hard surface, I can imagine that straight lines were easier to draw.

  • 2
    This goes back to Chinese, so although I won’t say it’s necessarily off-topic here, I think the question could also be asked on the Chinese SE. – snailplane Feb 16 at 17:48
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Was making circles with early day tools too clumsy?

Yes, exactly. Kanji derived from oracle bone script used in ancient China, and it was indeed difficult to make circles on bones or turtle shells.

Oracle bone script

Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文) was the form of Chinese characters used on oracle bones—animal bones or turtle plastrons used in pyromantic divination—in the late 2nd millennium BC, and is the earliest known form of Chinese writing.


Comparing oracle bone script to both Shang and early Western Zhou period writing on bronzes, oracle bone script is clearly greatly simplified, and rounded forms are often converted to rectilinear ones; this is thought to be due to the difficulty of engraving the hard, bony surfaces, compared with the ease of writing them in the wet clay of the molds the bronzes were cast from.

After paper and brushes were invented, it was no longer difficult to make rounded strokes, and various forms of cursive script evolved (hiragana also derived from cursive kanji). Still, the "regular" form remained full of straight lines and mildly-curved lines.

EDIT: As others say, the shapes changed significantly after people stopped using bones and turtles, so what I have written above is a partial reason.

| improve this answer | |
  • Oracle bone script is far more rounded than present-day kaisho (楷書) style characters. – Ben Feb 17 at 3:44
  • @Ben, oracle bone inscriptions were still quite square compared to actual round shapes. Compare the oracle bone version against the bronze inscription version for , for instance. This is not unlike how runic inscriptions tend to be very angular -- it's much easier to carve a straight line into a hard surface, than it is a curve. – Eiríkr Útlendi Feb 17 at 4:46
  • @EiríkrÚtlendi What you said is clear from the above Wikipedia article and the quote, but that does not explain why kaisho handwriting or printed forms use straight lines and right angles, since even though the oracle bone forms are less round than the bronze forms, they are much more round than present day kaisho/mincho forms, so this doesn't answer the question. – Ben Feb 17 at 4:52
  • @Ben I admit my explanation is fairly simplified. There is a large gap between 甲骨 and 楷書, and 楷書 is an "extra-blocky" variant which was developed much later. But I still think mine is the main a answer to "why are 口 and 日 not round?" 甲骨 was already much blockier than Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example. – naruto Feb 17 at 6:20
  • @EiríkrÚtlendi humm..that Wiktionary table is a bit of a red herring. Please see page 2 here. – dROOOze Feb 17 at 11:45
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This is not an ease-of-writing problem. In fact, drawing circles has gotten easier over the years, but somehow the ease of drawing circles corresponded to a decrease in the appearance of them. The decrease was a stylistic (and not so much practical) choice.

Components which were originally round have almost all changed into a rectangular/square or other shapes by the time of clerical script (隸書).

「口」 was not really round. It was a picture of a mouth with the corners of the mouth emphasised.


In terms of "good" circles or spirals, what you generally see is the following:



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西周

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戰國

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東漢

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婁壽碑
 


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11
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西周

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員父尊
集成5861
戰國・楚

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緇衣45
荊門郭店楚


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123
睡虎地秦簡
東{{kr:漢}}

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史晨前後碑
 


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2061
小屯南甲骨
西周

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史墻盤
集成10175
戰國・楚

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天卜
 


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87
睡虎地秦簡
東{{kr:漢}}

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北{{kr:海}}相景君
 


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2903
合集20576
西周

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七年趞曹鼎
集成2783
戰國・楚

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信陽竹書簡


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孔龢碑
 


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2.4.11
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春秋

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姑發󰽉反劍
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戰國・楚

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緇衣35
荊門郭店楚


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日甲44背
睡虎地秦簡
東{{kr:漢}}

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白石神君碑
 


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| improve this answer | |
1

Kanji were originally usually written with a brush, and it's easier to read and write block shapes and right angles, so the commonest form of writing, kaisho (楷書) used right angled lines. But there is no reason they have to be square though, the hiragana like の originated from rounded shapes of a calligraphic style called sousho (草書).

enter image description here

As for why they are square dimensionally (sorry if that was not your question), the first thing to note is that for hundreds of years kanji were written going downwards only, so the relative horizontal sizes of the characters were probably less important than the vertical sizes. If you look at calligraphy it's not clear that anybody insists that the characters all have to line up horizontally, although they usually line up vertically.

Calligraphy example from Wikipedia

The other thing to note is that for printing with movable type it's much easier to deal with square type, so probably the reason that kanji typefaces are all so square was to do with printer's convenience.

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