Pictures that sing?

Oh, good grief!

I’m going to give the speaker — who has lectured at Yale, Columbia, New York University, the Smithsonian, and the United Nations — the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn’t really believe any of this nonsense, that he has created these thoughts to serve as mnemonic devices only.

These sorts of stories, as represented in the article selection below, are fairly common when people talk about Chinese characters. And, if carefully constructed, they may very well be useful in helping people remember tones or how to write characters, because characters are indeed difficult. But what I want to know is, Just when are people told that these are merely fairly tales and that the truth is very different? When are they given the facts?

When I was young, someone tried to teach me to tie my shoes by telling me a story about a fox and a rabbit, with the rabbit running around a tree and down a hole (or something like that). But everybody knew it was just a story. I didn’t grow up thinking that rabbits were somehow intimately connected with the very essence of topology. And when I was learning to read music and was taught to remember “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge,” neither I nor my classmates assumed there was some sort of mystical connection between music and chocolate products. And never did any teacher lead me to believe that learning “King Philip called out for good soup” to remind me of “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species” somehow let me in on a secret: that the natural world really was ruled by a soup-loving king.

So why is it that when it comes to Chinese characters the myths are all that most people are told? And thus they know no better than to believe them — after all, such stories are found in lots of books, even ones by people with impressive-sounding credentials.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” How long before Mandarin teaching grows up?

OK, enough of that. In the first paragraph I spoke of nonsense. Here it is:

Alumnus Ben Wang delivered a lecture on the art of the Chinese language specific to Beijing as part of Seton Hall University’s 150th anniversary….

Throughout the lecture, “Pictures that Sing,” Wang made the point that in the Chinese language, music and language are intertwined. Unlike other languages, each character symbolizes what is being said. To go along with the picture is a distinct tone or musical note. When someone speaks, notes are being sung, which are the Chinese characters.

One of the examples Wang used was sky, which comes from the root, human. The character, sky, looks like a human stick figure with a line a little above the head.

According to Wang, when pronouncing the word sky, the tip of the tongue must touch the palette of the mouth to symbolize something high. The tone used in pronouncing the word must also be high because sky is masculine and the sky is high.

Wang also compared western languages to Chinese, saying Chinese is like a string of pearls, and western languages are like embroideries.

“Every syllable is like a pearl,” he said.

He explained that, in embroidery, the beauty cannot be seen until all the threads are sewn together. Each pearl is beautiful because of the written character and the musical tone that goes with it.

Wang used the phrase “I am coming home,” to demonstrate the dissection of a sentence.

In Chinese culture, the individual is something of minimal importance so the tone going along with the character, I, is drawn out.

Wang said returning is a wonderful thing in Chinese culture because it always refers to returning home, and home, in Chinese culture, is paradise, so there is a rising tone that goes along with it.

Finally, he said, since home is paradise, the tone is also high but still sounds different from the tone of returning.

Even though it’s understood that returning is always referring to home, he said, returning and home are still two different characters and have two different tones.

source: Lecturer compares language, music

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