So, you know how Chinese is just picture writing?
Errrt! There’s more to this story. Like all of the world’s earliest writing
systems, Chinese characters start out as symbols that stand for words. A rice paddy. A person.
A tree. These are logographs, and they let you depict specific language pieces – to write
what you mean. But instead of requiring different characters for every word, the handy rebus
principle lets you write other things that sound like the logograph – to write what you
say. Sure, you could use the rebus “sounds like”
principle to write any sound in your language. But please consider this symbol and answer
the question that follows. Does it mean ‘son’, ‘soon’, ’sun’ or ‘sown’? Oh my,
did rebus writing get you into a bit of trouble here? When we see this character, we could read
it as a plain old logograph, according to its meaning, or any of these rebus ways, following
its pronunciation. Which one should you choose? Think a bit outside of the jade box here,
and take the lead of this Han scribe. His solution is elegant: don’t choose one. Use
both systems together! What’s that behind is back? Is that a…
oh, yeah! “Major Moments in the History of Writing”!
So, here’s the logograph for “horse”. But it also sounds the same as the word for
“ant”, so the rebus principle lets us write them both with the same glyph. Confusing?
Not if you add the logograph for “insect” next to the sound-alike character! This says
it’s pronounced like “horse”, which it is, but that its meaning has something
to do with “insect”. You don’t read the extra character – it’s a meaning hint,
determining how to read the sound character, so it’s called a determinative. One more Mandarin example. This logograph
means “moon”, which happens to be pronounced “yuè”. Using rebus writing, “yuè”
also means “amputate your feet”. Incidentally, the word “key” is pronounced the same
way. Same problem. But nothing a couple determinatives can’t fix! Add the determinative for “metal”
to this character. Add “knife” to that one. And let’s leave the moon be, because
that’s already what it means. Here again, the “sounds like” reading
of a character gives you its phonetic component. This extra logograph clues you into its meaning
– its semantic component. Together, they form a unit – a whole character with a clear meaning
and a clear pronunciation. Determinatives are very common in Chinese characters, natively
called Han characters. In fact, since they hint at the character’s root meaning – its
radix – Han determinatives get called radicals. Bring back the character “sun”. It can
be pronounced many ways, true. But add a determinative, a silent helper character, and you can quickly
narrow down its meaning. These extra determinatives avoid ambiguous readings. Which one is the
“sun” in the sky? Which is a father’s “son”? Which one means “soon”? Too
easy. There’s something else to learn from this
quiet scribe. He’s using radicals to clean up some ambiguity, but even he knows that
context matters. He won’t spell everything out for you every time. Sometimes this character
means “for”, as in “this is for you”, other times it’s the verb “supply”.
He’s balancing this tension in the history of writing between what’s easy on the reader,
who needs more information to interpret the words, versus what’s easy on the writer,
who typically knows what he means when he’s writing it. Plus, hand cramps. The choice of leaving in or leaving out helpful
information isn’t simply about clarity and laziness. It’s aesthetic. Throughout the
history of Chinese calligraphy, from oracle bones to the rough cursive script, stylistic
choices are made, not just semantic and phonetic choices. Seeing through the calligrapher’s
eyes, you can find in the history of writing not only a vision of what words and sounds
look like, but where words and sounds go and where they stop. When it comes to aesthetic choices and Han
characters, none is more fundamental than the decision to arrange character components
in blocks. Bonus note: this is definitely not the only time in history that writing
gets organized in blocks. So this radical sits on top of this phonetic
component in a block, making up one whole character – the character for “flower”.
The ideograph man plus tree, a man leaning against a tree, has two components sitting
side by side in a block, and they’re the character for “rest”. And here’s one
tree in its own block, two trees meaning “woods” and three trees for “forest”. Aesthetics aside, what would happen if we
took this “sounds like“ principle a step further and make writing about the sounds?
Isn’t that a better solution to our “soon”, “son”, “sown”, “sun” problem,
and one that doesn’t make us memorize tons of characters?