Heartless Love

by Martin Yip

The Chinese writing system is one of the most beautiful currently in use. Compared to alphabets, whose characters are phonographic (meaning they represent sounds), Chinese characters are logographic: each character represents a word or phrase. The result is a system that elegantly condenses information, and rich in aesthetic value.

Around two millennia ago, scholars identified six principles regarding the origin of these characters. This classification is still taught in schools today. Many of the simplest characters are pictograms(象形), which refer to material objects and have not altered much since the very first writing scripts were developed, such as 山 (mountain) and 日 (sun). Next, there are ideograms(指事), which express abstract ideas by altering pictograms. For example, 刀 (knife) is a pictogram, and 刃 (blade) is an ideogram. The dot indicates that the character is representing that particular part of the knife. Even more complicated are compound ideographs(會意), which combine simpler characters to form one meaning. For example, the character 尖 (sharp) combines 小 (small) and 大 (large) to indicate the sharp end of an object (and also the property of sharpness).

The vast majority of Chinese characters are radical-phonetic(形聲). Each of them consists of a phonetic component (indicating pronunciation) and a semantic component (indicating meaning). In this case, the semantic component may or may not have a meaning on its own. When it does, it is called a radical, which points to the general meaning of the character. For example, 金 (gold),  銀 (silver), 銅 (bronze) all share the same radical which more or less means ‘pertaining to metals’. Another category is that of rebus characters, or phonetic loan characters (假借). These occur when a spoken word had a pronunciation and meaning, but lacked a character to represent it, and hence an existing character with a similar sound was chosen. One such example is 求 (to request): the character originally meant fur clothing, but the borrowed meaning has replaced the original. The replaced meaning is now represented by 裘 which has the radical 衣 (clothing). The final classification, derivative cognates (轉注), is omitted due to existing debate and confusion over its definition.

In a way, each character is a piece of art. It is the product of millennia of gradual evolution of the Chinese writing scripts; more importantly, the roots of this evolution can be traced. Some ancient scripts are literally art forms, preserved through calligraphy. However, as soon as we forget that Chinese characters are pieces of art and begin to treat them as mere instruments, their beauty diminishes. There have been political motivations to change up these characters. In efforts to distance themselves from China, Vietnam (under French rule) and the DPRK have abandoned the use of Chinese characters, while Japan still uses them sparingly, with some simplified characters that have no Chinese equivalent.

Within regions that continue to adopt Chinese characters, the difference between traditional and simplified characters has been the subject of debate ever since the distinction was made. The label of “traditional” characters can be seen as a retronym; for a long time, simplified characters were only colloquial. It was in recent times, especially in the early 20th century, that some Chinese scholars called for the systemic simplification of Chinese characters, with some even suggesting that the whole system should be abolished in favour of a Latin alphabet. Fortunately, that did not happen. It did, however, result in the People’s Republic of China government publishing a list of standardised simplified characters. Simplified characters are the standard for the PRC, Singapore, and Malaysia, whereas traditional characters remain the norm in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

It is regrettable from the standpoint of beauty that simplified characters have replaced traditional ones in so many places. Some of the simplifications are simply adoptions of historical or colloquial variations; but others are the carcasses left by the systematic reduction of strokes (e.g. 對 to 对) or the omission of meaningful components (e.g. 廣 to 广). Characters are thus alienated from their roots. For example, one has love(爱/愛)without heart(心), or factories(廠/厂)that are empty. Furthermore, the emphasis on the ease of learning and writing during the artificial simplification process meant that the aesthetic qualities of each character, no longer a primary concern, are compromised at times.

Scholars of the past have argued against the use of Chinese characters (or at least the traditional ones) on grounds such as inconveniences in learning and publishing. They did not think much of beauty, but rather of practicality and even ideology. History has shown that beauty and practicality are not incompatible as they thought. There is no need to rely on ancient scripts, or to sacrifice the modern script, for the appreciation of the beauty of Chinese characters.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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