Friday, April 8, 2011

Learning Chinese written language via the old schools.

It takes about 8 to 12 “school” years for a native Chinese person to become semi-literate, being able to read the “current” Chinese newspaper. In fact, 99.9% of Chinese college graduates are still unable to read Chinese classic writing (文 言 文). For the past 3,000 years, it will take a lifetime (40 to 50 years) for a Chinese scholar to truly master the art of 文 言 文.

Thus, taking 10 to 20 years to learn Chinese written language to a state of being able to read the “current” Chinese newspaper for a Westerner becomes all reasonable. If one cannot endure the minimum of 10 years of humility and agony, he is not worthy to become a sinologist. In fact, both native Chinese and the Western sinologists are so proud of successfully passed the challenge of that humility and agony, and they view themselves as a  special species, much more superior than the common folk.  Thus, if one tells them that their 10 to 20 years of humility and agony are simply wasting of their life as that task which they were so proudly accomplished can be done in three to six months instead, they will be extremely outraged regardless of whether that claim is true or not.  If it is not true, they will be outraged for that funny joke. If it is true, they will kill it with all their might in order to preserve their proud accomplishment. 

For native Chinese, the Chinese language (verbal and written) is simply their living habit, and most of them do not know and not care about its linguistic structure. For Western linguists, the “difficulty” of Chinese written language becomes an important subject of research, and the conclusion from those researches of two competing schools is that Chinese words (characters) are ad hoc and chaotic. Their difference is centered around the term “ideograph.”

1.  School one (Friar Gaspar da Cruz,  Creel, etc.) – Chinese characters are ideographs which  are composed of symbols and images, and that these symbols and images, not having any sound, can be read in all languages, and form a sort of intellectual painting, a metaphysical and ideal algebra, which conveys thoughts by analogy, by relation, by convention, and so on. That is, ideograph has the following attributes.
      a.  It is a symbol or image.
      b. It is not tied to any sound and can be read in all languages.
      c. It is an ideal algebra, which conveys thoughts by analogy, by relation, by convention, and so on.

Creel wrote, “the Chinese have specialized on making their writing so suggestive to the eye that it immediately calls up ideas and vivid pictures, without any interposition of sounds.” However, Creel did not see Chinese as an axiomatic system, that is, the Creel’s ideographs are still ad hoc and chaotic, and each ideograph must be learned independently.  

2.  School two (DuPonceau, DeFrancis,  J. Marshall Unger, etc.) – Chinese characters are logographs which are symbols with phonetic value.
DeFrancis wrote,
“a. For alphabetic writing, it requires mastery of several dozen symbols that are needed for phonemic representation.
  b. For syllabic writing, it requires mastery of what may be several hundred or several thousand symbols that are needed for syllabic representation.
   c. For ideographic writing, however, it requires mastery of the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of symbols that would be needed for ideographic representation of words or concepts without regard to sound. A bit of common sense should suggest that unless we supplement our brains with computer implants, ordinary mortals are incapable of such memory feats. …     I believe it to be completely untenable because there is no evidence that people have the capacity to master the enormous number of symbols that would be needed in a written system that attempts to convey thought without regard to sound, which means divorced from spoken language.”

However great the difference between the two schools is, they both view the Chinese word system is ad hoc and chaotic, and the Chinese written language is the most difficult language to learn in the world. Of course, this is simply wrong. Chinese written language is an axiom system. By learning 220 roots and a few axiomatic rules, one can master the entire system with ease. This week, I am showing four more words to prove this point.

1.  (useless, no good)  =   不 (no, not)  over  好 (good).
2.  睡 (sleep or sleepy)   =   目 (eyes)     +  垂  (droop or droopy).
3.  貨 (products, produces)  =   化  (transform)   +  貝  (treasure), money can be transformed into products.
4.  間 (gap)  =  門 (door) over 日 (Sun), there is a gap when seeing  Sunlight through the door.

Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong


  1. Hello,

    Learning Chinese has a very strong internal logic and very few exceptions to certain rules, compared to English, French, German or Spanish. The pronunciation of the 4 tones will come naturally as long as you pay attention to it. As for the Chinese vocabulary, it’s very important to speak as much as possible. Thanks a lot...

    Study Chinese In China

  2. "Learning Chinese has a very strong internal logic and very few exceptions to certain rules, compared to English, French, German or Spanish."

    Thanks for your comment. Very few Sinologists know about this even now.

    Thanks for reading my blog.