Since I became a Sinologist in 1972, hardly a day has passed when I didn't spend an hour or two vainly searching for a character or expression in my vast arsenal of Chinese reference works. The frustration of not being able to find what I'm looking for is so agonizing that I sometimes simply have to scream at the writing system for being so complicated and refractory.
It happened again this morning as I was preparing a passage that I'll be reading with the students in my graduate seminar tomorrow afternoon. I was reading this passage from the second juan ("scroll") of the Luòyáng qiélán jì 洛陽伽藍記 (The Monasteries [Skt. saṃghârāma*]of Luoyang [547 AD]):
Biāo yì shì nánrén. Wéi yǒu zhòng dàfū Yáng Yuánshèn, jǐshì zhōng dàfū Wáng 㫬 shì zhōngyuán shìzú.
Biao was also a southerner. Only the Grand Master of the Palace Yang Yuanshen and the Supervising Secretary Wang 㫬 were elites from the Central Plains.
*सङ्घाराम saṅghārāma or, alternatively, with anusvāra: सघं ाराम saṁghārāma, or, in Harvard-Kyoto style: saNghArAma (please ignore the spaces between syllables of the Sanskrit Romanizations; they are a result of placing the diacritical marks on top of some of the letter)
The 㫬 character looked simple enough; I was certainly familiar with both of its primary components, left and right (日+旬), but when they were put together as 㫬, I couldn't figure out how to pronounce the character or what it meant. The rì 日 ("sun") is almost certainly the semantophore ("radical") and the xún 旬 ("ten days") is most likely the phonophore. Judging from the way it is pronounced in other characters into which it enters, 旬 might be pronounced xún, xùn, xǔn (maybe), or xuàn (perhaps), but I couldn't be sure.
Here's how I tried to look up 㫬 in all of my dictionaries, even gigantic ones with 50,000 or so characters:
1. by sound: xún, xùn, xǔn, xuàn
2. by radical (Kangxi #72 日) plus residual strokes (6)
3. total strokes (10)
5. Rosenberg Graphical System (as used in the great Chinese-Russian dictionary of I. M. Oshanin)
No luck. More than two hours of fruitless looking through heavy volumes and indices, including the massive, magnificent Ricci dictionaries. After all that effort, I still didn't know how the character is pronounced nor what it means. And yet here it is in such a famous work of Chinese literature as Luòyáng qiélán jì! How could scholars have been reading this text for 14 centuries without making sure that it is part of the standard lexicographical resources for Chinese?
In many editions of the Luòyáng qiélán jì 洛陽伽藍記 (The Monasteries of Luoyang), both printed and electronic, 㫬 is simply missing, undoubtedly because it did not exist in the font available to the publisher of that particular edition. On the other hand, sometimes 㫬 does show up in scholarship on Luòyáng qiélán jì, in which case I suspect that the printer created it on an ad hoc basis. Another problem with 㫬 is that, when scholars do transcribe (Romanize or bopomofo) this character, they waver considerably on the readings they give for it: xu, xuan, xun, etc.
After a wasted morning trying to find the pronunciation and meaning of 㫬, under the heading "Grrrrhhh!", I wrote to some friends to vent my exasperation. As usually happens in such cases, they wrote back saying that they had just been through a similar experience (it happens to Sinologists all the time, so the chances of a colleague experiencing the same sort of frustration looking for a character or term on any given day are high).
David Moser wrote back immediately:
You're preachin' to the choir, Victor!
Examples occur every single day, as you say. Today's example:
A colleague in Canada asked me to get the contact info for xiangsheng ("crosstalk") performer Hou Baolin's daughter, who has written a book about her father. He told me her name was Hou Xin 候鑫. I Googled her, and sure enough, one glance at the characters was enough to tell me that this was indeed her name. So I called up my xiangsheng teacher, Ding Guangquan, and asked him how to get in contact with "Hou Xin".
"You mean Hou Zhen1," he said. "Her name is Hou Zhen."
"Oh, okay," I said. "Maybe I got the name wrong. Could you send me her number by text message?"
"Sure," he said.
A few minutes later I got the text message with her number, and he had written her name as 候珍. "Okay," I thought, it's that 'zhen1', pretty typical name. I wonder how my Canadian colleague and I got the name so wrong."
Then, a few minutes later, Ding texted me, writing, "Her name is actually written with a 金 on top, and two 王 characters below, but I couldn't find that character on my cell phone."
What? I quickly checked, and indeed there is an obscure character zhen1 錱. Instantly I saw what had happened. My Canadian colleague had seen this printed character, probably in small size font, and naturally mistook it for 鑫**, because what else would it be? Then when I tried to check it by Google, I was also bamboozled by the resemblance, and also assumed it was xin 鑫.
So I wrote my Canadian colleague an email telling him that we both had read the character wrong. He wrote back saying "Damn! Another typo in my book!" He evidently had her in the index as Hou Xin 候鑫, and only now discovers it's the wrong name! "Oh well," he writes, "We're working on a Chinese translation of the book, and I'll correct it in that version."
So three of us, two scholars of Chinese for many decades and a native Chinese speaker — and a xiangsheng performer, to boot — had spent part of an afternoon struggling with that one pesky character that perversely resembles closely another character, and for no good reason. What you say is exactly right; when you add up the daily time we spend struggling with character retrieval, checking, and correction, it adds up to a huge waste of time and mental energy. And most often all for absolutely zero increase in meaning, value, human worth, or intellectual progress.
**VHM: xīn 鑫. Usually this is glossed as being used in names without any particular meaning associated with it. If pushed to give a definition, people might say it means "prosperity, wealth", since it consists of three "gold" characters.
Recently, in Korea, a new use for 鑫 has arisen as the nickname for Kim Jong-un; the character is composed of three Kim characters (金 ["gold; metal"], and Kim Jong-un is the third Kim to rule North Korea. In Korean, 鑫 would be read as heum / hŭm. Source.
Bob Ramsey followed a few minutes later with this sympathetic note:
Well, I sure know what you mean, Victor. Still, I have to admit that some of the effort associated with Chinese characters I find to be kind of fun. But maybe that's because, like many others, I have a streak of masochism. After all, as I think you'll admit, there's a certain amount of masochism to being a Sinologist–or an East-Asianist.
And then there's the sadistic side of the enterprise. Way back around 1970 when I was just starting grad school and taking a basic Classical Chinese course, Hugh Stimson gave me a text written by a modern Confucian scholar from Hong Kong and told me to translate it by the next week. I was just a beginner without much ability to use context to read, and so I struggled trying to decipher each character, and at some point I hit on a character that I couldn't find in any dictionary in the library. It was surpassingly simple with only four strokes, and yet I couldn't find it in any source. I sweat for a week, not willing to give up. Finally the day arrived, and I went in to Hugh's class and admitted to him that I had failed. He broke out in a hearty laugh. He had pulled one over on me. It turned out that the simple character was a form of 丘, but because the author was a devout Confucian he had omitted one stroke, the front leg of the character, to show respect for the given name of Confucius! It was an effective pedagogical trick; I have never forgotten that lesson. But it was also a bit like the hazing of a pledge into the Sinological fraternity.
On a more serious point. Over the years I have continued to be impressed with Jerry Norman's take on Chinese characters that he laid out in his book "Chinese". The idea that the lack of flexibility, the inadaptability, of that logographic writing system had a profound effect on all that came under its sway still lingers in my head. As Jerry says, over their long history of the past 2,000 years, the Han Chinese have, for all intents and purposes, only had two different written languages, "Classical Chinese" and baihua [VHM: vernacular / koine]. Different languages for the most part just didn't get written down, thus creating the illusion that the myriad varieties of the Han languages were actually only one language, and thus also reinforcing an illusion of cultural and linguistic unity. The idea is a bit simplistic, I know, but it seems to me to be much more important than most people, even a lot of specialists, realize.
After supplying the detailed information about 㫬 given in the Afterword below, Zach Hershey sent me the following note:
I came across my own problematic character tonight. It has a Unicode entry, but it only appears if you have certain fonts downloaded. It's found in the name of a monastery and is likely the name of a mountain. The character is 山+共.
Here are a bunch of texts from ctext (for "ctext" see below) that have the character:
This page gives a phonetic gloss of "goengq," but I'm not really sure what to make of that. I need to come up with a Japanese gloss for it. I think that I might have to take a look in Morohashi tomorrow.
I replied to Zach:
I don't think you'll find 山+共 in Morohashi. I just checked. Furthermore, this site that you sent to me correctly identifies it as an old Zhuang character meaning "steep slope" and pronounced "goengq". On Zhuang language and characters, see:
"Topolectal traffic sign" (3/6/17) (esp. in the comments, e.g., me to @Adrian)
"The languages on Chinese banknotes" (9/16/13)
So 山+共 is probably not a hanzi, but rather an old Zhuang character — even though it looks like a hanzi. Or perhaps it is an obscure variant of some other Chinese character, or a Zhuang character that has been borrowed for local purposes.
Added note: 山+共 has a Unicode number (U+21DB5 [not supported by WordPress]) and an entry in zdic (large online Chinese dictionary), but the latter doesn't tell us the pronunciation or meaning of the character.
I won't go into all the gory details that searching for difficult characters entails. Suffice it to say that, after a few hours on the chase, the Sinologist's study is apt to look like a battlefield with a lot of dead soldiers strewn all over the place:
Victor H. Mair, " The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects" (pdf), Sino-Platonic Papers, 1 (February, 1986), 1-31.
"The economics of Chinese character usage "(9/2/11).
Geoffrey Pullum, "The Awful Chinese Writing System" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lingua Franca: Language and writing in academe, 1/20/16)
Bottom line: this is what Sinologists do every working day of their life. It's not a very glamorous occupation, but somebody has to do it. And, as was pointed out above, some Sinologists revel in the misery.
[Originally drafted 3/28/17]
Afterword for specialists
The only way I could find 㫬 was — after going through all of the lexicographical gymnastics described near the beginning of this post — to ask one of my graduate students, Zach Hershey, to handwrite it on his pad. Since 㫬 does have a Unicode number (U+3AEC), he was able to locate it strictly through its raw shape that way.
After obtaining the Unicode number for 㫬 in this manner, I could copy and paste it into my browser and hopefully dig up some information about it from the web.
The first place I looked was Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), which is the closest thing to the OED for Chinese. Although this dictionary of twelve large volumes includes over 23,000 characters, 㫬 is not among them, despite the fact that it did appear in the highly regarded Luòyáng qiélán jì 洛陽伽藍記 (The Monasteries of Luoyang [547 AD]).
At this point in my search, although 㫬 exists to the degree that somebody has seen fit to assign it a Unicode number, I still don't know how to pronounce it or what it means.
In this gigantic online dictionary, 㫬 is said to be equivalent to 昫 and 煦. So I still don't directly know how to pronounce 㫬, but I'm told here that it means "warm". However, if I can trust this online dictionary, 㫬 would mean and sound the same as xù 昫 ("warm") and xù 煦 ("warm").
Looking around at other editions of our text that are available online, many of them substitute 眴 for 㫬, but this leads us off in quite a different direction, since 眴 — with an eye radical (instead of a sun radical) — means "dazzled" and can be pronounced xuàn, shùn, and xún in Mandarin.
The entry for 㫬 in the Taiwanese Ministry of Education's Yìtǐzì zìdiǎn 異體字字典 (Dictionary of variant forms of characters) provides many scans from such sources as Shuōwén jiězì 說文解字 (Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters [100 AD]), the seminal lexicographical work on Chinese character construction, but there are relatively few examples of 㫬 itself, with most of the examples taking the form of 昫 or 煦 (which we've already discussed above).
If you follow this link, it will take you to the entry for 㫬 on their site, and on the side you can scroll through the various examples that they provide from scanned texts. Most of the glosses give "rì chū wēn yě 日出溫也" ("warmth from the sun coming out").
Zach did some database work and found other texts beside ours that include 㫬, but there are very few hits. Two of them are from the Taoist canon, and there are several others from scattered sources. One of the citations gives a phonetic gloss of shùn 舜 (meaning irrelevant). None of the citations from databases that include 㫬 are helpful in understanding its usage in our text.
[Thanks to Deven Patel, Luther Obrock, and Dan Boucher]