Thursday, April 14, 2011

“The Columbia History of the World” on Chinese characters



While Dr. Joseph Needham viewed that Chinese characters are mainly pictographic symbols, others see them  as  phonetic  ones.

On page 112, The Columbia History of the World, ISBN 0-88029-004-8, it states,  "Structurally, the Chinese writing system passed through four distinct stages. No alphabetic or syllabic scripts were developed, but each word came to be denoted by a different character. The earliest characters were pictographs for concrete words. A drawing of a woman meant a woman, or of a broom a broom. Such characters were in turn combined to form ideographs. A woman and a broom became a wife, three women together treachery or villainy. The third stage was reached with the phonetic loans, in which existing characters were borrowed for other words with the same pronunciation. The fourth stage was a refinement of the third: sense determinators or radicals, were added to the phonetic loans in order to avoid confusion. Nine-tenths of the Chinese characters have been constructed by the phonetic method. Unfortunately, the phonetics were often borrowed for other than exact homophones. In such cases, the gaps have widened through the evolution of the language, until today characters may have utterly different pronunciations even though they share the same phonetic. The written language, despite its difficulties, has been an important unifying cultural and political link in China. Although many Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible, the characters are comprehended though the eye, whatever their local pronunciation. One Chinese may not understand the other's speech, yet reads with ease his writing."

This passage does give a better description on Chinese characters than those previously discussed sinologists’ works. However, there are still some big errors.
1.  The second stage --- “A drawing of a woman meant a woman, or of a broom a broom. Such characters were in turn combined to form ideographs. A woman and a broom became a wife, three women together treachery or villainy.”
 a.  A drawing of a woman meant a woman --- 
 b.  Of a broom a broom --- 
 c. A woman and a broom became a wife ---   

This process is, in fact,  an composite inferring procedure (the sense determinators,     意). Thus, the sense determinators   is  the second stage, not the fourth.  

Furthermore, with this “read out” (composite inferring) procedure,    is  女 (woman) +  (broom).  Thus, 婦 means a working woman, not a wife.  

The word wife is    which is composed of three radicals (roots). The top one is root 1 (一,  [can mean heaven, earth, man , as one or a union]).  At here, it means a union in accord with heavenly virtue. The second radical is root 46  (the shared radical of  聿, 事, 肅 which means crafty hand).  The bottom root is 女 (girl or woman).  Thus,   is a crafty hand girl united with me under heavenly virtue.  

 d. Three women together  treachery or villainy ---  姦.  How can we decode this word? This needs a bit knowledge on Chinese culture, the Chinese morality in this case.  In the post six, I discussed the word 亥,  a woman on top of man (copulation with heavenly virtue), and it means the essence or essential of (life, or…).  Now, woman on top of women was viewed immoral, thus treachery and villainy.

The authors of  The Columbia History of the World”  were almost having the idea of that the Chinese word set is a root based axiomatic system, but no cigar.

2.  “Nine-tenths of the Chinese characters have been constructed by the phonetic method,” and this statement is wrong.   “Unfortunately, the phonetics were often borrowed for other than exact homophones. In such cases, the gaps have widened through the evolution of the language, until today characters may have utterly different pronunciations even though they share the same phonetic,” and this is also wrong. These two issues are very complicated, and I will discuss them in the future posts.

Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

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