Characters: the Asian Ideogram Systems

(for a fuller version, with samples of Chinese characters, see the Asian Pacific Heritage book, in your library.)

Even as the Western languages still show the cultural marks of the Roman Empire, and its long dominance, so the cultures of the East show the marks of Chinaís far longer cultural reign. From the Zhou Dynasty in the 1100s BC to the Qing dynasty in the Qian Long era (1700s) Chinaís cultural prestige influenced East Asian life, from cuisine to literature. As this volumeís article on Asian writing systems shows ("Reading Asian characters") in some detail, Eastern scholars generally began their countryís writing systems by trying to adapt Chinese characters to their language. To this day written Japanese still incorporates thousands of them; only Vietnamese has wholly banished them, and only within the last century. Understanding the Chinese character system, so different to our, is vital to any understanding of Asiaís written tradition. Since Chinese art-- and therefore, to varying extents, Asian art-- esteems calligraphy as the highest genre, understanding Chinese characters is vital to any understanding of the Asian aesthetic as well.

The Mandarin word for "character" is zi [pronounced zeh.] Our letters are written signs that represent sounds: when you see "b" or "z" you make a certain noise. Chinese characters (also called "graphs") are "ideographs" or "ideograms": their ancestors were written signs that represented ideas, the way our numbers do. All over the West, when you see the symbol 7 you get the idea of seven. In response to the number 7, a Spanish speaker might say siete, a French speaker may say sept, but both immediately understand the concept of "seven-ness" symbolized by that number. Though modern Chinese characters are a far more complex situation than that, they originated in such simple ideograms, and the ideogram idea still helps us understand their essential difference from our way of writing.

Ideograms are so useful, we in the West often resort to them also. We put a simple symbol for man or woman on restroom doors, we put a simple diagram of a wheelchair on parking spaces for the handicapped. We know that people who speak other languages live among us, and to avoid confusion we use a symbol which will evoke the same idea in everyone's minds, no matter which language they might use for that idea. You can see the symbol on the restroom door and think "men" or "hombres" or "uomini" but it won't matter. You'll walk into the right restroom. You won't park in the handicapped space.

Notice, then, that ideographs have a great advantage over our system: they transcend language barriers. This mattered to China, for "Chinese" is actually a family of languages, like the Romance languages. The north (*Beifang) of the country primarily speaks *putonghua, Mandarin, while the south (*Nanfang speaks many languages, most famously *guangdonghua, Cantonese. Even the Mandarin speakers speak such different dialects it's hard to communicate. How different are Mandarin and Cantonese? The word for "one" in Mandarin means "two" in Cantonese.

What a great unifier for the country, then! Just as easily as everyone in Europe can read the numbers on a check, everyone in China, no matter what their version of Chinese, can read all the literature, all the government announcements, can take all the same tests, can communicate with each other on computer networks. In a restaurant, when my Mandarin speaking wife and the Cantonese speaking waiter have different names for different dishes they simply scribble notes back and forth to each other. Instantly, they can communicate. Imagine if the Europeans, now struggling to unite, had an ideogram system which let all Europeans communicate like that. One hears, from time to time, proposals that the whole world should learn to identify what Chinese characters mean, making them everyoneís universal public communication system. It won't happen, but who can deny we'd be better off if it did?

The later Japanese character systems all leap off from the original Chinese characters. When you reflect that one Chinese word the Chinese use for themselves is *Han, "the Han people," you realize that the Japanese word for writing, *kanji, is just a translation of *Han Zi, "Chinese characters". Japan is a relative newcomer among nations, only about as old as England or France, and a great assimilator of foreign ideas. They get the elements of their written language from China during their Nara period, 710-794 AD, when they are energetically adopting/adapting Chinese civilization. Japanese writing is a most complicated situation now, a mix of three systems. A Japanese Buddhist priest, Kukai (also known as Kobodaishi) who lived from 774-885 devised a phonetic sign system which became the basis, eventually, of the contemporary Japanese phonetic sign system, called *Hiragana. For daily writing, Hideo Muranaka reports, "the Japanese employ a mix of Chinese characters, Hiragana, and *Katakana," yet another phonetic sign system. "At least 3000 5000 Chinese characters are still in daily use by business people."

We return with relief to the comparatively straightforward Chinese system-- which is quite complex enough! To call Chinese characters "ideograms" implies that one character expresses one idea; 3500 years ago that may have been true. Even in Shang Dynasty times, however, over 3000 years ago, the Chinese were also inventively using the characters like a rebus, to represent sounds as easily as ideas. (A rebus is what you saw on the old TV show Concentration: simple ideograms of an eyeball, the sea and a sheep are put in a row to spell out the sounds for "eye sea ewe," "I see you.") Today it is more accurate to say that Chinese characters represent sounds primarily, and ideas only secondarily.

Consider too the way we in the West have already extended the meaning of our parking lot wheelchair diagram to mean not only people in wheelchairs but all "handicapped," most of whom aren't even in wheelchairs. The mature Chinese system in use now is full of compound, abstract, abbreviated images with greatly extended meanings, which bear only distant resemblance to the old *pictographs.

That was, however, their origin: simple old pictures called "pictographs" going back to the Chang Dynasty, in the 1200s BC. These pictographs, so representational they were time consuming to write, were slowly simplified and stylized into the traditional characters-- fixed about the time of Christ and not much simplified until Mao. They're called the "regular" zi, regular characters and they were fixed in the Han dynasty, 206 BC- 220 AD. Imagine the cultural continuity! A modern Chinese scholar can, with practice, read material written in 100 BC. Mao simplified the characters after the Communists conquered China in 1949 so that peasants could learn more easily. On the island of Taiwan, to which the Nationalist forces escaped, they still use many regular zi, untouched.

(The book continues with samples of Chinese characters.)