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Sunday, November 16, 2008

China and Chinese – Quotes from Ideas by Watson

The Greek name for the Chinese was Seres, from which the Latin word serica derives, meaning silk. The writer Pliny was just one who railed against the luxurious indulgences of his stylish contemporaries, complaining that enormous quantities of Chinese silk had entered Rome. Chinese textiles traveled west along the Silk Roads from at least 1200 BC because, until AD200, or thereabouts, only the Chinese knew how to process silkworms.

As this implies, by medieval times, the most intellectually sophisticated country in the world, and the most technologically advanced, was China.

The Chinese had writings as early as the Shang Dynasty (1765 - 1045BC). These consisted of animal bones or tortoise-shells which had been cracked with red-hot pokers, for the purposes of divination, and on which written characters had been inscribed, interpreting the cracks in the bones. This practice gradually gave way to books made of bamboo slips. These were bound together with strings or thongs.

Confucius himself used books of this kind when he was studying the I Ching and he was apparently so earnest a pupil, so hard on his books, that he broke the thong three times.

Silk sometimes replaced bamboo – it was lighter, stronger, more resilient, and it could be wrapped around a rod, saving space. In this way, the Chinese word for ‘roll’ became the word for ‘book’.

With the coming of paper, so the invention of printing was not far behind. Printing raises the issue of writing and language.

Chinese language doesn’t possess an alphabet; instead it consisted of thousands of different characters.

Although there are many dialects of Chinese, Mandarin – the native tongue of north China – comprises about 70 per cent of what is spoken today. All its characters are monosyllabic. Moreover, there are only about 420 syllables in Mandarin, as compared with 1200 in English. Therefore, there are many characters, words pronounced using the same sound or syllable. To obtain the diversity of meaning that is needed, all syllables may be pronounced in different tones: high, high-rising, high-falling, low-dipping. For example, there are forty-one characters with the same pronunciation of yi in the fourth tone, including ‘easy’, ‘righteousness’, ‘difference’ and ‘art’. Meaning must be inferred from context.

And in Chinese, words do not change according to number, gender, cases, tenses, voice or mood. Relationships are indicated either by word order or the use of auxiliary words. Take for example this sentence as it would be delivered in Chinese: ‘Yesterday he give I two literature revolution book.’ ‘Yesterday’ indicates that ‘give’ means ‘gave’. Word order indicates that ‘I’ means me, and ‘two’ indicates that ‘book’ means ‘books’. The word order also indicates that ‘literature revolution’ means ‘literary revolution’ and not ‘revolutionary literature’. And so the full sentence means ‘Yesterday he gave me two books on [the] literary revolution.’

In the same way that the Chinese language is based on a different set of ideas from the Indo-European languages, so its script is very different from the Western alphabets. It recalls much more the early pictographs used in Mesopotamia at the birth of writing. All Chinese dialects use the same script, on which others such as Korean and Japanese are based.

These various aspects of Chinese language and script have had a major influence on Chinese thought. There is not only the pictorial quality of the characters themselves, but the various tones in which words are pronounced, which in particular, for example, give Chinese poetry added elements or dimensions that are quite lacking in Western languages.