Several people called my attention to an article entitled "The Most 'Chinese' Chinese Character," by Josh Chin, in the October 15, 2010 China Real Time Report of the Wall Street Journal.
Well, wouldn't you know it?! The committee tasked with determining the most "Chinese" of Chinese characters came to the astonishing conclusion that it was none other than hé 和 ("harmony, peace"). How very nice, especially since this hé 和 is the monosyllabic form of héxié 和諧 ("harmony, harmonious[ness]"), that glorious ersatz Confucian social ideal that is tirelessly promoted by President Hu Jintao, so much so, in fact, that those who want to express their displeasure over the constant emphasis on a harmonious society, which is not at all what they see around them, are given to making crude, lewd remarks about héxiè 河蟹 ("crab") society, in an effort to escape the cyber censors who guard the sanctity of héxié 和諧 ("harmony, harmonious[ness]"). Hé 和 ("harmony, peace") may also be considered as the monosyllabic form of hépíng 和平 ("peace[ful][ness]"), which is how the Chinese Communist Party wants the world to view China's current rise. In Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), however, hé 和 cannot be used by itself in the sense of "harmony" or "peace," since these are bound morphemes in MSM. Hence, in actual usage in MSM, they appear as héxié 和諧 ("harmony, harmonious[ness]") and hépíng 和平 ("peace[ful][ness]").
In response to the selection of hé 和 ("harmony, peace") as the most "Chinese" Chinese character, Charlie Clingen wrote to tell me that he personally would vote for biáng (a type of wide, thick, and long noodle popular in the province of Shaanxi; full form of the word is biángbiángmiàn) as the most "Chinese" Chinese character. I'm inclined to agree with Charlie, though for somewhat different reasons. Whereas Charlie decided to vote for biáng because "Its numerous components certainly cast a wide net – one way to be 'most Chinese'." I like the character for biáng because its sound doesn't even exist in MSM, because its construction is obviously whimsical (e.g., a horse flanked by two "long" characters near the middle) — as though it were a playful Taoist talisman (Google on the last two words for images), and because it (with 57 strokes) all has to fit within the same size square as a character consisting of 1, 2, 3…, 12, 13, 14… strokes. For me, biáng symbolizes the difficulty of accommodating the full fecundity of folk, popular, and local / regional cultures and languages within the bounds of the standard writing system, which enshrines the elite, high culture, and now also the bourgeois, urban, national culture. In other words, biáng is well-nigh bursting at the sides of the scriptal and phonetic boxes within which it is constrained.
If you click on the third panel along the right-hand side (about halfway down this page), you can see the character for biáng being written, all 57 strokes, one after the other.
But let us return to hé 和 ("harmony, peace"), which is not so simple as it may appear upon initial glance. In the first place, the same character, 和, is used to write at least five different words or morphemes than the one that means hé ("harmony, peace"). On pp. 35-36 of the Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese, by Yuen Ren Chao and Lien Sheng Yang, we find (in GR [National Romanization] with Hanyu Pinyin equivalencies provided by me):
her = hé peace(ful), harmonious
heh = hè to cap (a poem) by using the same rhyme as the person who started it
hann = hàn with, and
huoh = huò mix together
hwo = huó (luke)warm
hwu = hú complete a game or make a point (a successful move) in mahjong, etc.
The Gwoyeu Tsyrdean (Guoyu Cidian), vol. 2, gives a different set of six pronunciations, adding a neutral tone .huo and removing hú. It is interesting that, on the Mainland, the language authorities have declared that the pronunciation hàn ("with, and") no longer exists, and we cannot find it in even such unabridged dictionaries of record as Hanyu Da Zidian, 1.602a-603d: hè, hé, huò, huó, hú (only 5 variant pronunciations for 和, not 6), and Hanyu Da Cidian, 3.263b-265b: hé, hè, huó, huò, hú (similarly only 5 variant pronunciations for 和, not 6). Thus, on the Mainland, people do not understand me when I say the name of one of my favorite series in Taiwan, Shū hàn Rén 書和人 (Books and People), a set of books that I avidly devoured in Taiwan four decades ago, and can still today buy new volumes under the same title and with the same pronunciation. Be that as it may, 和 — whether on Taiwan or on the Mainland — has a high degree of homography, and many other characters have two, three, four, five, or even more different pronunciations, with each pronunciation representing a different word or morpheme, and that is only within MSM. Once we get into non-standard, local, topolectal / dialectal variations of Mandarin — such as those in Shandong, Shaanxi, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan — the variant pronunciations of a given character rapidly multiply beyond counting, and when we delve into the non-Mandarin topolects and languages of Sinitic, the plethora of pronunciations for a given character are virtually endless.
But it is not just the sounds and meanings associated with 和 that are not nearly so monolithic as one might wish to imagine. Even its graphic form is complicated by the fact that 和 is actually an early (probably more than a couple of thousand years old) simplified character. The original form — going all the way back to the oracle bone inscriptions 3,200 years ago — was 龢, with 22 strokes. On the left is a musical instrument, now called yuè, which depicts a mouth blowing over a row of windpipes — this is the semantophore, which conveys the notion of "harmony" or, perhaps more accurately, something like "consonance" (not of the verbal sort, but of the musical type), or just "having to do with a pleasant sound." On the right was the phonophore, hé 禾 ("cereal crop, millet"), which functioned as the sound-bearing element. Later, people surely must have grown weary of writing all those strokes for the row of musical pipes and their openings at the top, and decided to dispense with them, leaving just the mouth that blew into the openings of the pipes. This (the mouth), somewhat surprisingly, got shifted to the right side of the character, hence the character was transformed from the cumbersome 龢 to the streamlined, but less explicit, 和. I say that the move of the mouth from the left to the right is rather unexpected, because usually characters with mouth radicals — of which there are roughly two thousand — have the mouth on the left side, where it began (top left) in the old form of 龢.
I dare say that all those obedient young boys and girls who are devoutly copying 和和和和和和和 over and over and over again — to imbibe the message that those who selected it as the "most 'Chinese' Chinese character" wanted them to assimilate — are scarcely aware of the complexity of that seemingly simple 8-stroke character that they think is read hé and means "peace" and "harmony."
As for the relationship between the ideals embodied in the character and the reality of society, the comments of Slavoj Žižek at the end of his illuminating article entitled "Can you give my son a job?" in the London Review of Books, 32.20-21 (October 2010), 8-9 (emphasis added) are worthy of reflecting upon:
…China is no Singapore (neither, for that matter, is Singapore): it is not a stable country with an authoritarian regime that guarantees harmony and keeps capitalism under control. Every year, thousands of rebellions by workers, farmers and minorities have to be put down by the police and the army. No wonder official propaganda insists obsessively on the notion of the harmonious society: this very excess bears witness to the opposite, to the threat of chaos and disorder. One should bear in mind the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics: since the official media do not openly report trouble, the most reliable way to detect it is to look out for compensatory excesses in state propaganda: the more ‘harmony’ is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonism there is in reality. China is barely under control. It threatens to explode.
"Compensatory excesses" — that is a fruitful concept that I shall keep in mind for future sociolinguistic and sociopolitical analysis.
[A tip of the hat to Stefan Krasowski, Kira Simon-Kennedy, and Gordon Chang]