The Secrets of Chinese Written Words
by Lubomir Tchervenkov
It is obvious that there are vast differences between the Western culture and the Chinese culture. At first someone may think that those differences are due to unlike languages and lifestyles. But this is not exactly the case. The differences are generated mainly due to the vast divergences in the perception of the world. The dissimilarities in the languages and lifestyles are then a bypass product of the diverse world views. The fundamental instrument, which shapes the way how we see the world is our mind. And our mind is shaped by the way we read and write. For the Anglo-Saxon people is quite natural to write from left to right and to use 26 letters. Any other ways of formulating their thoughts seem to them bizarre and scare them.
However, other civilizations, which came into existence long before the English, had a totally different outlook in life and this was reflected in their way of writing. For example, the Old Testament is written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The text is written from right to left and comprises 22 letters, which are all consonants. The manuscripts are written in lower case only, with no punctuation and no spaces between the words throughout the entire text. Those texts are “stripped to the bone” by purpose. The ancient Jewish people believed that the Word – similarly to man – comprises from body and spirit. The consonants represent the body and the vowels represent the spirit. When you draw a picture of a man, the best you can hope for is to get a truthful image of the body only. You cannot “insert” his soul in the picture. Likewise, the ancient Jewish people believed that when they try to depict the Words, originating from the Creator, they should not even attempt to give an image representation of Its spirit. In their view of the world, only the body of the Word could be depicted. To try to depict the rest, would be considered by them an act of blasphemy – quite a serious offence.
Reducing the number of letters to just 22 consonants severely restricts the emotional component of the writing. Such a way of writing reveals the essence of such civilisation as purely materialistic, for only the skeleton of the Word is permitted to be depicted. The skeleton is something that practically does not change with time. It can be carefully preserved for many centuries and it would still look pretty much the same. This is exactly the fate of the written Word in the Old Testament. It was preserved for thousands of years unchanged. However, this system carries over the centuries something which is quite dead – the skeleton of the spoken Word. If we assume that the Word also constitutes a living Spirit within, then using this alphabet, the Spirit would be gone from the manuscript altogether. There are no means to represent the Spirit graphically in the first place, so therefore it would be lost in any translation in any other language. If the alphabet consists of consonants only, it does not allow for ‘the flesh and blood’ of the Word to be depicted.
Chinese civilization has an entirely different approach to the Word. They concentrate on the emotional component and almost entirely ignore the skeleton. This is the reason why they do not use letters, but hieroglyphs. The majority of Anglo-Saxon people do not understand the concept of hieroglyphs altogether. In their mind Chinese people use something similar to an alphabet, which is however, much more complicated. The truth is entirely different. The hieroglyph depicts the Word in pictures, not in sounds. As they say, a picture says thousand words. It follows, that every Chinese hieroglyph contains within itself thousands of words. This approach of depicting the Word is entirely different. And this difference in the approach determines an entirely different world view. That is why Chinese people and Westerners are so unalike. I dare say that Chinese people perceive the world differently, because they write and read differently.
During the 20-th century, the Chinese written word was vastly “simplified”. This means that the original image has lost a lot of its initial resolution. Imagine that instead of HD or 4K image, we use a black and white pic “for simplicity”. Obviously, such a picture will take much less space in the memory, however it will also contain much less information than the original. All the details in it will be completely lost. In addition, in the last 20-30 years computers bastardised the Chinese written word even further, by standardising it. The computer way of depicting hieroglyphs stripped the information contained in them to the bare minimum. However, the essence still remains. The approach to depicting the Word in Chinese is entirely different. Instead of dissecting the Word into smaller parts, called consonants and vowels, and then writing them down in a specific order, the Chinese approach is rather holistic – it portrays the entire thought as one picture or as combination of pictures.
This way of reading and writing shapes the mind of Chinese people in a rather different way than the western people are used to operate. The thought patterns of the westerners always follow a certain strict order. A thought has to be broken down into words. Then the words have to be broken down to letters. Finally, the letters have to be written down one after another in specific order. The person who reads such a message have to reconstitute in his mind the original thought in an opposite order – he has to combine the letters into words, then re-imagine the words one after another until the original thought appears in his mind.
This system requires much less initial learning. In order to start reading and writing all we need to know initially are the 26 letters of the alphabet. Then slowly, slowly the written words reveal themselves before us. In English some words are pronounced not the way they are written, but there are set of rules, which can be learned and memorised. This system stimulates imagination, because the original image is not readily available. The reader has to reconstitute it in his head. However, all the reader has before him is a text, constituting 26 different types of symbols, called letters, which are assembled in a particular order. Hence, reading in English requires some heavy thinking. This happens on the background, so most English readers are completely oblivious to the process. Nevertheless, it always takes place. It happens not only for English readers. It happens every time, when somebody is reading text, written with letters.
Reading ancient texts in Hebrew requires even more thinking efforts. The mental work can become extreme, as the vowels, the spacing and the punctuation are all missing. So, we have to guess constantly what was the original thought pattern of the writer? Did he mean this or that? Several different words are written with the same consonants, so which one of them the author had in mind? The text can be interpreted in variety of different ways. We have to pay very close attention to the context at all times, and even then, we cannot be completely sure that ambiguity is entirely avoided.
At the same time, the ancient Chinese texts are written, employing a completely different approach. The words are not cut into smaller pieces. Instead, they are painted as pictures. The drawback of this approach is that it is not easy to become a literate person straight away. First, we need to memorise about 3 or 4 thousand hieroglyphs and only then we can start to read and write in Chinese language with ease. However, once the hieroglyphs are in our memory, a thinking process is not required. There is no need to reconstitute anything as the pictures are before our eyes. In this sense, reading in Chinese is similar to watching a movie. Such pictorial way of receiving information has a profound influence of the way how Chinese people perceive the world. They perceive it in pictures, not in sounds. Reading in Chinese is like watching a movie without a sound. They look at the moving pictures and try to guess what the actors are saying. However, reading in English is like listening to the soundtrack of a movie, where no visual information is available. We must constantly use our imagination in order to reconstruct in our mind what we think is happening in the movie, based on the sounds we hear.
Because Chinese people are using pictorial ways to represent the Word, they do not have “to chop and cut” sounds into letters in their mind. Instead the complete image appears before their own eyes in its entirety. The thinking process is minimised to a bare minimum. They do not need to guess any more what the writer meant. Instead, they CAN SEE what the writer meant. Also, if they read a hand-written manuscript they can also follow the emotional state of the writer and extract a lot of additional information, by the way of how exactly the hieroglyphs were painted.
It is impossible to count how many subtle nuances can be noticed in the same hieroglyph, when it is hand written. Are the lines thicker or thinner? Was the calligrapher calm or angry when he was writing it? Do the lines go bold, or shyly? Do they end abruptly and suddenly, or do they give us a sense of completeness and calm perfection? Employing pictorial ideograms gives an opportunity to extract an enormous amount of additional information from every single hieroglyph. Unfortunately, when translating such texts into English we lose most of the information, which is available. Just 15% of the human body weight is made up of bones and about 30 to 40% is skeletal muscle. In the analogy with the text, these two components constitute consonants and vowels. The rest of the body mass is made up of fluid. This portion of the body is related to feelings and emotions. It follows that in a standard “western” text about 60% of the meaning (which is the part comprising feelings and emotions) is entirely omitted. It is out of the picture. We have to use roundabout ways to depict sentiments as text. To do this we need to write a separate page in English explaining a lot of things, which otherwise form a natural part of any hand-written pictograph. As a result, the English language translation is often an extremely rough and helplessly meagre approximation of the Chinese writer’s initial intention.
Think about it. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, which are used to depict all the words in the English language. Although there are hundreds of thousands of words in the dictionaries, modern men’ vocabulary comprises just about 3-4 thousand words. These words alone are sufficient to provide coverage for around 95% of common texts. Similarly, there are many thousands of hieroglyphics, but for functional literacy in written Chinese only about 3-4 thousand characters are needed. It follows that for every word we use in our everyday language (and which we describe employing combinations of 22 letters), Chinese people own a separate and unique image. It requires a totally different perception of the word, isn’t it? It is not the same if you write ‘a car’ or if you draw ‘a car’. In the second case you don’t need to specify the model, the colour, the make, the condition etc. because this information is already in the picture.
For example let’s take the hieroglyph “rén”, which is showed in the picture. It means “a man”. A person from Peking will read it as “zhen”, a person from Shanghai will say “nin”, a Cantonese person will read it as “yan”, a Japanese will pronounce it as “hito”, a Korean will say “saram”, a Taianese will read it “laan”, while a Vientamese will pronounce it as “ngei”. However, despite how it sounds in all those different languages, this hieroglyph always means the same thing for all those people – it means “a man”. It follows that it is not important how a pictograph is pronounced. What is important is how it is depicted. It is like a movie with a voice-over in various languages. Or let’s put it this way. You can show a picture of the Moon to representatives of different nations. All of them will use different words to describe what they see in the picture. But all of them will mean the same thing – the Moon. Hence a different perception of the world is formed, which is unique only to those people who use the hieroglyph way of writing. Chinese describe the world as series of pictures, and not as series of sounds (i.e. concepts).
It is well known fact that watching TV is bad for the intellect. In order to raise our intellectual abilities, we have to read more books. This is so, because during the reading process one has to reconstruct the original concepts of the author. This requires a lot of hard work on the part of the person’s imagination. Watching TV on the other hand, lowers one’s IQ, because the person perceives ready-made images. Thus, his thinking and imaginative cognition are put to sleep. Hence, we can fathom why Chinese people are very good in copying ready-made concepts, but are more reluctant to invent new, original concepts themselves. This is to do with their way of perceiving new information as a ready-made image, rather than like an abstract theory, which is broken down into letters and arranged as text. The consciousness of Chinese people is pictorial. They write in pictures, they read in pictures and they think in pictures. While the western men think in concepts, write in concepts and extract concepts from the written text. Those who can speak and write in both languages have the potential to see the world from a holistic point of view. They can see “the bones, the flesh and the blood” of the Word. While those who speak one language only will always see the coin from one side only. And this will have a tremendous limiting effect on how they perceive the world.