Archive for Writing

Ornamental Manchu: the lengths to which a forger will go

An anonymous collector recently sent me photographs of a handscroll featuring eight manifestations of Guanyin (Skt. Avalokiteśvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion painted on silk, circa 1940s.  A striking feature of this handscroll is that each painting of one of the manifestations is accompanied by a vertical Manchu inscription on the upper right side.  The Manchu writing looks genuine, but it has some characteristics that give one pause.  The paintings also have some aspects that are disquieting.  In this post, l will reproduce only the first and last paintings, but will also provide some other illustrations for comparative purposes.

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"Configurations of the earth" and "patterns of the heavens" in Sinitic toponymy

The latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers:

James M. Hargett, "Anchors of Stability: Place-Names in Early China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 312 (April, 2021), 1-41.  (free pdf)

ABSTRACT:

The use of place-names in China predates its written history, which extends back at least 3,500 years. While the basic principles of toponym formation in ancient China are similar to those in other cultures around the world, early in its history a process took place that led to a standardization of the practices by which place-names were formulated. The central argument in this essay is that the essential features of place-name nomenclature in China were already in place before the Qin unification in 221 BCE.

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Orthographic variation in a pair of poems by a Japanese Zen monk and his mistress

From Bryan Van Norden:

I found interesting these paired poems by the 15th-century Japanese Zen monk Ikkyū (1394-1481) and by his mistress, the blind singer Mori. He writes his poem in Classical Chinese, because he is a man, but her poem is in hiragana, because she is a woman.   Below are photos of the original scroll, showing paintings of Ikkyū and Mori, from Arntzen's translation, and a more recent translation by Messer and Smith.   I am researching Ikkyū for what will ultimately be a five-minute segment in my class lecture on Zen this week.  I find that students have trouble appreciating what is at stake in the debate over metaphysical monism vs dualism. Ikkyū, a monk who frequented bars and brothels, shows one way of rejecting dualisms (like sacred vs profane, mind vs. body, monk vs. layperson).

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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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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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Sinographic inputting: "it's nothing" — not

Last week in our Dunhuangology seminar, a student wanted to type "wǔ 武" ("martial; military") into the chat box, but instead out popped "nián 年" ("year").  I immediately said to her, "I'll bet you were using a shape-based inputting system", which left her a bit surprised.

Ever since information technologists began to wrestle with the problem of inputting, ordering, and retrieving Chinese characters in computers during the 70s, I have been intensely interested in the theoretical and practical obstacles they faced.  To better understand the overall situation with regard to characters in computers, I organized an international conference at Penn in 1990 on the computerization of Chinese characters that resulted in Victor H. Mair and Yongquan Liu, eds., Characters and Computers (Amsterdam, Oxford, Washington, Tokyo:  IOS, 1991).

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Explication of a favored emoji

Within the last couple of years, some of my students expressed themselves by sticking this emoji — 😂 — at strategic places in their messages to me.  Funny thing is that I never really knew how to interpret it.  It looks like the face of someone who is laughing so hard that they are crying.  Maybe that's not far off in terms of iconographic analysis, but I was never confident that I was correctly comprehending what the students wanted to communicate to me with this emoji.

About a week ago, Zoom forced me — right as I was about to begin a class!! — to update my system.  Naturally, when it was all over with the cursed passwords (which are one of my biggest trials in life these days [within the next few weeks, I have to change ALL of my passwords, which is being forced on me by UPenn]) and multiple stages of downloading, I was late for class, which gave me a huge amount of stress.

With the new Zoom system, I noticed one big change, namely, in the past when I wanted to comment positively on a student's performance, I could choose from a thumbs up sign or clapping hands.  After the download of the new system, I suddenly had more than half-a-dozen reactions, one of which was 😂.  Although I wasn't sure what it meant, I decided to try it out, which led to a confession to the class on my part that I didn't really know what 😂 meant, followed by a brief discussion in which the students tried to educate me.

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New Light on the Human History of Symbols

From Tali Aronsky, a spokesperson at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem:

While scientists and historians have long surmised that etchings on stones and bones have been used as a form of symbolism dating back as early as the Middle Paleolithic period (250,000-45,000 BCE), findings to support that theory are extremely rare.

A recent discovery by archeologists from the Hebrew University and the University of Haifa alongside a team from the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France have uncovered evidence of what may be the earliest-known use of symbols.  The symbols were found on a bone fragment in the Ramle region in central Israel and are believed to be approximately 120,000 years old.

Remarkably the fragment remained largely intact and the researchers were able to detect six similar etchings on one side of the bone, leading them to believe that they were in the possession of something which held symbolic or spiritual significance.  The find which was recently published in the scientific journal ‘Quaternary International’ was discovered in a trove of flint tools and animal bones exposed at a site during archaeological excavations.

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On the origin of the term "hanzi"

[This is a guest post by Nicholas Morrow Williams]

I recently came across this article on the first occurrence of hanzi 漢字 ("Chinese character; Han character; Sinogram; Japanese: kanji; Korean: hanja; Vietnamese: hán tự/chữ hán漢字/漢"):
 
Wang Yong 王勇. "'Kanji' tanjō no isseki: 'bonzi' kara 'kanji' e" 「漢字」誕生の一齣――「梵字」から「漢字」へ.
Bukkyō shigaku kenkyū (The Journal of the History of Buddhism), 56.1 (2013): 1-11.
 

It's obvious when you think about it, but of course there was originally no need to write the word hanzi when Chinese characters were the only game in town, writing-wise. Wang first refers to some earlier identifications of the earliest use of hanzi dating to the Song (960-1279) or Yuan (1271-1368), and then points out that the Japanese monk-scholars Kūkai 空海 (774-835) and Saichō 最澄 767-822) seem to have used it in their works, though the details are a bit complex. The clearest single usage seems to be in a text completed by Saichō in 818, entitled the Jugokoku kaishō 守護国界章. But then Wang further points out the Fànyǔ qiānzì wén 梵語千字文 by Yijing 義浄 (635-713), which explains in its introduction that it uses hanzi in correspondence to each Sanskrit letter. The overall point is clear: the term hanzi first came into common usage among Tang-era (618-907) monks as it was required to distinguish Chinese writing from Sanskrit. This insight does not seem to have been incorporated into all the standard reference works yet (my Hanyu da cidian identifies the earliest usage in the Song).

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Toddler writes numerals

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A revolution in Sinitic language conceptualization and learning

[The following is a guest post by Georgi Mladenov]

I am another student who seems to have hit a brick wall in learning Mandarin, and I would like to ask you for advice. I have thoroughly read most of your forum posts and I totally share your opinions on language learning, especially as expressed in this post.

Your post captures my situation in its entirety. "The first year of learning Mandarin was pure torture in the classroom" – it feels as if I had written that! In short, I have been studying Chinese in Taiwan for more than a year. I am fluent in English, German, Russian and Bulgarian, I have a B2 level in Polish, Spanish and Serbian, my French is quite good, my Latin is quite decent, and I also know some Hungarian.

However, my disappointment with Chinese teaching methods has been growing daily. No matter what language I learned, the main focus of any beginner's course has always been on pronunciation and mastering any peculiar "tricky" sounds. Not here, though. I personally know quite a few people who have passed TOCFL Level 3 and 4 (reading and listening) and still have no tones! Or students who still say "zh" instead of "z", or "s" instead of "sh", not to mention that many students do not differentiate between "zh" and "j", "sh" and "x", "ch" and "q". And most teachers still try to persuade us how bad Pinyin is.

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Kana, not kanji, for names

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Creative kanji

[The following is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

The results are in from the 11th Kanji Creation Contest (Sōsaku Kanji Kontesuto), sponsored by Sankei Shinbun newspaper and the Shirakawa Shizuka Institute of East Asian Characters and Culture at Ritsumeikan University. Out of a total of over 26,000 entries in the general, high school, and elementary and middle school divisions, the overall winner was a very 2020 take on the character 座 (za, “to sit”).

Example 1

Fig. 1 Standard (left) and prizewinning creative kanji for “to sit.”

The character (in both its standard and creative forms) is made up of three elements:

  1. 广

Of these, it is the last that is subtly manipulated here. That element, also an independent kanji in its own right, means “person.” By moving the two “people” apart, the contest winner expressed the idea of “sitting apart,” or social distancing.

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