Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Patriarchal Script

The Chinese script is often seen as difficult and needlessly complicated. But it has a real elegance to it that you start to appreciate the more you study it.

I was thinking about this today while trying to get back on track with my Japanese. (I speak Japanese with Mamiko every day, so I've retained my fluency there, but my reading has gone right down the toilet.) While I was poring over my "2000 Basic Characters" book, I came across one that I hadn't seen before - myou, with the meaning of both "wondrous" and "strange".

Here's the interesting part. The constituent radicals of myou (the separate parts which combine to make the character) are those for "woman" and "small" - in other words, "a woman of small years", or a young woman. So, we could say that, to the ancient Chinese, a young woman signified something both wondrous and strange.

See what I mean about elegance of expression?

Of course, it points to the patriarchal roots of the culture which developed that mode of writing. Young women are only wondrous and strange to men. (I'm not sure it works the other way around...)

There are in fact lots of other characters which seem to demonstrate that East Asian culture is highly male in its outlook. The symbol for safety or comfort in Japanese, an, or yasu(i), shows a woman standing under a roof; that for "in the back" or "to the rear" can also mean "wife"; that for "man" is composed of symbols for "power" and "rice field" while for "woman", it is a figure with an empty space in the middle signifying a womb; for "father" there is a representation of a whip, while for "mother" there are two dots encased in two squares, signifying a woman and her child.

Of course, we should expect nothing less. I find it interesting, though, that to many Westerners East Asia is somehow more fully aware of the yin and the yang and of the value of the feminine. That might be true, but I suspect East Asian culture venerates the female in a much more "old fashioned" way than hippy types would wish it.

The history of the Chinese characters and the insight they give into a certain ancient way of thinking are endlessly fascinating for me. My favourite character has to be the one for "road", pronounced michi or dou in Japanese - it is the symbol for a path underneath that for a neck or severed head. Kanji historians believe that in the old days, criminals or prisoners captured in war would be beheaded and their heads paraded along the main pathways through a territory - so a "road" becomes associated with both travel and execution.


zero_zero_one said...

As ever your musings on Eastern characters make for interesting reading - I was just wondering (as I know nothing on the subject at all really) if you know anything about the evolution/roots of the Western characters/the Roman alphabet that we use today, and whether or not any of those characters have any specific roots that are visible today.

Bilbo said...

I found this to be extraordinarily interesting, given my background in Linguistics. My language skills are European (German and Russian), but I find Chinese writing fascinating because of the story behind the construction of the individual characters. Great post...I look forward to hearing more of your comments and insights on Asiatic languages. Best, Bilbo.