Archive for Writing systems

Dissension over the role of the alphabet in literacy acquisition in the PRC

A graduate student from the PRC told me that the situation regarding instruction in Hanyu Pinyin has become quite chaotic in recent years in China.  Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling"), or Pīnyīn 拼音 ("Spelling") for short, is the official PRC Romanization of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), i.e., Pǔtōnghuà 普通话.

For many decades, it used to be that all students — beginning in first grade of elementary school — learned to read and write via Pinyin.  Indeed, under the program known as "Zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dú xiě 注音识字,提前读写" ("Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing"), or "Z.T." for short, which actively encouraged children to use Pinyin Romanization for characters they were unable to write, the promotion of Pinyin continued well into upper grades. See "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08).  In the last few years, however, it seems that instruction in Pinyin — at least in some schools — has become "optional".  Some teachers are simply not teaching the basics of pinyin.  As a result, many students are no longer competent in it, so that when they get to the dreaded gaokao (National College Entrance Examination [NCEE]), where mastery of pinyin is required, they're not prepared for that part of the exams.  Parents are complaining.

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New Sino- words in the OED

From the latest updates to the online OED, new senses added to these words:

Sinicism, n., sense 2: “A Chinese word, phrase, or idiom borrowed into, or introduced into a sentence in, another language.”

Sinitic, adj. and n., sense B: “The languages of East Asia considered collectively; spec. the branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family to which the Chinese dialects belong.”

Sino-Tibetan, adj. and n., sense A.2a: “Linguistics. Of or relating to a variety of the Tibetan language strongly influenced by Chinese, e.g. in having numerous Chinese loanwords or using…”

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Myopia in the Middle Kingdom

Latest chapter of the perpetual litany against the epidemic of nearsightedness in the homeland of sinograms:

"China rolls out mandatory national standards to prevent myopia among students", Zhang Jinruo, People's Daily (3/16/21)

The abnormally high incidence of myopia among Chinese children has been noted and bemoaned for decades. Governments have repeatedly declared war on nearsightedness.  Here's today's installment:

A set of mandatory national standards on juvenile myopia prevention was put into practice in China since March 1, requiring all school supplies to meet myopia prevention criterions, from paper materials such as text books, to classroom lighting and multimedia teaching systems.

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Glossing English with Sinograms

For more than five decades, Orville Schell has been one of our leading China expositors.  Having authored or co-authored a dozen books on Chinese affairs, he now turns his hand to a fictional biography with My Old Home:  A Novel of Exile (Penguin Random House, 2021).  Blurb from the publisher:

A uniquely experienced observer of China gives us a sweeping historical novel that takes us on a journey from the rise of Mao Zedong in 1949 to the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, as a father and his son are swept away by a relentless series of devastating events.
 
It’s 1950, and pianist Li Tongshu is one of the few Chinese to have graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Engaged to a Chinese-American violinist who is the daughter of a missionary father and a Shanghai-born mother, Li Tongshu is drawn not just by Mao’s grand promise to “build a new China” but also by the enthusiasm of many other Chinese artists and scientists living abroad, who take hope in Mao’s promise of a rejuvenated China. And so when the recently established Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing offers Li Tongshu a teaching position, he leaves San Francisco and returns home with his new wife.
 
But instead of being allowed to teach, Li Tongshu is plunged into Mao’s manic revolution, which becomes deeply distrustful of his Western education and his American wife. It’s not long before his son, Little Li, also gets caught up in the maelstrom of political and ideological upheaval that ends up not only savaging the Li family but, ultimately, destroying the essential fabric of Chinese society.

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Indonesia's multitudinous scripts, ethnicities, and identities

A friend called my attention to this intriguing article:

"This man can read and write 30 ancient Indonesian scripts, some as old as 500 years", by Kiki Siregar, Channel NewsAsia / CNA (3/6/21)

Thirty years old Diaz Nawaksara says, “I started in 2012 by studying the Javanese script first.”

Today, he can read and write over 30 ancient Indonesian scripts. He understands fluently about half of the languages associated with these scripts.

It is a rare ability considering that most Indonesians can only read one or two scripts.

Most Indonesians can read Latin, the script used for the national language Bahasa Indonesia as well as English. Others also know Arabic for reading the Koran or Chinese.

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A new derivation of the Sinogram for verb "fly"

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Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters

Lucas Klein writes from Hong Kong:

I just read Don Wyatt’s Blacks of Premodern China (which I believe you published?), and I found that someone who had previously borrowed the book from the library had left a sticky note in it… and evidently whoever it was forgot how to write 崑崙, so wrote it out in pinyin with the mountain radical!

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Against Spherespeak and Sino-speak

[This is a guest post by Ross King, replying to "On the origin of the term 'hanzi'" (2/3/21)]

This is very interesting. I am particularly pleased to see the caution against the term “Sinosphere.” In a related vein, and as a sort of teaser for the edited volume I am just now finishing (Ross King, ed., Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in the World of Wen: Reading Sheldon Pollock from the Sinographic cosmopolis. To appear in Brill’s new series, “Language, Writing and Literary Culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis.” Approx. 600 pages.), here is an excerpt from my editor’s introduction (“Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in the Sinographic Cosmopolis and Beyond: Traditional East Asian Literary Cultures in Global Perspective”)

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Against Spherespeak and Sino-speak

Bruce Cumings (1998) called out a tendency in 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s academic and journalistic writing to engage in a discourse of “Rimspeak” which he faulted for constricting the public discourse around questions of space, the state, race, and political economy in the “Pacific Rim.” When it comes to how we study and imagine premodern East Asia, the stakes are admittedly lower, but with the terms “Sinographic Sphere” and “Sinosphere” I wonder if we are coming dangerously close to a sort of Spherespeak as well, where the “sphere” in these terms carries little indexical, explanatory or theoretical weight.[1]

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Hokkien in Sino-Japanese script

The following viral Hokkien expression looks like it's written in Japanese hiragana and two Chinese characters, and so it is, but if you only know hiragana and standard Sino-Japanese characters, you won't have the ghost of an idea what it means:

りしれ供さ小

This is the challenge of reading and writing Sinitic topolects in Sinographs.

Even if you read this rather exhaustive article explaining what it means, you won't grasp all of the powerful nuances of this expression that is found on t-shirts, handbags, mugs, and various accessories:

"What Does a Trending T-shirt Say About Taiwanese Identity and Politics?", by Brian Hioe, The News Lens (2/01/21)

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Dangerous heights and tipping vessels

Chris Button says that he was looking at the oracle-bone form for wēi 危 ("precarious, precipitous; perilous; high; ridge [of a roof]; dangerous") and noticed that Huang Dekuan (2007 mammoth dictionary of ancient forms of characters) treats it as depicting a qīqì 欹器 ("tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel").  This was:

…an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.

(source)

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Shanghainese posters

From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

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Kanji-esque alphabet writing on a sake label

From Frank Clements:


(source)

Can you read it?

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Codes, ciphers, and cryptography à la chinoise et à la japonaise

This is a passage from chapter 3 of Dan Brown's Digital Fortress (1998)

Eventually one of them [VHM:  NSA cryptographers] explained what Becker had already surmised. The scrambled text was a code‑a “cipher text”‑groups of numbers and letters representing encrypted words. The cryptographers’ job was to study the code and extract from it the original message, or “cleartext.” The NSA had called Becker because they suspected the original message was written in Mandarin Chinese; he was to translate the symbols as the cryptographers decrypted them.

For two hours, Becker interpreted an endless stream of Mandarin symbols. But each time he gave them a translation, the cryptographers shook their heads in despair. Apparently the code was not making sense. Eager to help, Becker pointed out that all the characters they’d shown him had a common trait‑they were also part of the Kanji language. Instantly the bustle in the room fell silent. The man in charge, a lanky chain‑smoker named Morante, turned to Becker in disbelief.

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