At the conclusion of "Mystery characters and variant characters", I promised that I would introduce Language Log readers to some truly weird characters. Herewith, I fulfill that pledge by presenting the following five photographs forwarded to me by Don Clarke. They were taken by a friend of his in Shēnkēng 深坑 ("Deep Pit"), Taiwan.
Even if one does not know Chinese, the super weird nature of many of the characters in these photographs will be obvious to most people who look at them.
What sense can we make of these strange characters? In the first place, I should note that the majority of the unusual characters in these photographs consist of characters or parts of other characters that are smashed together into the space of a single character. To the extent that one can recognize the characters from which the components have come, they bring with them — more or less — the meanings they bore in their original settings.
Secondly, I should mention that these weird characters have the look of the talismans and amulets that are encountered in Taoist religious rituals and practices, so they are not entirely alien to those who are familiar with Taoist paraphernalia. Thus, most of these composite characters are more or less related to Taoist practice, but have been integrated into popular beliefs of the Sinosphere, and may even be found in advertising, felicitations, etc.
Third, we may observe that, while a few of these complex fusion glyphs may be known nationally by aficionados, others can be very local in nature and have limited circulation outside of where they are found.
It is not my intention to explain all of the bizarre symbols in these photographs. Rather, I will merely analyze and annotate the construction and meaning of a few representative examples to give an idea of how they work.
The first one is a compressed form of "anhǎo Kǒng Mèng" 安好孔孟 ("safe and sound with Confucius and Menius"). This is the sort of fusion glyph calligraphy you also see in the very popular single character form of zhāocái jìnbǎo 招財進寶 ("attract wealth and summon treasure"), which is often found on Chinese piggybanks. If you Google on 招財進寶, you will find images of this well-known fusion glyph. Note how the elements of the four constituent characters are rearranged and squeezed together.
Photograph number one is the shop sign of a Taiwan food chain, āmā de suānméitāng 阿妈的酸梅汤 ("Grandma's sour plum juice"), one of my favorite drinks for a hot, summer day when I'm dying of thirst. I think that it is a traditional trade mark. Perhaps one of our readers will be able to enlighten us further.
In the second photograph, some of the characters may be decoded as cáizhǔ 財主 ("person of wealth"), fāngbiàn 方便 ("convenient", about which we have often written on Language Log), yuánnán 元南 ("primal south"), and qīngqì (tiān) 青氣（靝）("cyan vapor", a Taoist term for "heaven"). Here we also have tiānguān cì fú 天官賜福 ("the celestial official bestows blessings"). This is a jocular introduction to some of these expressions.
In the third photograph we have sìjì rúshì 四季如是 ("may all four seasons be like this", with 如是 written in archaic small seal (xiǎozhuàn 小篆) script.
I think that the characters in the fourth photograph are related with the bāxiān 八仙 (the famous so-called "Eight Immortals" of Taoism [I would prefer to call them the "Eight Transcendents"]). We can find references to the names of the Eight Transcendents hidden within the composite characters. For example, Guójiù (Cáo Guójiù), Xiāngzi (Hán Xiāngzi), Xiāngū (Hé Xiāngū), and Láncǎi (Lán Cǎihé) 國舅（曹國舅）、湘子（韓湘子）、仙姑（何仙姑）、籃采（藍采和). For further identifications see here and here.
The glyph in the fifth photograph is a compressed reworking of the characters for this widespread felicitation: fùguì píng'ān 富 貴平安 ("wealth and peace", with 貴 in a variant form), which is what all Chinese in traditional society dreamed of, except for a handful of eccentrics.
Denis Mair comments:
These mashup characters again show how strongly entrenched the graphological imagination is in Chinese culture.
You wouldn't believe some of the modern Chinese painters that have entered a sort of abstract thicket of graphological, etymological associations. One example is Wei Ligang 魏立刚 and his "Calligraphic Image School." 书象学派. It's a remarkable tangent of modernity that involves continued study of old character lexicons, as if they can't plumb the depths of their graphological sea with utter freedom of association until they know all phases of their writing system's history.
天官 is a beautiful concept that I've been thinking about for a long time. It is mentioned in the Yijing (Book of Changes) (#17, line 1). In early Daoism there was a lot of talk about subsidiary gods of bodily organs convening in some kind of inner Yellow Coutryard to pay court to the 天官, which would be one's highest center of selfhood. Jin Shengtan 金圣叹, whose comments on Tang poems I like so much, uses this term to indicate a level of selfhood that can only be discovered through special epiphany. I think Jin got it from Daoism, but he was willing to use it in a personal way, to convey his own more syncretic outlook.
WARNING! With perhaps one or two extremely rare exceptions (e.g., tiān 靝), none of these odd characters are found in any dictionary or data base, no matter how large (60,000, 80,00, even 100,000 or more characters). Nor, with rare exceptions, will they be found in the specialized dictionaries and data bases for variant glyphs that I cited in my previous post. The composite, fusion glyphs studied in this post belong to an entirely different subspecies of the Chinese writing system. If you try to find them in conventional dictionaries and data bases, you are likely to go mad.
[Thanks to Stephan Stiller, James Benn, Rostislav Berezkin, Cheng Fangyi, Nathan Sivin, and Gianni Wan]