Hiragana and Indic Scripts

Stella Sandahl ssandahl at SYMPATICO.CA
Wed Aug 11 13:33:47 UTC 2010

Dear all,
A very learned colleague of mine, to whom I forwarded the discussion  
about the Hiragana etc. scripts, sent me the following which he has  
allowed me to forward to the Indology list. However, the list  
rejected the attachment which were the entries in Prof. Waterhouse's  
forthcoming book. I am sure he'll answer you directly if you contact  
him off list. His e-mail is: david. waterhouse at utoronto.ca.

Dear Stella,

Thank you for these notes: but they are a little confused. I am  
attaching short historical notes on hiragana and katakana from the  
Glossary appended to my forthcoming catalogue of prints by Suzuki  
Harunobu (1725?-70) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Both kinds of  
kana derive from Chinese characters; the connexion with Kūkai can be  
dismissed. I do not know when the present arrangement of kana first  
came into use; but until the Meiji period the most common arrangement  
was according to the iroha order: which constitutes a rather silly  
poem using all the syllables once. Older reference books follow this  

Kūkai studied an advanced form of Buddhist Tantrism in China, and  
introduced it to Japan for his Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism.  
In various of its rituals Shingon uses the siddham (Jap. shittan)  
script, which derives not from devanagari but from an older form of  
Gupta script. I have several reference books about it. One often sees  
it in the inscriptions in Japanese graveyards; and Shingon monks have  
to study it. Unlike Indic scripts, it is written with a brush, which  
gives it a more cursive character than devanagari. Its early history  
in Japan is unclear, but its introduction may go back to the time of  
Kūkai (774-835), Saichō (767-822: founder of the Tendai school) or  
Ennin (794-864: third head of Tendai), all of whom studied in China.

Lastly, I do not see any connexion between kana and musical notation,  
except that kana themselves are used as a kind of solfa notation, and  
various other kinds of Chinese and Japanese music notation show the  
influence of Chinese characters: notably the classical notation for  
the qin (7-stringed zither).

As you may know, the Korean syllabary, a brilliant invention of 15th- 
century Korean linguists, was directly influenced by Sanskrit  
phonology, as well as by Chinese; and the shapes of individual  
letters mirror the position of the tongue.

Yours ever,


Stella Sandahl
ssandahl at sympatico.ca

On 10-Aug-10, at 5:33 AM, Dan Lusthaus wrote:

> Dear Peter,
> As you've discovered the orgins of the kana scripts is still  
> disputed and
> unclear.
> Early on, hiragana was considered a script only to be used by  
> women; men
> were expected to use kanji (Chinese characters). The idea that  
> hiragana
> primarily developed from a cursive form of Chinese characters is  
> fairly
> pervasive. See, for instance,
> http://www.omniglot.com/writing/japanese_hiragana.htm
> and
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiragana
> And legend (along with many uncritical modern works) considers Kūkai
> (774–835), who established the Shingon (= tantra) school in Japan,  
> to be
> the creator of the katakana script. There is a poem, or set of gathas,
> called "Iroha" in Japanese, that offer a summary of the teaching of
> impermanence from the Nirvana Sutra; the poem employs the full set of
> katakana, and this poem had been attributed to Kūkai who was  
> believed to
> have devised it as a clever mneumonic, but more recent scholarship has
> undermined that legend. See
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iroha
> and
> http://tinyurl.com/3xx74ko
> Note that the order of the syllabary was not always in the current  
> order,
> and that the order of appearance in the Iroha was standard for many
> centuries. Rearrangement to align it with Sanskrit order might have  
> occurred
> later as Japanese scholars developed an interest in linguistics and  
> grammar
> (under German via Dutch influence) and turned to Sanskrit  
> prototypes (via
> Chinese Buddhist translations) to set this out.
> You are correct that Siddham script, not Devanagri, would have been  
> familiar
> to the Japanese. The Sanskrit script studied in China and then  
> subsequently
> the rest of E. Asia was primarily Siddham. By the time Devanagri was
> developed, the transmission to China had been disrupted. Kūkai  
> spent some
> time in China studying with translators (including Manichaeans), and,
> because of the tantric interest in mantras and seed syllables,  
> developed an
> interest in siddham pronunciation and script (one still finds  
> siddham used
> in certain Japanese Buddhist cemeteries, etc.). That is probably  
> why he
> comes to be associated with the development of katakana.
> One largely unexplored but potentially important source for both  
> hiragana
> and katakana is Chinese musical notation, especially as developed  
> during the
> Tang and Song dynasties. What started as Gongche notation ("工"  
> gōng and "尺"
> chě) using Chinese characters to represent notes, developed into a  
> cursive
> form that has many evident overlaps with Japanese kana.
> On Gongche, see
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gongche_notation
> For the more relevant musical notation, see
> Rulan Chao Pian, _Song Dynasty Musical Sources and Their  
> Interpretation_,
> Harvard-Yenching, Harvard University Press, 1967, esp. the  
> illustrations
> following p. 42 and passim.
> You may also find the following useful for tracking the history of  
> East
> Asian awareness of Sanskrit sounds and scripts:
> Chaudhuri, Saroj Kumar, _Siddham in China and Japan_, a monograph  
> published
> through Victor Mair's Sino-Platonic Papers series. (No. 88, Dec.  
> 1998).
> Dan Lusthaus

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