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Friday, January 11, 2013

Woman, please let me explain....

Woman, please let me explain
I never meant to cause you sorrow or pain....
                                        Woman  (John Lennon)
As a westerner, I have always been fascinated by the Chinese language and its written script.

   Westerners think of language and writing in a linear fashion. We have letters; just 26, and when we put these together, we create syllables, and combine these to make words. In written form we structure these to make paragraphs, and so on.

   And so our thoughts and ideas are threaded together, like beads on a string. With the flair of Flaubert, we might even end up with Madame Bovary.

   The Chinese approach to writing is quite different. A written character can be thought of as a word, but it is much more than that. It's an ideogram, containing or encapsulating an idea or concept; one that is highly symbolic.

   Inevitably, it reflects the culture it springs from, and as a word-picture it can't be divorced easily from its own history. It's also an art form, bringing its nuances along with it.

   Look at this one. It got my attention as I saw it in front of me on the back of the seat ahead of me in a plane on the way to Urumqi, far out in China's west.

   Above it was an English translation. FOR SAFETY. It was telling passengers to keep their seatbelts on.

   The bottom half of it represents a woman. Above her, you can see a roof. So, a woman under a roof represents safety. It also connotes peace and order.

   This is intriguing, because it's loaded with so many ideas.

   It could be about a tender concern for the protection of women, springing from the idea that the outside world is a dangerous place they should avoid and can't really cope with.

   It could mean that a woman's place is in the home, and nowhere else. Or that society can only be safe when the woman is inside the house and not in the public domain – that society's public order, peace and security depend upon it.

   It might mean some combination of these. One way or another, it gives us clues to the nature of the society in which it was created, to be matched with other evidence to see if any or all of these possible interpretations are valid.

   For Chinese literature, the ideogram integrates different art forms. A Chinese poem has layers of meaning simply because of the way written characters were devised and are now interpreted. Imagine trying to translate these collective layers of subtle meaning into English, and retain some semblance of its original poetic form. No wonder the Tao te Ching gets translated in so many different ways.

   English is not immune from the cultural bias of the history of its words. "Woman" as an English word has been dissected and deconstructed a zillion times, especially in the past fifty years, and just going through the different shades of meaning in the word "husband" shows that it's not only ideograms that can't be divorced from their history.

   This means that linear writing with its tiny range of just 26 characters has its own culture-bombs which create difficulties in translation, as we know so well when religious texts are converted to another language.

   But that's another story. When it comes to written language as a beautiful and expressive art form, Chinese can't be beaten.*
Disclaimer: I do not speak or read mandarin. I began studying Chinese history, culture and literature, ancient and modern in translation in 1966, and taught it on that basis at two universities from 1971 to 2007.


  1. Maybe if we all expressed ourselves in ideograms, the world would be a better place.

    I once went on a meditation retreat where (apart from brief instructions each day) nobody spoke for 10 days ... 5am to 9pm, utter silence. People smiled, used their hands a lot, courtesy abounded and there was not a single harsh word or any disagreement throughout.

    Language - whether written or spoken - is a strange attribute. We use it naturally, carelessly, sometimes endlessly, mostly unnecessarily. It turns the wheels of progress and knowledge, it holds our history, it colours our lives, our imagination, our prejudices.

    Subtly or otherwise, through our literature language shapes society and influences the character of nations. Even our holy books use language to ensure the dominance of the male and the continuing oppression of women.

    Sometimes I think that we don't understand what a powerful tool we have in language nor,indeed, how we should use it.

    I seem to have strayed a bit from ideograms, Denis, but your post opened the door sufficiently for me to slip through - complete with soapbox.

    In defense of my mother tongue: With only 26 characters available, the English language can be beautiful, lyrical and infinitely subtle.

    Paradoxically, the greatest communication tool of our age - the binary code - has only two characters, and these are numbers.


    Move over Basho.

    Love to you both.


    1. I can but agree, Bob. As you may know, I've been harping on the failings of words to invoke true meaning throughout this whole blog's lifetime. And yes, like other 'serial' languages such as those based on Sanskrit, Arabic or Cyrillic, those written in alphabet form have their subtleties as well. I think I covered that in the last part.

      Here's the most famous Basho of all:

      Old pond
      Frog jumps

      (One of many translations. There are even more minimalist ones.)

  2. 'How synchronistic that you should post this just when I have recently started learning Chinese characters prior to our trip to China in April.

    That ideogram for "woman" is very similar to the ideogram for "mother". And oddly, the ideogram for "mother" appears at the heart of the ideogram for "sea". This is a great mystery which perhaps my study will illuminate.

    Possibly "woman in the house" means all the things you suggest, Denis, but also it could mean that all is well when there is a woman in the house. A woman is the heart and soul of the house and home in many traditional societies. Not all that long ago, our culture shared this belief. But when mother is at sea, what on earth could that mean?

    I have not been able to post to your blog, Denis, for unknown reasons. It doesn't stop me from trying, so here's hoping this one works.' (it didn't)

    Posted for Joan.

    1. I immediately thought "water" when you said "sea" because the Tao is always compared to water, in every sense – and the Tao is also regarded as "yin" - the female quality. The character for water is very similar to "woman". Bingo.

      And I'm sure you are right about the err... 50 shades of meaning for the "safety" character. We do know, though, how chauvinistic Chinese – and most other – societies have been [and still are].

  3. Two posts in a row taking as the entry point two immediately recognisable references to two (fairly) modern songs?

    Just reinforces my thought that the 'wisdom of the ancients' is sometimes overrated - being mosttimes refined, distilled and maybe even eclipsed by more current references.

    Bonus plus!: you also get the guitar chords, which always gently weep. This somehow fits - if you metaphorically intellectually sort of squint a bit.

    Hopes and thoughts.


    1. That's funny - I never thought of the sequence of song titles. It happens. Who knows what the next one will be? [Probably "Dad, the bung and the oranges". There aren't too many songs with that combo in their lyrics.]

      Wisdom comes from all generations, but there isn't much that hasn't been thought before, often millennia ago. Still what about this wonderful quote from Isaac Asimov:

      Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.

      Even Plato wouldn't have minded that one chalked up against his name, I think.

  4. I'm thinking of you today as you wend your way to the Oncologist.
    Thank you for the Asimov quote - may I borrow it please?
    All my best wishes...and hopes...

    1. The Asimov quote is yours for the taking - after all, it's not mine to give but it's for all to share. We can hope that the Avastin holds things back a little longer.

      Thank you, Ros.

  5. Beautiful post Denis. I attempted to learn mandarin a couple of years ago and failed - but found the writing fascinating. I remember this character as it was so interesting. Also the character for woman, how it has evolved. In old Mandarin it is a kneeling figure, in modern Mandarin she is walking, so that's encouraging! (My teacher's joke).
    I also find the little I have seen and heard about Chinese culture and ideas fascinating, and I do believe there is a connection between language and culture which has some impact on how ideas are expressed.
    However I must admit I am a bit of a cynic about how much language informs culture and how much 'better' one type of language or writing makes us. We're all humans after all with the same psychological structures.
    Intriguing area of study though, for sure.

    1. Yes, the characters have changed, and for these reasons as you say. One of the ancient ideograms for 'disagreement' or 'argument' involves two women under the same roof. When China was united for the first time in 221 BCE the Chin regime ordered the simplification of characters, so many of the old, elegant but too complex ideograms were dispensed with.

      There is no doubt that the relationship between language and culture is a very important one. Vital in many cases. But it shouldn't be assumed that knowing modern mandarin is sufficient for understanding traditional Chinese civilisation.

      Language is born of culture. The idea that language is related to 'better' or 'worse' would not hold water with me. But writing in ideogram or linear form certainly informs psychology.

  6. I also spent some time learning Mandarin - reading, writing, speaking, listening - and failed. It was too different from any other language I'd been exposed to.

    Part of the unfamiliarity was tonal sounds but the bigger was what you have drawn attention to here. That is to say non-phonetic writing. There are zero clues in the script as to how it might sound. That leads me to two reflections concerning non-phoneticism (??)

    To help (perhaps?) the oversea's learner a phonetic script (named "pinyin") was developed in the time of Mao. This alphabet - up to then the term "Chinese alphabet" did not really make sense - is very useful in presenting Chinese language to the rest of the world and probably (Mao's thinking) to the Chinese people. But does it really help?

    As we began to learn Mandarin our teacher doggedly, as one well might, presented everything in both pinyin and ideograms. Six months into the evening-a-week course she took stock with us. We, collectively, were not "getting it". The conclusion, which led to us moving ahead, was to drop the pinyin! This is an extraordinary conclusion and calls into question all Mao's assumptions.

    The other tale concerns what might be called "the archaeology of language". How do linguists reach conclusions about long-dead languages? What about the Rosetta Stone for example?

    All they can really do is count the number of different symbols. At the low end, like English, the count is limited to the number of different sounds a human can make. We are looking at a phonetic script. At the high end, like Mandarin or Egyptian Hieroglyphs, there are simply so many symbols that they must represent things or concepts. We are looking at ideograms.

    In the middle (and I am woolly here) are languages where there are an intermediate number of symbols - say 100. Too many to represent basic sounds (phonemes?) and too few to represent things (imagine a world where you could only write about 100 things!) These are phonetic scripts but at the level of what I would call phrases. I believe (could well be wrong) that Korean is a bit like this.

    The Chinese "word" hao which means good and is in the phrase "ni hao" (hello - literally "you good")is made up of the radical 女 which means woman and that for son 子. To the Chinese thinker what could be better, more good, than a woman with a son?


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