Archive for Writing

Archeology and the recovery of ancient writing: bamboo strip manuscripts of seminal classics

My entire career as a Sinologist has been based on the study of archeologically recovered materials.  I'm talking particularly about the medieval Dunhuang manuscripts, but also the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Tarim mummies and their associated artifacts.  It's no wonder, therefore, that I have featured the importance of archeology for the study of language and linguistics so often in my posts (see "Selected readings" below for a small sample).

Now comes news of the recovery of a spectacular cache of bamboo strip manuscripts from a Chu culture site kindly provided by Keith Knapp (with some Romanizations, links, and annotations by me):

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Tarim harps; pitch, tones, scales, modes, instruments, and their names

[This is a guest post by Sara de Rose, responding to requests for more information on the subject prompted by her previous post.]

This post discusses a possible connection between the Mesopotamian tonal system, documented on cuneiform tablets that span over 1000 years (from 1800 BC to 500 BC), and the musical system of ancient China. For a more detailed discussion, see the paper "A Proposed Mesopotamian Origin for the Ancient Musical and Musico-Cosmological Systems of the West and China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 320 (December, 2021) written by myself, Sara de Rose.

Since 1996, twenty-three harps (Chinese: “konghou”) that resemble the angular harp that was invented in Mesopotamia circa 2000 BC have been found in the graves of the Tarim mummies, in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area of modern-day, western China. These harps date from 1000 BC to 200 BC (see photo).

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Robot philosopher-calligrapher

I was aware of this article more than four years ago when it first appeared, but didn't post on it then because I didn't think many people would be interested in it:

"Forget Marx and Mao. Chinese City Honors Once-Banned Confucian", Ian Johnson, NYT (10/18/17)


(Credit: Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times)

Now that we're on a Chinese calligraphy and philosophy roll and have a number of robot calligraphy posts under our belt (see "Selected readings" below), writing a post about a robotic philosopher-calligrapher is not so outlandish after all.

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Calligraphic tie: "Letter on the Controversy over Seating Protocol"

On April 29, 2022, Bryan Van Norden (Vassar) gave students from the Penn Chinese Language Program a talk on the subject “What is happiness? Chinese and Western Conceptions,” in which he discussed several leading Chinese and Western views of what sort of life we should aim at.  During the talk, Bryan was sporting a striking red tie (the slide on the screen shows Socrates taking the cup of hemlock, with which the lecture began):

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Morphemes without Sinographs

Commenting on "Educated (and not so educated) guesses about how to read Sinographs" (11/16/21), Chris Button asked:

I’m curious what you mean by “pseudo explanation”? The expected reflex from Middle Chinese times is xù, but yǔ has become the accepted pronunciation based on people guessing at the pronunciation in more recent times. Isn’t that a reasonable explanation?

To which I replied:

It's such a gigantic can of worms that I'm prompted to write a separate post on this mentality. I'll probably do so within a few days, and it will be called something like "Morphemes without characters".

Stay tuned.

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Artistic Sinograph: Buddha

On the wall of an apartment complex in Dali, Yunnan, southwestern China:

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Womanless

Photograph of a work of art in a Berlin gallery, taken by Johan Elverskog:

Jia. One Hundred Women, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 inches

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"They're not learning how to write characters!"

So exclaimed a graduate student from the PRC.  She was decrying the new teaching methods for Mandarin courses in the West that do not emphasize copying characters countless times by hand and taking dictation (tīngxiě 聽寫 / 听写) tests, but rather relying on Pinyin (alphabetical) inputting to write the characters via computers.

These are topics we have discussed numerous times on Language Log (see "Selected readings" below for a sample of some of the posts that touch on this subject.  I told the student that this is indeed a fact of life, and that current teaching methods for Mandarin emphasize pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc., and that handwriting the characters is no longer a priority.  Whereas in the past handwriting of the characters used to take up over half of a student's learning time, now copying characters is reduced to only a small fraction of that.

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Massive long-term data storage

News release in EurekAlert, Optica (10/28/21):

"High-speed laser writing method could pack 500 terabytes of data into CD-sized glass disc:  Advances make high-density, 5D optical storage practical for long-term data archiving"

Caption

Researchers developed a new fast and energy-efficient laser-writing method for producing nanostructures in silica glass. They used the method to record 6 GB data in a one-inch silica glass sample. The four squares pictured each measure just 8.8 X 8.8 mm. They also used the laser-writing method to write the university logo and mark on the glass.

Credit

Yuhao Lei and Peter G. Kazansky, University of Southampton

Source

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Decolonizing Chinese fonts by probing the past

New article by Brian Ng in Rest of World (9/6/21):

"Revolutionary type: Meet the designer decolonizing Chinese fonts

Julius Hui, who has done custom work for companies like Tencent, wants to radically rethink Chinese fonts."

I find this article to be curiously counterintuitive:  Julius Hui, the font designer, wants to revolutionize Chinese typography by hearkening back to a time before modern (say, the last four or five hundred years) fonts for typesetting.  That would be like telling designers of modern fonts for northern European languages to go back to the 4th-century pre-Gothic script of Ulfilas (or Wulfila) to develop a "revolutionary" new script for English or for designers of modern fonts for southern European languages to go back to the uncial majuscule script of roughly the same time period that was used for Greek and Latin.

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Vulgar village vernacular

This Chinese article is about a man who has made a living by painting slogans and ads on village walls for thirty years. Some of the slogans are rather bizarre, as may be seen by looking at the many photographs in the article.

The article says it is such a well-paying job that the man was able to buy 6 apartments in his hometown with his earnings. Painting on walls is one of the major ways to advertise or propagate goods and ideas in the countryside.

There are many examples of such signs in the article, but I couldn't understand all of them upon first glance, so I wondered if the country folk would be able to read the signs. I asked a number of my graduate students from China, and they all said, yes, the country folk not only would be able to read them, but would enjoy them and would be motivated to buy the products and services promoted by the signs.

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Unknown Language #13

Submitted by François Lang on behalf of his neighbor:

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Faux Manchu: Ornamental Manchu II

[This is a guest post by Jichang Lulu]

In “Ornamental Manchu: the lengths to which a forger will go” (LL, April 24), Professor Mair discussed a handscroll with faux-Manchu inscriptions. Although the writing clearly imitated Manchu, the imitation was so liberal and the forger so unfamiliar with the Manchu script that hardly any word was intelligible even to eminent Manjurists consulted for the post.

As a non-Manjurist, I found the text only more puzzling, but was able to identify its model by comparing a a conjectural reading of a non-recurring word in it to a published text of a Manchu translation of the Heart Sutra (Fuchs, Die mandjurischen Druckausgaben des Hsin-ching (Hṛdayasūtra) (non legi), transcribed in Hurvitz, “Two polyglot recensions of the Heart Scripture”, J Indian Philos 3:1/2 (1975)). That guess I shared in a comment embedded in the post, elaborated under it with the likely source text. That presumably settled the question, but, with the source given in transliteration only, didn’t make it any easier to appreciate the hilarious cavalierness of the copy without an ability to mentally untransliterate it back into the Manchu script.

Professor Kicengge has now compared the text to a Manchu-script rendition of the sutra and composed an image that juxtaposes the copy to its model. The juxtaposition verifies the identification of the source text: not only does the text (very roughly) match, so does its division into columns.


The handscroll’s faux Manchu and its model, juxtaposed. Supplied by Kicengge.

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