typical example of the confusion about Chinese characters

When I first heard about a new book, Mr. China: A Memoir, by Tim Clissold, it sounded like a much-needed debunking of pie-in-the-sky Western investments in China. Unfortunately, however, Clissold’s book spends several pages reinforcing myths about the Chinese languages and Chinese characters.

Chinese characters are central to the language. They provide a link with the past quite unlike that provided by European languages. The characters represent complete ideas rather than just sounds, like liters, so they are different from alphabetical spellings in that they resist changes over the years or between regions. Pronunciation of Chinese words might change over the centuries, but the written character remains constant. The character ? may be pronounced xiang, heung, or hong, but it always means “fragrant.” Separate from the sound and recognizable across thousands of years, the characters keep history alive. When China’s earliest philosophers recorded their ideas on bamboo spills as far back as the sixth century B.C., they used characters, many of which are still in daily use. It’s as if, with a little effort from the reader, the words of Plato or Aristotle leaped from the page in the orginal.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. These are myths.

Later, the author relates the shi shi shi story. Like almost everyone else, he completely misunderstands the piece and reaches entirely wrong conclusions.

The book has many such errors.

Mao tried to simplify the language by modifying the characters.

This statement is a good example of the confusion of language and script that Clissold displays more than once.

Really, this is all quite sad — and typical!

9 thoughts on “typical example of the confusion about Chinese characters

  1. For example, you raised the issue of the “Shi shi shi shi shi” story, saying that I had misunderstood the point. You then transliterate the story into modern Chinese elsewhere on yo9ur website and put it into pinyin and attempt to make the point that it is understandable in that form. But you don’t get beyond the first sentence…the phrase “xihuan chi shizi” is certainly more comprehensibl;e than tha “shi shi shi shi” version ….but “shizi” in first tone can mean “lion” or “louse”. How do you tell the difference in that pinyin form?

  2. I apologize for being so slow to respond. I’m afraid I’m that way most of the time, as most anyone I’ve ever corresponded with can attest. It’s thus something of a miracle this site has grown as large as it has.

    OK, here goes. Much of the information on pages 132-38 of Mr China is at best misleading. At the rate I write, however, responding to everything there would take me years and perhaps a book-length explanation. Fortunately for all concerned, John DeFrancis, professor emeritus of Chinese at the University of Hawaii, has already written a book that covers just about everything people need to know to understand the relationship between Chinese characters and language, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. It carries my highest recommendation. Pinyin Info has the complete text of one of the book’s key chapters, The Ideographic Myth.

    But you’ve waited far too long for me just to say, “read the book,” so I’ll add a some basic points that I hope will help clarify matters:

    • Chinese characters are not a language. They are a script — a means for writing language, which in the case of “Chinese” usually means modern standard Mandarin. Similarly, the Roman alphabet is not a language; it is a script that can be used for writing of a large number and wide variety of languages. Failure to keep this in mind invariably leads to misunderstandings.
    • Mandarin has a finite number of sounds: a bit more than 400 if tones are not counted, about three times that if they are. Each of those sounds can be represented unambiguously with romanization. (Here’s a basically complete list of Mandarin syllables. The list could be expanded a little with some onomatopoeic syllables; but each of those could be written in romanization as well. I’ve left the tones off the list; but that makes no difference because each of the tones can be represented unambiguously with a tone mark.)
    • Thus, every word in Mandarin can be spelled out and anything Mandarin speakers say to each other that can be understood can be written down in romanization with no loss of meaning. This situation is the same as people encounter with other languages.
    • The above point about Mandarin is in no way limited to “simple” topics. If Chinese astrophysicists can speak with each other in Mandarin about their field, then whatever they say can be represented in Pinyin with no loss of meaning. The same goes for Chinese philosophers, lawyers, literary critics, etc., no less than for peasants or people ordering a simple meal in a restaurant. This situation is the same as people encounter with other languages.
    • If Mandarin has situations in which speech cannot easily resolve potential ambiguity among homophones, then it has a language problem, not a romanization one. To put it another way: If the Chinese astrophysicists, etc., are unable to speak in their own language with each other about something, then Mandarin has a language problem, not a romanization one.
    • Writing that which can be understood when spoken might also sound limiting in style, but it isn’t — not unless you consider the myriad styles of essentially every writer in non-Asian history limited.
    • Many texts written in Chinese characters don’t work well if put directly into Pinyin. But that’s only because the only problems Chinese characters solve are those that characters created in the first place. First, Chinese characters allow people to use one character to represent a word that may be more than one syllable in length. People thus tend to leave out the other characters, rendering a passage possibly incomprehensible if read aloud. If the entire word were written out in Pinyin, however, the text works fine. Also, people tend to throw in things from Literary Sinitic (a.k.a. Classical Chinese) because it helps their writing look more “advanced” in the eyes of many. In other words, the problem is rooted in the persistence of a certain style, not of linguistic necessity.
    • Pinyin is for Modern Standard Mandarin, not Literary Sinitic, the latter being what the stone lions piece was written in. But even as Literary Sinitic the stone lions piece is unnatural.
    • The author of the stone lions piece, Zhao Yuanren, wrote it because he wanted to make a point about Literary Sinitic, and also because he was a playful guy. But being a leading linguist and the architect of a romanization system, he knew perfectly well that romanization could work for Mandarin. He even wrote books in it.

    As to the matter of shizi, lion or louse?, don’t forget that Mandarin isn’t the only language to have homophones. English has plenty, too. Context and expectations based upon relative frequency of use provide the meaning, no less in Mandarin than in English. “Lions” is certainly the more common word and thus is the default sense in most contexts. Note, too, that the first sentence has the following: “tā juéxīn yào chīdiào 10 tóu shīzi.” That’s “10 tóu shīzi,” not “10 zhī shīzi,” tóu being the measure word for lions and zhī being the measure word for lice.

    The stone lions story no more proves that “Chinese can’t be reduced to an alphabet” than the fact that even native speakers of English will trip on tongue twisters spoken rapidly would “prove” that English is incapable of being spoken clearly.

    Back to homophones in English for a moment. If someone calls on the phone to invite you to a formal party and says, “Be sure to wear a tie,” do you have to ask yourself, “I wonder if that means I should wear a person from Thailand”?

  3. Site admin person – I’m with you. I have never studied languages formally so there may well be some inaccuracies in what follows:

    The Korean language, with little if any relation to Chinese, used to be written in Chinese characters. In 14C(?) King Sejong (?) decreed that Korean should be written using a phonetic script of 28 or so characters.

    This happened and, as far as I know, no difficulty in understanding was caused by the changeover.

    I have heard said that the Korean ‘alphabet’ is the most logical and easy to learn there is. I learnt it in about 10 hours and could read and pronounce any Korean word, while on holiday there, without knowing the language. It would take me months, if not years, to do the same with Chinese characters.


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