Archives For Chinese

Chinese Complexity

October 22, 2013 — 5 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.

Powerful Names

September 30, 2013 — 14 Comments

missilesIt’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming (or labeling) something wields great power.

Whether it be a concrete object, or an idea, the power to name carries the power to shape perceptions.

Philosophically, we might agree that:

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Juliet, Romeo and Juliet).

But, if we are perfectly honest, calling it “skunk cabbage” might affect our perception of its aroma.

A classic example of the power of naming comes from the era of Norse exploration. In the ninth century, Vikings began settling in the inhospitably named “Iceland.” The island was majestic, and its spectacular glaciers and volcanoes still allowed room for extremely fertile farmsteads.

Less than a century and a half later, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland. He sailed west and established the first colony on a much larger island that he enticingly named Greenland. Erik’s brilliant advertising ploy was quite effective, and hundreds of settlers joined him in the much harsher climes to Iceland’s west.

The specific appellations which led me to ponder the power that resides in naming once again,* actually came from a much more modern source—weaponry.

Military leaders have a knack for generating striking names. Often they are brilliant; occasionally they completely miss the mark. In either case, it’s curious to note the message their choice of nomenclature seeks to emphasize. Consider for a moment two different American missiles.

The AGM-114 Hellfire and the LGM-118A Peacekeeper

The reader naturally assumes the purpose of the former is to rain sulfur and brimstone down on the enemy, while the mission of the latter is to benignly maintain peace. One suspects, however, that being at the epicenter of either explosive device would be equally disastrous.

Another example we might consider is a bit more controversial, but fascinating nonetheless. Consider these labels for movements involved in the abortion debate.

Self-Preferred  ||  Used by Opponents  ||  Used by the Media

Pro-Choice  ||  Pro-Abortion  ||  Pro-Choice

Pro-Life  ||  Anti-Choice  ||  Anti-Abortion

It doesn’t require a brilliant intellect to comprehend the tone each of these labels evokes. Nor should it come as a surprise how the mainstream media tends to line up in the debate.

It’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming something wields great power.

C.S. Lewis was a master of language. He knew names exercise significant influence on how things are perceived. In the following passage from “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” he describes how a powerful word—in this case “mercy”—can be dangerously misleading when applied to something inimical to itself.

Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.

In another essay, “‘Bulverism:’ or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” Lewis actually coins a word which has found favor with a literate subculture. The peculiar word he created conveys a sense of obtuse, opinionated self-smugness. (Yes, I may be reading just a little bit into “Bulverism,” but I really don’t think so. The aristocratic or remote sounding surname “Bulver,” the “ism” suffix and, of course, the “Bul” prefix all combine to engender an odd and unappealing impression.)

The subject Lewis addresses in this work is the unwillingness of disagreeing parties to honestly debate the merits of an issue. Instead, they rush to employ the invalid (and terribly effective) ad hominem approaches that characterize so much of modern politics.

C.S. Lewis is so talented (and ingenious) that he provides us with a biographical note on the fictional creator of the deficient form of “debate” prevalent in the modern era. “The modern method [of argument],” Lewis begins, “is to assume without discussion [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—“Oh, you say that because you are a man.”

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

. . . Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason.

Sadly, Bulver’s disciples continue to increase, rather than diminish.

Since it was military missiles that initially got me thinking about the subject of the power of naming, it might be fitting to end with a few more evocative labels. They certainly elicit a wide range of impressions.

Condor: Argentina’s avian contribution

Piranha: Tiny but vicious and straight from Brazil’s Amazon

Velvet Glove: Canada’s mixed message

Sky Sword: China’s blending of the ancient and modern

Apache: French, which confuses this American veteran**

Meteor: A European offering sure to land hard if it doesn’t disappear in the atmosphere

Martel: Anglo-French venture they surely don’t want Islamists to think is a tribute to Charles Martel, Hero of the Battle of Tours***

V-1 Flying Bomb: Got to Hand it to the Germans for straight-forward labeling.

Rhinemaidens (Rheintöchter): There’s apparently Teutonic Poetry as well

Fateh: Iran’s “Conqueror”

Zelzal: Iran’s “Earthquake”

Sejjil: Iran’s “Baked Clay” (well we can’t expect all the Persian names to be winners)

Jericho: From Israel where we know whose walls tumbled down

Spike: Israeli and probably not a reference to Jael and the Book of Judges****

Hatf: Pakistani “Vengeance” (derived from the gentle sword of Muhammad)

Hyunmoo: Korea’s mythical “Guardian of the Northern Sky” (mayhap a reference to their aggressive northern neighbor)

Penguin: Those Norwegians really know how to frighten their enemies

Malakhit (Малахит): Just one of Russia’s curiously named explosives in their “mineral missile series”

Umkhonto: South African “Spear” from the Zulu tongue

The Brits are uniquely creative when it comes to naming missiles. They include: Blowpipe, Brimstone, Green Cheese, Rapier, Sea Skua and, of course, Fairey Fireflash and it’s less intimidating companion Fairey Stooge.

For some reason, I find a missile named “Green Cheese” particularly disconcerting. Whoever named that specific weapon was devilishly clever. If I were a world leader, I’d surrender immediately, rather than face a foe confident enough in their military prowess to use that sort of twisted culinary nomenclature for their armaments.

______

* I have written on the subject of personal names in the past.

** It just may translate as “Ruffian,” but I don’t think I want to go there, since it hints at political incorrectness.

*** It’s actually a combination of the missile’s guidance options: Missile, Anti-Radiation, Television. I’m sure the parallel with the Frankish defender of the Christian Church is a mere coincidence.

**** The fourth chapter of the Book of Judges.