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Of Orioles and Warblers

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Japanese Bird Names in Kanji
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At pages on the Sylviidae (China, Taiwan, Japan), I've noted that the character 鶯 originally referred to the oriole (specifically the Black-naped Oriole) in Chinese, and that the modern Chinese usage for the Sylviidae is a result of Japanese influence. Here I want to look more closely at this assertion, based on dictionaries and sources that I have to hand. It is not based on research in original sources.

Before we start, a note on character usage. The two main characters we will be considering are:

Pronunciation Traditional character Simplified character Modern Japanese
yīng

The original character used for yīng 'oriole' is 鶯, although 鸎 was also found. The character 鶯 was common to all countries using Chinese characters. However, in modern times usage has diverged.

In this article, the characters will be used in different forms depending on the context. Even though the pre-modern form 鶯 unites all Chinese-character jurisdictions, it would be considered old-fashioned in Japan and (to a lesser extent) China. Using the character 莺 would be found extremely jarring in Japanese and, as noted above, 鴬 would be regarded as a different character in Chinese.

The situation with 鸝 and 鹂 is less confusing, but the Simplified Chinese form 鹂 would be well-nigh incomprehensible to people outside Mainland China.

What the plebs get fed

Our first stop is the 现代汉语词典 xiàndài hànyǔ cídiǎn ('Modern Chinese Dictionary'), a widely used modern, standard dictionary of Chinese, in order to see what standardised official usage is.

The entry for 莺 from the 1996 edition (3rd revised edition) is as follows:

莺(鶯、鸎)yīng 鸟类的一种,身体小,多为褐色或暗绿色,嘴短而尖。叫的声音清脆。吃昆虫,对农业和林业有益。
(Definition): 'A kind of bird, small in size, often brown or dark-green in colour, with a short sharp bill. Call is clear and sharp. Eats insects, is beneficial to agriculture and forestry'.

The description is careful, precise, and practical, right down to the observation that these birds have a useful role to play for humanity. The definition clearly describes the warblers, members of the Sylviidae, which are all known as 莺 yīng in the official bird names.

Before we congratulate ourselves on having found such a clear, straightforward definition, there is a four-character expression listed at the entry for 莺 that invites our attention.

【莺歌燕舞】yīng gē yàn wǔ 黄莺歌唱,燕子飞舞。形容大好春光或比喻大好形势:大地春回,~。
(Definition): 'Yellow warblers sing, swallows fly. Describes a delightful scene of spring or acts as a simile for a delightful situation: "spring returns to the land, ~".'

This somewhat flowery expression is quite different in tone from the careful, mundane definition given at the head entry. What is more interesting, though, is that what I have glossed here as 'yellow warbler' is not actually a sylviid at all. Looking up 黄莺 huáng-yīng (found under the character 黄 huáng 'yellow'), this is what we find:

【黄莺】huángyīng 黄鹂。

黄莺 huáng-yīng is thus given as being synonymous with 黄鹂 huáng-lí. Looking up 黄鹂 huáng-lí we find the following entry:

【黄鹂】huánglí 鸟,身体黄色,自眼部至头后部黑色,嘴淡红色。叫的声音很好听,吃森林中的害虫,对林业有益。也叫鸧鹒庚或黄莺。
(Definition): 'A bird; has a yellow body, is black from the area of the eyes to the back of the head and has a light red bill. The song is attractive; it eats harmful insects in forests and is beneficial to forestry. Also known as cānggēng or huáng-niǎo [yellow bird].'

The bird described is the Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus sinensis).

Although it is China's most referred-to general dictionary, the 现代汉语词典 xiàndài hànyǔ cídiǎn leaves us scratching our heads. It tells us, on the one hand, that 莺 yīng refers to the sylviid warblers; on the other hand, the only example of usage it gives refers to the oriole. One is reminded of Eliot: the dictionary gives "with such supple confusions that the giving famishes the craving".

To satisfy our craving, it is obvious that something more substantial must be consulted. It's time to bring out the big guns: the 12-volume 漢語大詞典 hànyǔ dà-cídiǎn ('Great Dictionary of the Chinese Language').

What the big dictionary says

In the 漢語大詞典 hànyǔ dà-cídiǎn, the entry for 鶯 yīng is as follows:

[莺] [yīng《广韵》烏莖切,平耕,影。] 亦作“鸎”。(1)鸟羽有文彩貌。《诗・小雅・桑扈》:“交交桑扈,有鶯其羽。” 传:“鶯然有文章。”《文选・潘岳〈射雉赋〉》:“鸎綺翼而䞓撾,灼繡頸而衮背。” 徐爰注:“鸎,文章貌也。” (2)黄莺。又称黄鹂、仓庚等。《禽经》“倉庚、黧黃,黃鳥也” 晋张华注:“今謂之黃鶯、黃鸝是也。” 南朝梁丘迟《与陈伯之书》:“暮春三月,南草長,雜花生樹,羣鸎亂飛。” 唐温庭筠《南歌子》词:“隔簾鶯百囀,感君心。” 清王韬《淞隐慢录・合记珠琴事》:“每一引吭,聲如春曉之新鶯。” (3)鸟纲莺科鸟类的通称。种类较多。体型大多较麻雀为小,羽毛多绿褐色,灰褐色。主食昆虫,为农林益鸟。
(Definitions): '(1) Bird's plumage with bright colours. [Three examples from ancient texts]. (2) huáng-yīng ['yellow warbler']. Also known as huánglí, cānggēng, etc. [Four examples from ancient texts]. (3) The general name for birds of the family Sylviidae in the class Aves. There are many types. Mostly smaller in size than a sparrow, mostly with green-brown or grey-brown plumage. Diet is mainly insects. A beneficial bird for forestry.'

This definition is more satisfying. The dictionary not only admits that 鶯 yīng means 'oriole'; it lists it as one of the main meanings and gives ancient citations into the bargain. Only at the third definition does it give the meaning found in the 现代汉语词典 xiàndài hànyǔ cídiǎn, pointing out explicitly that the birds in question belong to the 莺科 yīng kē, the Sylviidae.

There is one notable and very significant difference between senses (1) and (2) and sense (3): while there are several ancient citations each for the first two, there are none for sense (3). Although the dictionary does not actually mark them as such, the first two senses appear to be ancient and literary while sense (3) appears to be entirely modern and scientific.

To confirm this, let us consult a dictionary of Classical Chinese.

The classical sense

This is the entry for 莺 yīng in the 古代汉语辞典 gǔdài hànyǔ cídiǎn ('Ancient Chinese Dictionary'), a Mainland dictionary of Classical Chinese. For simplicity, I omit quotations drawn from the classics.

莺(鶯) yīng (1) 鸟名,黄莺。(2) 鸟的羽毛有文采。
(Definition): '(1) Name of bird, huángyīng. (2) Bird's plumage with bright colours.'

Checking out 黄莺 huáng-yīng:

【黄莺】huángyīng 即黄鸟,也叫黄鹂留、黄栗留。
(Definition): 'i.e., yellow bird, also called huánglíliú, huánglìliú.'

Checking 'yellow bird' (黄鸟 huáng-niǎo):

【黄鸟】huángniǎo 即黄莺。也名黄骊留、仓庚。
(Definition): 'i.e., huángyīng. Also called huánglíliú, cānggēng.' (骊 appears to be a typo).

Neither of the words ending in 留 is listed in this dictionary, but if we check 黄鹂 huáng-lí we find:

【黄鹂】huánglí 即黄莺。
(Definition): 'i.e. huángyīng'.

仓庚 cānggēng gives:

【鸧鹒】cānggēng 黄莺。
(Definition): 'huángyīng'.

All these names -- 黄莺 huáng-yīng, 黄鸟 huáng-niǎo, 黄鹂 huáng-lí, 仓庚 cānggēng, 黄鹂留 huáng-lí-liú, and 黄栗留 huáng-lì-liú -- refer to the oriole, which in a Chinese context means the Black-naped Oriole. Interestingly, 黄莺 huáng-yīng is treated as the standard neutral term for an oriole.

The fact that one bird has such a broad variety of names suggests that it was both familiar and significant to the Chinese of ancient times. And indeed, the oriole was clearly an important bird in Chinese literature, found in both prose and poetry. Some well-known examples from poetry, including examples of both 黃鸝 / 黄鹂 huáng-lí and 鶯 / 莺 yīng, include:

兩個黃鸝鳴翠柳,一行白鷺上青天。
Liǎng gè huánglí míng cuì liǔ, yīháng báilù shàng qīngtiān.
'Two yellow orioles singing among the green willows, one row of white egrets flying to the clear blue sky.'
(Du Fu)

留連戲蝶時時舞,自在嬌恰恰啼。
Liúlián xì dié shíshí wǔ, zìzài jiāo yīng qiàqià tí.
'Now and then lingering butterflies flutter about gracefully, While orioles here and there warble in carefree contentment.'
(Du Fu)

幾處早争暖樹,誰家新燕啄春泥
Jǐ chù zǎo yīng zhēng nuǎn shù, shuí jiā xīn yàn zhuó chūnní.
'Disputing for sunny trees, early orioles trill;
Pecking vernal mud, young swallows come and go.'
(Bo Juyi)

千里啼绿映紅,水村山郭酒旗風。
Qiānlǐ yīng tí lǜ yìng hóng, shuǐ cūnshān guōjiǔqí fēng
'For a thousand miles the oriole sings, crimson against the green. Riverside villages, mountain ramparts, wineshop streamers in the wind.'
(Du Mu)

It is clear from what we have seen above that there are two quite separate usages for 鶯 / 莺. One is the classical meaning of 'oriole', a usage hallowed in Chinese tradition and familiar to all those literate in that tradition. The other is the scientific usage referring to the Sylviidae, a family of greenish-brown birds. The tension between the two meanings is not dealt with satisfactorily by the 现代汉语词典 xiàndài hànyǔ cídiǎn, a normative dictionary directed at the masses, which gives precedence to the scientific usage while coyly hinting at the traditional meaning. The 漢語大詞典 hànyǔ dà-cídiǎn, while listing the two meanings (I leave aside the first entry, which refers to plumage, not birds), is almost schizophrenic in its approach, simply listing the two unrelated meanings without comment or explanation.

The connection between the two meanings is something of a riddle. In order to solve this riddle, we need to go outside of China to find the 'missing link'.

The missing link

The missing link is to be found in Japanese. To illustrate this, we will see how 鶯 is treated in a Kanwa Jiten -- a Japanese dictionary of Chinese characters.

Translating the entry has its challenges. A dictionary entry in a Kanwa Jiten has two features that cause problems in translating into English: (1) it explains the meaning and usage of Chinese characters as they are used in both Chinese and Japanese and (2) it uses modern Japanese as the language of explanation. This can cause problems of rendering into English. For example, the key definition 黄鶯コウオウは、こうらいうぐいす defines the Chinese word 黄鶯 huáng-yīng (pronounced kō-ō in Japanese) as meaning こうらいうぐいす kōrai-uguisu, literally 'Korean warbler'. Translated directly, this would mean 'the oriole is the oriole'. To avoid this kind of confusion, here I've glossed this key definition as 'huáng-yīng is the oriole [Japanese: Korean warbler]'. This identifies the Chinese word as our friend huáng-yīng (although pronounced kō-ō in Japanese, it is the same word) and also shows the literal meaning of the modern Japanese word for 'oriole' in square brackets.

The entry for the character 鶯 in the 日语汉和辞典 rì-yǔ hàn-hé cídiǎn ('Japanese language Kanwa dictionary') is as follows:

鶯】漢オウ(アウ) (庚)yīng | うぐいす

解字 形声。音符は hatケイ・エイ(アウ)(はなやかの意➙ 栄 エイ)。鳥の羽が美しい意、転じて鳥の名に用いる。

異体 []は別体。 [鴬]は俗字。[莺]は簡化字。

意味 (1)鳥の羽が美しいさま。(2)〘動〙黄鶯コウオウは、こうらいうぐいす。コウライウグイス科の鳥。うぐいすより大きく、羽は美しい黄色で、後頭部に黒帯があり、翼や尾にも黒色が混じる。南方の鳥で早春北に移って春を告げ、鳴き声も美しい。別名、黄鳥、黃鸝コウリ、鵹黃リコウ、金羽、黄袍コウホウ、金衣公子、倉庚ソウコウ、鶬鶊ソウコウ、楚雀ソジャク、搏黍ハクショ、報春鳥など。(国)うぐいす(うぐひす)(ァ)〘動〙ウグイス科の小鳥。めじろに似て、背は緑褐リョクカッ色、腹は白く、鳴き声が特に美しい。古来詩歌によまれ、春告げ鳥、花見鳥、歌よみ鳥、経よみ鳥などの別名が多い。(ィ)声のいい人のたとえ。「鶯嬢」(ゥ)鶯色の略。

(Definition): (1) The beauty of birds' plumage. (2) (zool.) The huáng-yīng is the oriole [Japanese: Korean warbler]. A bird of the Oriolidae [Japanese: Korean warbler family]. Larger than the warbler, having beautiful yellow plumage, a black band at the back of the head, and yellow mixed in the wings and tail. A southern bird that moves north in early spring and announces the spring. Has a beautiful song. Also known as yellow bird [huáng-niǎo], huáng-lí, lí-huáng, jīnyǔ, huángpáo, jīn'yī gōngzi, cānggēng, cānggēng, chǔquè, bóshǔ, bàochūnniǎo, etc. (J) warbler (uguisu). (a) a small bird of the Sylviidae. Similar to the whiteeye, with a green-brown back, white belly, and particularly beautiful song. Celebrated in ancient poetry, with many alternative names including spring-announcing-bird, flower-viewing bird, poem-writing bird, sutra-singing bird. (b) A simile for a person with a beautiful voice (warbler girl) (c) abbreviation of uguisu colour.

The three main senses found in the 漢語大詞典 hànyǔ dà-cídiǎn are all here: (1) bird's plumage; (2) oriole; and (3) warbler. The main difference is that sense (3) is marked (国), which I have rendered (J). This means that the use of the character in this sense is a Japanese innovation not found in Chinese sources. In other words, the dictionary is claiming that the use of 鶯 to refer to the うぐいす uguisu, (Cettia diphone or Japanese Bush-warbler) started with the Japanese.

The question is why the Japanese would have taken a term that Chinese sources overwhelmingly identified with the oriole and knowingly applied it to a different bird.

First, there are no orioles commonly found in Japan. The Black-naped Oriole is encountered mainly on the Sea of Japan coast as a bird of passage -- a migratory bird passing through on its way from south to north during the spring. For the Japanese of the time, while the name was familiar from Chinese literature, real orioles were virtually unknown.

On the other hand, the Japanese Bush-warbler was a very common bird with its own Japanese name, the うぐいす uguisu (or in the old orthography, うぐひす uguhisu). The uguisu holds a special place in Japanese poetic culture from at least a milennium ago. While an inconspicuous bird, it is celebrated for its amazingly strong, clear song which is eagerly welcomed as signalling the coming of spring. The dictionary entry lists a number of alternative, typically poetic names, such as such as 春告げ鳥 haru-tsuge-dori 'spring-announcing bird', that reflect this identification.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, the Chinese do not appear to have had a name for the uguisu. Although the Japanese Bush-warbler is found in China, its modern distribution is somewhat away from the traditional heartland areas of Chinese culture, and it does not appear to have held a place in the consciousness of the ancient Chinese. In searching for a Chinese character to write the name of their beloved uguisu, it is not hard to see why the Japanese might have settled on 鶯.

1) The two birds fill similar cultural niches. Both are celebrated in poetry for their beautiful song. Both are welcomed as harbingers of spring. (However, although the Chinese appear to have identified the oriole with spring -- witness the line by Bo Juyi above-- the Japanese dictionary entry suggests that the Japanese were particularly attracted to this aspect.)

2) The oriole was explicitly noted for its beautiful yellow plumage. However, the frequent use of the form 黃鶯 huáng-yīng 'yellow oriole' suggests the possibility of 'non-yellow' 鶯 yīng, leaving the way open for the character to be appropriated for the much dowdier uguisu.

Rather ironically, when the Japanese came to choose an official common name for the Black-naped Oriole in modern times, the name they selected was not one of the old Chinese names such as 黃鶯/黄鴬 kō-ō (huáng-yīng) or 黃鸝 kōri (huáng-lí), but コウライウグイス (高麗鶯) kōrai-uguisu 'Korean warbler'. This completely unseats the character 鶯/鴬 from its original meaning of 'oriole', implying that the oriole is a particular kind of uguisu. (Interestingly, with the rapid decline in Chinese influence and the tendency for the Japanese to compare themselves with the West, the uguisu is now often referred to as the 'Japanese nightingale'. Such are the vagaries of fashion).

How the Japanese meaning entered Chinese

While it is fairly safe to say that the Japanese adopted the Chinese character 鶯 to write uguisu, we are on much shakier ground proving that this usage found its way back into Chinese. As far as I know, no studies have been made of primary sources to show how this Japanese usage was adopted by the Chinese. The best we can do is rely on deduction and circumstantial evidence.

One major difference between Chinese and Japanese naming is that Japanese applies 鶯 / 鴬 uguisu to only two native species: the Japanese Bush-warbler (ウグイス uguisu), and the aforementioned Black-naped Oriole (コウライウグイス kōrai uguisu; 'Korean warbler'). No other sylviids use the name uguisu. The sylviids in Japanese are known by a variety of names, including ヨシキリ yoshi-kiri (葦切り)'reed-cutter', ムシクイ mushi-kui (虫喰い) 'insect-eater', センニュウ (仙入 or 潜入) sennyū etc., with the name largely depending on the genus. In Chinese, on the other hand, 鶯 / 莺 yīng is applied uniformly to all members of the Sylviidae.

What appears to have happened in Japanese is that, while uguisu is applied to only one species among the 19 sylviids found in Japan, it is such a prominent bird that it gave its name to the entire family of Sylviidae, the ウグイス科 uguisu-ka. In English, by contrast, the Sylviidae are named after the genus Sylvia, or 'typical warblers', which includes whitethroats and warblers of Europe, western and central Asia, and Africa.

In Chinese, the situation is quite different. Although the name 鶯科 / 莺科 yīng-kē is used for the whole family, there is not a single member of the Sylviidae in Chinese that can be identified as the source of the family name. That is, 鶯 / 莺 yīng is a general name for all members of the family, not the name of any individual species. This suggests that in Chinese the family name came first, and that this name was then applied to all species in the family. This is quite in line with the extensive scientific normalisation and standardisation that is a marked feature of official Chinese bird names.

The problem is deciding where the name 鶯科 / 莺科 yīng-kē came from. The most obvious candidate is the Japanese name ウグイス科 uguisu-ka. Although Japanese ornithological usage is to use katakana rather than characters in bird names (i.e., ウグイス rather than 鶯 or 鴬 for uguisu), normal Chinese practice is to convert hiragana or katakana into characters when borrowing into Chinese. Thus ウグイス科 uguisu-ka was borrowed into Chinese in the character form 鶯科.

It is, of course, possible that the Chinese themselves extended the meaning of the character 鶯 / 莺 yīng from the oriolids to the sylviids based on the shared characteristic of beautiful song. This would not be the first time 鶯 / 莺 yīng has been applied to other songbirds. For instance, the Western nightingale is known in Chinese as the 歐夜鶯 / 欧夜莺 yè-yīng 'European night oriole' (although officially it is known as 新疆歌鴝 / 新疆歌鸲 xīnjiāng gēqú 'Xinjiang song-robin').

But the evidence for a Japanese origin is far more convincing:

1) The path from 鶯 to うぐいす uguisu is an ancient one, and the path from うぐいす uguisu to ウグイス科 uguisu-ka is clear and amenable of a clear explanation. There is no clear explanation for such a transfer of meaning, from '(Black-naped) oriole' to 'Sylviidae in general', in Chinese.

2) There are many other examples of Japanese usages finding their way into Chinese bird naming in modern times, especially where the Chinese lacked suitable existing names.

3) The official Chinese naming of the Sylviidae (and many other families) is quite artificial, having no relationship to either literary names or popular names. The literary names have already been covered. With regard to popular names, while the sylviids are archetypal examples of 'small brown birds' indistinguishable to anyone but specialists, there are a few species, notably Acrocephalus orientalis or Phylloscopus inornatus, for which popular Chinese names do exist. Such names do not use the word 鶯 / 莺 yīng.

All of this supports the view that 鶯 / 莺 yīng was artificially adopted from Japanese in modern times as the family name of the sylviids, and this name was then extended to all members of the family in a process of regularisation and standardisation. Although definitive proof must await research into primary sources, the circumstantial evidence that this family name has a Japanese origin is fairly convincing.

It thus seems clear that the modern appropriation of the term 莺/鶯 yīng for the Sylviidae rather than for the Oriolidae in modern Chinese bird naming has come about under Japanese influence.