What is the meaning of 令 in 令和?

In Japanese 令 is used to write Reiwa 令和, the name of the Japanese era that began 1 May 2019. However, according to official proclamations, in 令和 the graph should not be read with its main meaning “order; command,” but either with the classical and poetic meaning that has in the poem from which 令和 was taken, or, even more freely, expanding that into thinking about positive expectations for the future. The original poem starts with “時に、初春の月にして...,” which can be translated as “It was in the beginning of spring, in a lovely month...” with modifying “month” . Translated to modern, should be then taken as “beautiful, lovely”.¹

What is 亼 as an element?

In oracle bone inscriptions 亼 looks like OBI impression of 亼 as an element .

Please take a look at these early shapes of the compound characters and and 念:

OBI 今 OBI 今 OBI 今 OBI 令 OBI 念 BI 念 BI 念

The graph 今 consists of OBI impression of 亼 as an element and an additional horizontal line, creating OBI 今. In oracle bone inscriptions (OBI) most instances of OBI 今 show a symmetrically placed horizontal line, a few show a short line to the right or to the left. Ochiai (and other scholars) think OBI impression of 亼 as an element represents a roof or a lid for a container (certainly a cover of some sort). The additional line in OBI 今 symbolizes according to Ochiai “something that covers or conceals something,” which would fit the associated meaning that 今 often has when used as a phonetic.¹

However, Qiú thinks it probable that 今 is not a cover of some sort with an extra line, but an inverted version of speak 曰. He argues that “for convenience’s sake” the originally rounded form of 曰 was written in an angular form.²

Note that OBI of 曰 usually have a symmetrically placed horizontal line as well.

In a similar way, Jì Xùshēng argues that OBI impression of 亼 as an element actually represents an inverted version of mouth 口 (which is simply 曰 without the extra line). This leads to two different interpretations of (令). Ochiai assumes that OBI impression of 亼 as an element represents a roof, and suggests a story for in which the kneeling person below OBI impression of 亼 as an element has been summoned to the palace to receive orders,³ while Jì sees a kneeling person with a mouth above him that gives him a command.

Finally there is 念. The last three examples are variants of 念, one OBI and two taken from bronze inscriptions (BI). Scholars seem to agree that 念 consists of heart 心 and, in a phonetic role, 今. However, bronze inscriptions use both OBI impression of 亼 as an element and OBI 今 to write 念. Even more interestingly, the one oracle bone inscription that the Sinica database has, uses neither one. Instead it shows what looks like an inverted form of 口, supporting Jì Xùshēng, it seems.

Perhaps the somewhat older theory that sees OBI impression of 亼 as an element as some sort of cover is incorrect.

1. Ochiai, 2016, p. 490; Seeley et al., p. 80 and p. 194. Qiú writes that 今 often expresses “the notion of containment” (Qiú, 2000, p. 260).

2. Qiú, 2000, p. 207.

3. Ochiai, 2016, p. 48.

4. Jì Xùshēng, p. 710 (referenced in Outlier).

5. Seeley et al. p. 194; Lǐ Xuéqín, p. 927 (referenced in Outlier).

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