Peace and Harmony

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Several people called my attention to an article entitled "The Most 'Chinese' Chinese Character," by Josh Chin, in the October 15, 2010 China Real Time Report of the Wall Street Journal.

Well, wouldn't you know it?!  The committee tasked with determining the most "Chinese" of Chinese characters came to the astonishing conclusion that it was none other than 和 ("harmony, peace").  How very nice, especially since this 和 is the monosyllabic form of héxié 和諧 ("harmony, harmonious[ness]"), that glorious ersatz Confucian social ideal that is tirelessly promoted by President Hu Jintao, so much so, in fact, that those who want to express their displeasure over the constant emphasis on a harmonious society, which is not at all what they see around them, are given to making crude, lewd remarks about héxiè 河蟹 ("crab") society, in an effort to escape the cyber censors who guard the sanctity of héxié 和諧 ("harmony, harmonious[ness]").  和 ("harmony, peace") may also be considered as the monosyllabic form of hépíng 和平 ("peace[ful][ness]"), which is how the Chinese Communist Party wants the world to view China's current rise.  In Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), however, 和 cannot be used by itself in the sense of "harmony" or "peace," since these are bound morphemes in MSM.  Hence, in actual usage in MSM, they appear as héxié 和諧 ("harmony, harmonious[ness]") and hépíng 和平 ("peace[ful][ness]").

In response to the selection of 和 ("harmony, peace") as the most "Chinese" Chinese character, Charlie Clingen wrote to tell me that he personally would vote for biáng (a type of wide, thick, and long noodle popular in the province of Shaanxi; full form of the word is biángbiángmiàn) as the most "Chinese" Chinese character.  I'm inclined to agree with Charlie, though for somewhat different reasons.  Whereas Charlie decided to vote for biáng because "Its numerous components certainly cast a wide net – one way to be 'most Chinese'."  I like the character for biáng because its sound doesn't even exist in MSM, because its construction is obviously whimsical (e.g., a horse flanked by two "long" characters near the middle) — as though it were a playful Taoist talisman (Google on the last two words for images), and because it (with 57 strokes) all has to fit within the same size square as a character consisting of 1, 2, 3…, 12, 13, 14… strokes.  For me, biáng symbolizes the difficulty of accommodating the full fecundity of folk, popular, and local / regional cultures and languages within the bounds of the standard writing system, which enshrines the elite, high culture, and now also the bourgeois, urban, national culture.  In other words, biáng is well-nigh bursting at the sides of the scriptal and phonetic boxes within which it is constrained.

If you click on the third panel along the right-hand side (about halfway down this page), you can see the character for biáng being written, all 57 strokes, one after the other.

But let us return to 和 ("harmony, peace"), which is not so simple as it may appear upon initial glance.  In the first place, the same character, 和, is used to write at least five different words or morphemes than the one that means ("harmony, peace").  On pp. 35-36 of the Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese, by Yuen Ren Chao and Lien Sheng Yang, we find (in GR [National Romanization] with Hanyu Pinyin equivalencies provided by me):

her = hé peace(ful), harmonious
heh = hè to cap (a poem) by using the same rhyme as the person who started it
hann = hàn with, and
huoh = huò mix together
hwo = huó (luke)warm
hwu = hú complete a game or make a point (a successful move) in mahjong, etc.

The Gwoyeu Tsyrdean (Guoyu Cidian), vol. 2, gives a different set of six pronunciations, adding a neutral tone .huo and removing .  It is interesting that, on the Mainland, the language authorities have declared that the pronunciation hàn ("with, and") no longer exists, and we cannot find it in even such unabridged dictionaries of record as Hanyu Da Zidian, 1.602a-603d:  hè, hé, huò, huó, hú (only 5 variant pronunciations for 和, not 6), and Hanyu Da Cidian, 3.263b-265b:  hé, hè, huó, huò, hú (similarly only 5 variant pronunciations for 和, not 6).  Thus, on the Mainland, people do not understand me when I say the name of one of my favorite series in Taiwan, Shū hàn Rén 書和人 (Books and People), a set of books that I avidly devoured in Taiwan four decades ago, and can still today buy new volumes under the same title and with the same pronunciation.  Be that as it may, 和 — whether on Taiwan or on the Mainland — has a high degree of homography, and many other characters have two, three, four, five, or even more different pronunciations, with each pronunciation representing a different word or morpheme, and that is only within MSM.  Once we get into non-standard, local, topolectal / dialectal variations of Mandarin — such as those in Shandong, Shaanxi, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan — the variant pronunciations of a given character rapidly multiply beyond counting, and when we delve into the non-Mandarin topolects and languages of Sinitic, the plethora of pronunciations for a given character are virtually endless.

But it is not just the sounds and meanings associated with 和 that are not nearly so monolithic as one might wish to imagine.  Even its graphic form is complicated by the fact that 和 is actually an early (probably more than a couple of thousand years old) simplified character.  The original form — going all the way back to the oracle bone inscriptions 3,200 years ago — was 龢, with 22 strokes.  On the left is a musical instrument, now called yuè, which depicts a mouth blowing over a row of windpipes — this is the semantophore, which conveys the notion of "harmony" or, perhaps more accurately, something like "consonance" (not of the verbal sort, but of the musical type), or just "having to do with a pleasant sound."  On the right was the phonophore, 禾 ("cereal crop, millet"), which functioned as the sound-bearing element.  Later, people surely must have grown weary of writing all those strokes for the row of musical pipes and their openings at the top, and decided to dispense with them, leaving just the mouth that blew into the openings of the pipes.  This (the mouth), somewhat surprisingly, got shifted to the right side of the character, hence the character was transformed from the cumbersome 龢 to the streamlined, but less explicit, 和.  I say that the move of the mouth from the left to the right is rather unexpected, because usually characters with mouth radicals — of which there are roughly two thousand — have the mouth on the left side, where it began (top left) in the old form of 龢.

I dare say that all those obedient young boys and girls who are devoutly copying 和和和和和和和 over and over and over again — to imbibe the message that those who selected it as the "most 'Chinese' Chinese character" wanted them to assimilate — are scarcely aware of the complexity of that seemingly simple 8-stroke character that they think is read and means "peace" and "harmony."

As for the relationship between the ideals embodied in the character and the reality of society, the comments of Slavoj Žižek at the end of his illuminating article entitled "Can you give my son a job?" in the London Review of Books, 32.20-21 (October 2010), 8-9 (emphasis added) are worthy of reflecting upon:

…China is no Singapore (neither, for that matter, is Singapore): it is not a stable country with an authoritarian regime that guarantees harmony and keeps capitalism under control. Every year, thousands of rebellions by workers, farmers and minorities have to be put down by the police and the army. No wonder official propaganda insists obsessively on the notion of the harmonious society: this very excess bears witness to the opposite, to the threat of chaos and disorder. One should bear in mind the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics: since the official media do not openly report trouble, the most reliable way to detect it is to look out for compensatory excesses in state propaganda: the more ‘harmony’ is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonism there is in reality. China is barely under control. It threatens to explode.

"Compensatory excesses" — that is a fruitful concept that I shall keep in mind for future sociolinguistic and sociopolitical analysis.

[A tip of the hat to Stefan Krasowski, Kira Simon-Kennedy, and Gordon Chang]


  1. Plane said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    And of course, in Japanese, 和 is used to represent Japan!

  2. John Cowan said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    Thank you, Professor Mair, for switching from ALL CAPS PINYIN to italics. Much easier on our ears.

  3. arthur waldron said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

    What I want to know is:
    (!) What is the history of the use of hexie, e.g. what would I find if I had a set of H-Y indices to the classics?. Where and when would I first find the word hexie and in what context? I would love to know more about the idea of "harmonious society" evolved into its present jack-Confucian form.

    (2) how do I get my mac laptop to enlarge what I am reading?

    Victor thank you for your great knowledge, and even greater enthusiasm for same!

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    @Plane Yes, it is interesting that 和 (pronounced "wa") signifies Japan, and somebody else just wrote to me about that offline, but it is actually a simplification, or rather a replacement, for another character, namely 倭, the first-known name for Japan. There is a very learned Wikipedia article about this early name and its relationship to 和 that I highly recommend in its entirety:
    To tell the truth, whenever I think of Japan and 和, the first thing that comes to mind is the book entitled You Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting. Here's a little note about it from Goodreads (


    An important element in Japanese baseball is wa–group harmony–embodied in the proverb "The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down". But what if the nail is a visiting American player? Here's a look at Japanese baseball, as seen by baffled Americans


    Considering the baseball fever that is gripping Philadelphia fans right now, this might make a good read for someone who is also interested in Japan.

  5. Mark F. said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 11:25 pm

    What is the most English letter in the English alphabet? (Or is the proper question, What is the most Roman letter in the Roman alphabet?)

  6. Kevin Iga said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 2:11 am

    Mark F.: The two questions are different. The English alphabet has J, U, and W, which were not present for Romans during the Roman Empire. That might be an argument for one of these three letters to be the most English of the English letters.

  7. Anthony said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 2:35 am

    Following Kevin Iga's reasoning, I nominate W as the most English letter, and G as the most Roman. Though I also want to nominate Q as the most Roman. Continuing on the theme, I'd nominate Ñ as the most Spanish, Č as the most Czech, and Ü as the most German letters. I'm having quite a hard time deciding which to nominate as the most Greek letter, though Υ and Ω are strong candidates.

  8. arthur waldron said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 3:07 am

    As a student of nationalism, I must know what is the most French letter (I mean of the alphabet). I would have thought V for the Romans, but can see Q. Now on to cyrillic. Which letter is most Russian? Bulgarian? Mongolian? Now how did this discussion start? In reaction to a blatantly political attempt to nationalize the Chinese written language in the service of the present regime. That is always how it is,

    Didn't E.B. White have a story about the relentless drive to compress the news: shorter, punchier paragraphs; shorter headlines etc. (this was before the new journalism that rambles on for page after solipsistic page, obviously). If the memory of what my late sainted Mother told me can be trusted, eventually it was all boiled down into a single word for each day. I seem to recall it was ipsne, the most news-rich word of the day. Though I see through the magic of Google that also stands for Interim Pulpit Supply of New England. Who would have imagined?

  9. Plane said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 3:35 am

    Thank you, Professor Mair! I had no idea.

  10. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 4:32 am

    @ arthur waldron (2) how do I get my mac laptop to enlarge what I am reading?

    On mine, a MacBook Pro with Firefox, you hold down the Command key (the one with the 4-sided squiggle; some keyboards also have a little apple too) and hit the + sign as many times as you need (or you can hold the + key down).

  11. michael farris said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 4:36 am

    I would nominate Ł as the most Polish letter, Â as the most Romanian letter (the subject of at least three reforms), Ő as the most Hungarian, Ệ as the most Vietnamese, İ and ı tied as the most Turkish (you can't mention one without the other) and Ǚ (lower case ǚ) as the most Chinese/Pinyin.

  12. Carl said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 5:21 am

    Clearly, the most French letter is ç. The most Portuguese letter is ã. The most Italian letter is c read as ch. The most Arabic numeral is 0. The most American state is Ohio. The most McDonald's sandwich is the Big Mac. The most Disney show is the Mickey Mouse Club. The most Language Log poster is Pullum. The most snowclone is eskimos.

  13. Catanea said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 5:35 am

    is the most Catalan letter
    But I'd just mention that my husband claims he left England (as a professional calligrapher) just to get away from the visual unpleasantness of having to write "th" constantly. That's not a single letter in alphabetic terms, unless one consders the Spanish assessment of ch and ll as separate letters in the Spanish alphabet (dictionary). Perhaps linguists could refine our terms of reference?

  14. Brian Gray said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 5:40 am

    Perhaps Я/я qualifies as the most Russian letter in the Cyrillic alphabet, since its current form was chosen rather idiosyncratically in preference to other, older and more established variants by none other than Peter the Great himself?

    And I would like to nominate Y – as a variant of capital thorn (Þ), as in 'Ye Olde…' – as the most English. Although J/j might also be a good candidate, since it has English a pronunciation that it has in no other language (dare I risk such a blanket claim? please correct me, ethnolinguists!) (although, could this also be true of W/w?), and also because it gives English-speaking students of IPA such a headache!

  15. Catanea said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 5:50 am

    @Brian Gray – and it makes a fabulous smiley :·Þ

  16. Catanea said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 5:51 am

    and my finger slipped – á

  17. Lugubert said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 6:47 am

    I was delighted when I found a way to write the very Czech ů on a Swedish typewriter: Write å, backstep, insert correcting tape, write a, backstep, write u.

    I think Scandinavian as well as Walloon would nominate å as their most characteristic letter.

  18. Ivan said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 6:50 am

    @Brian Gray – Wikipedia claims that J's pronounced as /dʒ/ in "Indonesian, Somali, Malay, Igbo, Shona, Oromo and Zulu."

  19. wren ng thornton said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 7:09 am

    I've heard that ř is the most Czech. Like michael farris's suggestions, it's a dead giveaway.

  20. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    @Catanea: à is the most Catalan letter

    I beg to disagree. The most Catalan letter is the digraph l·l. (OK, it may not be a "single letter", but still.) And the most Polish one is quite evidently ż.

  21. Rubrick said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    The most malusian letter is i.

  22. xah lee said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    [(myl) Deleted for violation of comments policy.]

  23. Sili said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    þ can't be the most English, we used it this side of the water as well.

    What about ȝ instead?

  24. TZK said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    On a note unrelated to any of the above comments and maybe slightly related to the post, does anyone know where the Chinese-professor-ese phrase "on Taiwan or on the Mainland" comes from? I understand (I think) the philosophical basis for it — i.e. that saying "in Taiwan" would imply that Taiwan is *gasp* a polity rather than a land mass. But it's less clear to me how that notion got to be considered offensive.

    During the formative years of most China-studies types, "Chinese on both sides of the strait" agreed that Taiwan was a province, right? Few Americans would say "I'm on Hawaii" unless they were trying to clarify which of Hawaii's islands they were on (Taiwan also has multiple islands and takes its name from the largest), so I'm not sure why English speakers would have collectively decided that saying "in Taiwan" is a political statement. Even given Taiwan's status today, it's hard to see why this should be the case from an English-speaker's perspective.

    But Chinese doesn't even make a distinction between "in" and "on" (in this context), so it's not clear why Chinese-speakers in/on either mainland China or Taiwan would have given the profs a hard time about this. It would be wonderful to find out that it all traced back to the crappy expat English teacher of some mid-level bureaucrat in the ROC Ministry of Information back in the day, but that explanation seems too satisfying to be true.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    @John Cowan
    I am glad that you appreciate my effort to italicize instead of use CAPS to highlight non-English text. I'd be happy to do it in my comments as well, but haven't figured out a way to make that happen.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    @xah lee

    By your own admission, the character you propose, cao4, as the "most 'Chinese' character" is as "made up" as the one suggested by Charlie Clingen. It's not clear to me how that is a "proper argument against" biang2.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 12:39 pm


    You, or someone else, brought this issue up in a comment once before in very similar language. It has nothing to do with politics (you probably have no idea about my views in that regard anyway), so it is not some sort of "professor-ese" that is at work here. It's simply that, having lived there for quite a while, and having travelled there may times, I think of the place fondly as the BAO3DAO3 寶島 ("beautiful isle"), Formosa, if you will. That idea is reinforced by the common, but ultimately incorrect, etymological explanation of the name Taiwan 臺灣 as "Terrace Bay" (based upon the surface signification of the two characters chosen to represent the originally Austronesian name derived from one of its tribes). Every time I land **ON** Taiwan, starting from 30,000 feet up, I am reminded that I am indeed landing **ON** an island. So, it's not "professor-ese" and it has absolutely nothing to do with politics. You needn't bring this up yet again, since it's a non-issue, and certainly has nothing to do with 和 or whatever else it was that we were talking about last time. It's just a preposition of no great import other than to indicate location.

  28. TZK said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 1:49 pm


    I try not to recycle either content or specific language, so if your other commenter was me I'm doubly sorry (although I'm also a little embarrassed if I subconsciously plagiarized someone else's comment). Triply sorry if the question came off as an attack (which apparently it did), and quadruply sorry if it implied that I knew your view on politics. And also for going off-topic.

    I asked the question because I've had a couple people ask me lately what the "correct" preposition is, and because some of my China-studies friends believe pretty strongly that "on" is more P.C. Just thought there might be a story behind this and that you might know it.

  29. mollymooly said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    You can link directly to the Wikipedia animation at

    I suppose the most Irish letter is now Ó, though formerly it would have been ṡ or ḟ.

  30. Carl said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    The preposition is "on" for things you think of as "floating." So, "on Oahu" or "on Earth" but "in the state of Hawaii" and "in the world."

  31. Kevin Iga said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

    @Carl: I can see a few examples of that distribution of "on" and "in", but how does it explain "on land", "on the shore", "on the Continent", "on the mainland", "on Broadway"?
    And I don't think of Oahu or Earth as floating.

  32. Carl said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

    I think that "on land", "on the shore", "on the Continent", and "on the mainland" all fit my paradigm. "Floating" is probably the wrong word to describe it, but the important thing is that you have a place to stand surrounded by stuff you can't stand on. So, both "on the plane" and "in the plane" are acceptable but have a different nuances. "On the plane" means you are thinking of the plane as being separate from the ground. "In the plane" means you are thinking of yourself as inside the tube and ignoring the relation of the plane to rest of the world. "On" tends to include the context, but "in" is focused inside of the boundaries of the thing. It's usually more natural to say "in Manhattan" since one doesn't think of Manhattan as an island, but "on Riker's Island" is virtually required. The only way I can think to get around it would be if you're using the phrase "Riker's Island" to mean the prison itself, as in "In Singsing, they do this, but in Riker's Island, they do that." "In Italy" and "in Sicily" but "on Malta." "In Japan" but "on Honshu."

    "On Broadway" is like "on Fourteenth Street" and has slightly different connotations. There the "on" is more like "on the table." It's on the street. Or slightly to the side of it, anyway.

    Then there's "on the weekend" vs. "at the weekend." English language prepositions are confusing.

  33. Sijie Ren said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    Prof. Mair,
    Thanks a lot for sharing this brilliant insight!

    One good thing is that there are fewer and fewer obedient boys and girls in China now:) Our generation really tends to resist the deceive advertise of 和谐, which is quite obvious judging by various visions of "crab story".

    About the most Chinese Chinese character, I think (just some amateurish ideas) it depends on which aspects of "Chinese" one cares about. Prof. Mair, am I right by saying your choice of BIANG2 kind of showed 1. charming features such as regional cultures, combination(even with playfulness) of Chinese character, 2. as while as the problems about regulation and digitalization of Chinese characters it represents, that you want to emphasis?

    If stick with traditions, I would personally chose 永 YONG3 as my most Chinese Chinese character(reasons for this choice, I believe, is over familiar to everyone); On the other hand, the constant evolution of Chinese language which appeals to me will bring up another proposal: 囧 JIONG3. Its original meaning and a completely new recreation still based on ideograph principles, the prevalence showed in modern interpretation, and of course, the amusement people can see in it… are all interesting issues. Similar examples such as: "靐到槑,謽到囧,嘦巭深,兲嫑跑", quite funny LOL~

    PS. BIANG BIANG noodle is delicious!

  34. v said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:15 am

    I will nominate Ѭ for most Bulgarian Cyrillic letter. Not currently used, sadly — it would be useful.

  35. behrwolf said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    What is really a little bit disappointing about this biang2 character, though, is that they missed the chance to at least come in second after the 68 strokes of the "longest" character of the Han4yu3 da4 zi4dian3, i.e.

  36. perspectivehere said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    @Victor (October 16, 11:22pm) – was this story what you had in mind?:

    "Playing for the Pacific League's Kintetsu Buffaloes, Manuel hit 25 home runs in the first eight weeks of the 1979 season. He was on pace to break the Japanese record of 16 home runs in a month. Most Japanese felt it would be an insult for a foreigner to hold that record.

    At a game against the Lotte Orions on June 19, 1979, he was beaned by a pitch from Soroku Yagisawa, effectively stopping Manuel from taking that record. The pitch broke Manuel's jaw in six places. He wore a dental bridge as a result of an earlier accident in the minor leagues. There was nothing for doctors to wire together, so they inserted three metal plates in his head and removed nerves from his face…..Ultimately, injuries, including the beaning in Japan, cut Manuel's playing days short…." (citing Robert Whiting, You Gotta Have Wa)

    The postscript to this, of interest to Phillies fans, is that Charlie Manuel went into coaching after he retired from active play, eventually managing the Phillies to World Series victory in 2008 and being voted by fans as "Manager of the Year" in Major League Baseball.

    塞翁失马 焉知非福 ?

    Go Phillies!

  37. behrwolf said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    [2nd attempt, first crashed due to server maldigestion of the zhe2 character below]

    What is really a little bit disappointing about this biang2 character, though, is that they missed the chance to at least come in second after the 68 strokes of the "longest" character of the Han4yu3 da4 zi4dian3, i.e. zhe2 (4 times "dragon", cf., meaning "blabber", "bla-bla", "logorrhetic" etc.), by writing an abbreviated [幺言幺] (strokes no.6-18) instead of the properly dotted 龻 (UTF-8: E9 BE BB). Not only did they loose six precious strokes, but also the very delicate top central aesthetic balance of the graph. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

  38. John Cowan said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    Victor Mair: To italicize a word or phrase in a comment, type <i> before the beginning of the italic section and </i> after the end of it.

  39. eRic oner said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 5:53 am

    You Gotta Have Wa is a great book if you love baseball and learning about the world.

    Ran across a page after a quick Google claiming that "there is also a simplified version of the biang2 character in use, i.e., where 長 is replaced by 长, 馬 by 马, etc."

  40. Anthony said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    While the character for biáng is fascinating, I am horrified to think that the character can be written in cursive.

  41. William Page said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 4:58 am

    I would nominate LUAN (4th tone), meaning chaos, as the most Chinesey of Chinese characters, because Chairman Mao is supposed to have said, "There is chaos under heaven and the situation is excellent." Besides that, China is now causing LUAN in the South China Sea and in global financial markets, and can be expected to step up its production of LUAN in world affairs as it tries to put the squeeze on India and other nearby nations. (Remember the old slogan, "China will never practice big-power hegemonism"?)

    I recall reading somewhere that E is the most-used letter in the English alphabet, so I'd have to nominate it for the title of "most English" letter–aside from the fact that the very word "English" begins with it.

    Don't any of us have anything better to do with our time???

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