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A Journey Down Asian Etymology [Jul. 16th, 2009|07:33 pm]
There's a local new restaurant we went to last week called 怒髪天 (Dohatsuten). It has its name emblazoned in giant characters across its awning.

The literal meaning of the characters?

  • 怒 : Anger.
  • 髪 : Hair (as in, the stuff that grows on a human head).
  • 天 : Sky.

Angry hair in the sky? Anger the hairy sky? No matter how I tried to parse it, it sure seemed like a metaphor that went way over my head. (Pun intended.) I decided to track down the source of this crazy metaphor...

Now, this isn't the first time I've seen the phrase. The first time I've seen it was in chapter 315 of the manga Ranma ½. In that story, 怒髪天 is the name of a Chinese hair-growth ointment -- when you get angry, you grow three-foot-long spiky hair that is sharp enough to injure people, and when you laugh, all of it softens and falls off.

It seems pretty unlikely that a restaurant would name itself after a fictional one-shot novelty unguent, so it seemed likely to me that it was some sort of Japanese idiom. Perhaps there was an ancient legend or story of some mythical hero with powerful hair that would stand on end when he got angry.

A websearch on 怒髪天 was amazingly useless. Turns out that it's also the name of a rock group that's been playing since the mid-80s. Adding 伝説 ("legend") was not useful either, because the rock group also did the intro and ending music to Ginga Legend Weed (which appears to be some Japanese version of "The Call of the Wild").

I asked a Japanese friend of mine, but he hadn't heard of the phrase before, which at least assured me that the legend, if there is one, was not very widespread. He did find a site that suggested that it was of Chinese origin, though, so that helped me refine my search.

I think I tracked it down -- and, well, turns out there are two relevant stories, and in some sense neither is relevant. The actual etymology is much more interesting.

We start with 史記, or Records of the Grand Historian, a tome written in 100 BC, attempting to cover 2500 years of Chinese history. In it we find the story of Returning the Jade to Zhao, where in a No MacGuffin, No Winner situation, the protagonist gets angry and threatens to destroy the big valuable thing if the antagonist reneges on the deal. The author describes his anger with the phrase 怒髮上衝冠:

  • 怒 : Anger.
  • 髪 : Hair.
  • 上 : Raise.
  • 衝 : Surge.
  • 冠 : Helmet/Headwear.

In other words, "So angry his hair raised his hat."

But of course five-syllable phrases aren't catchy (the same story gave us two more well-known Chinese idioms), but this got a small modification in a poem written centuries later. The poem is attributed to the Chinese general Yue Fei (12th century), but was probably penned by an anonymous writer in the 16th century. Its first line: "怒髮衝冠憑欄處瀟瀟雨歇" ("(My) angry hair raises my helmet. I stand by the rail. The falling rain stops.").

Note that the metaphor is that the hair is raising headwear, not the sky. Much more reasonable to visualize.

Perhaps completely independently, in the late 13th century there was a playwright named Yang Xianzhi (楊显之). (Don't confuse him with Yang Xuanzhi (楊衒之), the 6th century historian famous for writing about the introduction of Bhuddism to China.) Yang wrote about 8 plays during his lifetime; only two of them survive. One of them, 臨江驛瀟湘秋夜雨, is a rare play that addresses the issue of bigamy -- boy marries girl, boy goes to the big city, boy marries different girl, first girl comes searching for boy, boy gets first girl jailed, first girl reunites with long-lost father who turns out to be city magistrate, second girl dies, boy asks for forgiveness, everyone lives happily ever after. Well, it doesn't really address it particularly well, I suppose. (An operatic adaptation of the play is still being produced!) In any case, this play is the first occurence of the phrase 怒氣衝天:

  • 怒 : Anger.
  • 氣 : Air, aura.
  • 衝 : Surge.
  • 天 : Sky.

Again, a sensible metaphor: "The angry air surged into the sky."

At some point, the two phrases 怒髮衝冠 "The angry air surged the helmet" and 怒氣衝天 "The angry air surged into the sky", due to their extreme similarity, got confounded, creating the phrase 怒髮衝天 "The angry hair surged into the sky", which is a mixed metaphor that makes no sense. But enough to be borrowed by the Japanese (the verb probably disappeared because of not really working with Japanese grammar).

So ends the story.


[User Picture]From: sin_vraal
2009-07-17 11:50 am (UTC)


I'd be extremely interested what the proprietors of said restaurant declare the name means to *them*. Perhaps they have some sort of spaghetti volcano trick on the hibachi? =)
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[User Picture]From: hinj
2009-07-18 08:11 pm (UTC)


onigame, you are a wonder!
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[User Picture]From: liddybird
2009-07-18 09:17 pm (UTC)
amusing trip down cultural dissection lane. sometimes i think asian restaurants around here are just pulling stuff out to evoke that wtf response from potential patrons.

there was a place near where i used to live called 吃的瘾惑

admittedly it wasn't really a "what could that mean???" response, but still it was a "wtf, really? but you're a buffet....there's nothing 瘾惑 about a buffet..."

so of course we went and checked it out. marketing 1, consumer 0.
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