The esthetics of East Asian writing

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[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey.  It is essentially an extended reply to two comments by Joanne Salton [here and here] to my post on "The cost of illiteracy in China".  While I have the floor, I would like to point out the remarks by Ray Dillinger (with important qualifications by Julie Lee) which, considering the limited compass, are among the most sensible observations on the history of writing I've ever encountered.  And now the floor is Bob's.]

In reflecting on what Salton might mean by saying Korean writing problems are "similar" to those faced by Chinese, one thing she can't be saying is that they're plagued by having to learn a large number of graphs.  (Wasn't that one of your main points?)  Another is that, as you say, Chinese have problems with forgetting how to write the characters after being away from China and Chinese society for a while.  –And that's even true of those who haven't left their character-centered country.  (One day, when I was watching an educational program in Japan, the professor teaching the lesson started to write a phrase on the blackboard but stopped in mid-sentence because he suddenly realized he couldn't remember how to write a character!  Flustered, he quickly gave a half-apology and moved to change the subject.  I'm sure you have many similar stories.)

Of course, now that most Koreans write exclusively in Hangul, they never have those problems any more.  Their high literacy rates don't have to be padded.  But what they do have problems with are reproducing the "correct" Hangul spellings.  As I think you know, Korean writing is basically not phonemic but morphophonemic–and not always consistently so.  Moreover, the government has tweaked the spellings at various times, adding to the confusion.  Some spellings older-generation Koreans learned as children are now considered wrong (and new word-processing programs will mark them as incorrect).  An even more difficult problem for Koreans is word division.  Unlike the Chinese and Japanese governments, Koreans (both North and South) decided a few decades ago to introduce word spacing into their orthographies, but few people have mastered all the rules.  Even newspapers and other print media vary the word divisions.  It's a situation perhaps similar to Yin Binyong's difficulty with setting Romanization standards for Chinese but magnified in practice because the population has yet to assimilate the rules—which continue to be tweaked!

But surely these technicalities can't be what Salton meant.  And in any case, they're such a trivial problems compared to those the Chinese have to wrestle with.  The Japanese have problems similar to the Chinese, but of course they can always fall back on writing the morphemes in question in kana.

I can't resist adding a word or two about Salton's rather mean remarks about esthetics.  But in doing so, let me first say unequivocally that I'm an admirer of Chinese calligraphy as much as anyone (I took lessons for a couple of frustrating years, in fact, because I thought that art form was so beautiful).  But here again, there's a historical factor she might not be aware of.  When the Korean alphabet first made its appearance in the textual record, the symbols in that first text were structurally different from the letters we see today.  In that manual of Sejong's issued in 1446 (the Hunmin chongum) the letter shapes represented geometric ideals—all circles and dots were perfectly round; lines perfectly straight and sharp-edged with no fillips; corners perfectly square.  Within a few years, the alphabet took on some of the earmarks of brush writing.  But such was not true of that first of Sejong's works.  Of course, people who admire the flowing lines of East Asian calligraphy will often be startled by the stark, mathematical simplicity of Sejong's original alphabet.  (I dare say analogous esthetic objections were made by critics of Bauhaus architecture.)  But to me, as one who admires the beauty of Chinese (and Japanese—and Korean sinographic) calligraphy, the spare lines of Sejong's graphic ideals have a simplicity that I find breathtakingly beautiful as well.  Admiration for one does not rule out appreciating the other.

[Above is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey.]



  1. Francis Bond said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 1:27 am


    I think that you have perhaps misunderstood Joanne Salton's post. When she says

    > The Koreans have an easily learnable alphabetic system.
    > They also suffer in a similar way from many of the problems that Prof.Mair blames on
    > Chinese characters.

    I took it to mean that the Korea has similar problems with universities that China has, but that this can't be attributed to their writing system. She wasn't talking about writing problems, but problems with the educational system.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    I just reread Salton's posts, and confess I don't see why they are offensive. One might disagree (I don't know enough to agree or disagree), but unless there's some issue I'm completely unaware of, they seem to be an honest contribution to the discussion.

    Similarly, Professor Ramsey's comments seem to be just another contribution to the same discussion, and I don't understand why they deserve this "promotion." From a distance, it seems Professor Mair is reacting quite strongly on some basis that's no clear to me.

  3. joanne salton said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 10:46 am

    Yes, thank-you for grasping what I was trying to say Francis. Hangul is easy to learn, though I find it hard on the eye. Yet Koreans have educational issues in a similar vein.

    I may perhaps be guilty of slightly mean spirited remarks about the geometric looking Korean script. Linguists generally like to praise that, and that's fine. However, I just can't see why linguists are often at the forefront of a movement to reduce the reliance on Chinese chrarcters even in China. It seems to go against the usual modes of thought. Variety is surely important, even if slightly impractical.

  4. julie lee said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    It seems that Sejong's original Korean alphabet-letters were not made with a brush-pen. What kind of pen would he have used or had in mind? This leads me to some questions ( albeit tangential to "The Esthetics of East Asian Writing") which I've wondered about:

    1. Does anyone know when the brush-pen was adopted for writing in China?
    2. The Chinese character HAN 翰 "pencil, pen" "red feather of a pheasant", etc.—-a character dating to ancient times— contains the semantic element YU 羽 "feathers; wings; plumes". Does this mean that the Chinese anciently used the quill as pen, as in Europe?
    3. Did the ancient Egyptians (or Mesopotamians) used the brush or the quill for writing, in addition to the stylus? I've seen pages and pages of Ancient Egyptian (demotic) and Phoenician cursive writing in a university library, and they look as if they were written very swiftly, like English cursive (with a quill) or Chinese cursive (with a brush) that fly across the page. Beautiful.

  5. KWillets said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    The Hangul Museum has a history of typography that addresses the style question:

    Hangeul began its life as a printing type, explaining why it appears as a geometrically balanced set of characters. However, later on it changes into a shape that is easy to write on paper with a brush–this is due to its transformation to make handwriting easier.

  6. Andy Averill said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 7:57 am

    @julie lee, I believe the Egyptians used pens made from reeds (abundant in that country) rather than quills.

  7. julie lee said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 9:29 am

    Thanks Andy.

  8. Kyungjoon Lee said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    Korean here, and I would say it's darn near impossible to find *good Korean typography* except on printed books.

    When I look at posters and billboards and signs I almost always cringe.

    And I think it's worse outside of Korea. Most computer fonts available to the Western world tends to be old-fashioned (in a bad way, with shaky outlines or bad balance).

  9. joanne salton said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    I have often argued that the original Hangul script is incredible, by the way. It is astonishing that such a thing could be created in the 15th century. It seems so astonishingly modern (even if this goes against Prof.Mair's point here!), with all the good and bad that modern functionality entails.

    However, initially it didn't catch on. Language reforms may not, and may increase confusion. And even if they do, the probable increase in literacy comes with a decrease in erudition. People are separated from history. Right now you have to learn two difficult sets of characters in order to be fully functional in the Sinosphere. If people start using pinyin to write – and I agree they easily could – in order to be really erudite you would have to learn that perfectly as well. The ability to read signs and instructions is important, but a deep education is also important. It seems to me that Koreans are a little detached from their history due to the recent, in effect, introduction of Hangul, and are more susceptible to government control for that reason. One half of them in particular! Hangul adds something of deep interest to our universe though, while the elimination of the everyday use of Chinese characters in China would be rather sad.

  10. joanne salton said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    I'm sorry, I suppose that above I should say Mr.Ramsey's point.

  11. AlexB said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    Would that make the original Hangul the first sans serif font in history?

  12. Doc Rock said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

    The Chinese character shih3 史 for 'history' or 'annals' represents a hand holding a "pen" that had a reservoir for ink. This was one of several methods for writing employed at various times in China, including quills of birds. [Hello, to Bob Ramsey]

  13. julie lee said,

    April 11, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

    Thanks, Doc Rock.

  14. Mark said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    "An even more difficult problem for Koreans is word division. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese governments, Koreans (both North and South) decided a few decades ago to introduce word spacing into their orthographies, but few people have mastered all the rules."

    I just wanted to point out that you see analogous issues with word spacing in English… I am regularly uncertain if certain words are compound, hyphenated, or spaced. Grabbing an example off my desk, I was surprised today to note that "fingerbowl" is compound for some people. I wish there was way to standardize that fun.

    OTOH if we hyphenated every noun-phrase then half the wonderful crass blossoms would disappear.

    Oh yeah, we won't even discuss the (to me) bafflingly long German compound words so beloved by Mark Twain:


  15. Mark Dunan said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    Nothing to do with hangŭl (excuse me; Chosŏn-mal), but recently I had the pleasure — yes, pleaseure; it was fascinating — of visiting Pyongyang, and one typography quirk really stood out everywhere I saw it. It's trivial, but once you notice it, you can't stop seeing it: in sans-serif type, the numeral 4 is almost always printed with a curve in the stroke at the upper left, as in this photo:×454.jpg

    Dates; floor indicators; street signs indicating 40 km per hour; everything.

    It's remarkably consistent, and I have no idea why they like this form.

    At one point I asked them about why the northerners had eliminated Chinese characters so thoroughly. ("Because we want to write in pure Korean.") But don't the Western numerals stand out that much more? (They really do.) (Answer: "They are not hanja so we decided to use them.") But I didn't ask about the 4. Does anyone know?

  16. Ine said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    Mark: To be honest, I think that Norwegian is a much worse than German as a second language. (Of course, not as many people learn Norwegian.)

    Norwegian doesn't have the cases that German have, but the spelling relates very badly to pronounciation. And, yes, there is the almost indefinite compound words. For example, "høyesterettsjustitiarius" would translate to "chief justice of the supreme court". In addition, one can construct long words by putting nouns and whatnot after each other, as long as it makes sense.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 11:05 am

    from Jerry Norman

    It's true that the Manchu alphabet was taught as a syllabary. I am not sure whether they got that from the Mongols or not. The syllabary in Chinese was called the 十二字頭. It would be interesting to know whether earlier the Uyghurs also taught their alphabet that same way. One interesting result of this is that in Manchu you cannot recite the alphabet as one would do in Greek or Hebrew since the individual letters do not have names. Kuang Lu was still teaching Manchu this way since that is the way he had learned it as a child in Xinjiang (Cabcal).

    By the way, Chinese influence on Manchu is often exaggerated. It mostly occurs in the form of loanwords; Chinese had very little influence on Manchu grammar. Korean and Japanese were much more profoundly influenced by Chinese than were either Manchu or Mongolian.

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