Chinese Complexity

October 22, 2013 — 4 Comments

Chinese ChroniclesSome people consider “writing” difficult. It’s not. When you add the adverb “well,” it does become much rarer. Still, writing in English is not challenging at all when you compare it to the hurdle traditional Chinese authors face.

One of the most popular television programs in the People’s Republic of China is essentially a “spelling bee.” During a recent episode the studio audience was embarrassed by the fact only one-third of them were able to correctly write “gan ga,” which means “embarrassed.”

Chinese ComplexThe problem is apparently two-fold. First, Chinese characters are “complex.” That’s why I selected that very word to include here.

The most comprehensive Chinese dictionary, Zhonghua Zihai, was compiled in 1994. It includes 85,568 characters. When compared to the Latin alphabet of 26 characters, it’s no surprise that a poll in China found 99% of the population admitting they forget how to write words. (To be fair, I’m not sure we could find even 1% in the West claiming that they never forget how to spell a word.)

The second reason for the growing national writing crisis in China is the amazing phenomenon called pinyin. Pinyin is the official phonetic system for transcribing the sound of Chinese characters into Latin script. It was created in 1958 by mainland China and has been adopted by the Republic of China as well.

The influence of pinyin has grown dramatically with the advent of computing, and many young Chinese have become dependent on the shortcut. Some educators have labeled the crippling practice “a type of social disease.”

Fortunately for aspiring Chinese authors, knowing a meager 4,000 distinct characters makes one “functionally” literate. Still, even that seems rather daunting. I’ll no longer take for granted my good fortune in having a mere 26 characters to strive to master.

C.S. Lewis offered some fascinating observations about the Chinese worldview. While he discussed the subject in a variety of places, he presents his thoughts most extensively in The Abolition of Man. He finds the concept of “Tao” a useful corollary to what Christians usually refer to as Natural Law.

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.

“In ritual,” say the Analects, “it is harmony with Nature that is prized.” The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being “true.” This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as “the Tao.”

Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.

Although the following story does not relate to C.S. Lewis directly, it offers an interesting insight into the subject of this post. It appears in the book Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those who Knew Him, and refers to J.A. Smith, one of Lewis’ fellow professors at Magdalen.

“At the Breakfast Table” was written by another member of the faculty, Adam Fox. Both men knew Lewis well, since they were part of a breakfast foursome in the Common Room at the college.

Now J.A. had fallen into the way of speculating on odd little problems, which apparently assailed him in bed when sleep deserted him. I remember him coming down one morning and telling us that he had been thinking in the night what a dreadful thing it would be for a learned Chinese to go blind. I do not know if the other members of the party knew why it would be more dreadful for a Chinese than for any other learned person.

I had no idea, but I knew my place, and when I asked why this was so, it appeared, according to J.A., that may of the ideograms that make Chinese writing so beautiful conveyed meaning to the eye but had no sound attached to them. Reading in Chinese was in part at least like looking at a picture book, and for that reason, of course, a blind man is fatally handicapped.

As an epilogue of sorts, I can’t resist including one of my favorite Chinese characters. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it also.

Chinese Verbose

Ironically, since it required sixty-four strokes, the word zhé fell from common usage around the fifth century.

4 responses to Chinese Complexity

  1. 

    Fascinating post, it’s an interesting topic and I like how you tied it in with Lewis’s work.

    • 

      Thanks. Occasionally it requires a bit of “creative research” to make a worthwhile connection with certain topics. But Lewis was so prolific there’s usually some valid interface that can be noted.

  2. 

    Lewis seems to have been a man of broad education, knowledge, and insight. Fascinating – he was interested in and saw relationships between so much.
    I’ve always found Chinese writing so beautiful. At one point my parents had a Chinese educator/scholar staying with them as a educational foreign exchange. Once when I visited I ask if he would mind writing a phrase for me (to be framed). He happily agreed, but his face fell a bit when he saw the brush I had. Writing to him was a fine art and he took pride in it – but was presented with a poor tool. (the paper was OK – whew!). I realized his concern and apologized, he being a kind gentleman did pen a phrase.
    Such a different attitude to writing process here. Not only is it enough to have knowledge, but to have pride to perform it well choosing appropriate tools. Creating letters worthy of the thought.
    Being blind would be dreadful to a learned Chinese person.
    You prodded a nice memory. Thanks

    • 

      What a wonderful memory. Yes, it’s an entirely different way of looking at writing. We could do far worse than following the Chinese example of treating words with a sense of awe.

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