"Arrival is a tree that is still to come"

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Thanks to Chinese characters, we are inundated with such preposterous profundities.

In the day before yesterday's UK Observer, there is an article by Claire Armitstead titled "Madeleine Thien: ‘In China, you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you:  The Man Booker-shortlisted writer on a solitary childhood in Canada and daring to question the Chinese regime" (10/8/16).

Armitstead commences her article with this quotation:

At breakfast in Vancouver just before her adopted sister disappears forever from her life, 11-year-old Marie, AKA Ma-li, forlornly submits to being consoled with a wordgame. She discovers that the Chinese ideogram for the verb “to arrive” is made up of the radical for “tree” and the word “not yet”:  “Arrival is a tree that is still to come.”

What?  The last sentence deserves a stronger expostulation, one that I am not accustomed to using.

How can we make sense of that utterance, and what "ideogram" is it referring to?

First of all, "ideogram" is not a correct designation for hanzi / kanji / hanja / Chinese characters.  See J. Marshall Unger, Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning (University of Hawai'i Press, 2004) and "Homophonophobia" (2/7/15).

Following the author's (presumably Madeleine Thien's) description of the alleged character for the verb "to arrive", we take the radical for "tree", mù 木, and add it to the word "not yet", wèi 未, yielding mèi 㭑.  Hmmm….  That does not mean "to arrive".  In fact, nobody knows quite what it means.  Even the biggest dictionaries will only say "a kind of tree".  For example, zdic confesses that "for the moment there is no explanation [for this character]; readers are welcome to add one"!

Hmmm….  Maybe it is one of those many special usages of characters for Cantonese morphemes that have no fixed graphic representation with a solid historical background.  But when I looked up Cantonese mui6 㭑, I could not find it meaning anything like "to arrive", and it's not listed in Cheung Kwan-hin and Robert S. Bauer's The Representation of Cantonese with Chinese Characters, the standard source for special usages of characters to write Cantonese.

Hmmm….  㭑 is a very rare character; it is not even listed among the 9,933 most frequent characters.  As such, I doubt very seriously that the wordgame 11-year-old Marie, AKA Ma-li, was playing that morning at breakfast in Vancouver would have included such an extremely obscure character.

(Incidentally, looking at the character frequency list from which I took these figures, 2,840 characters cover 99% of all occurrences in a representative Modern Chinese corpus consisting of 193,504,018 total characters.  6,485 characters cover 99.99% of all occurrences in the same corpus.  That gives a good idea of the usefulness of the other 7,453 characters (1%) / 3,448 (.01%) on the list, not to mention the other 70,000+ characters that together amount to less than .01% of occurrences in a representative Modern Chinese corpus.)

No more hmmm's; must take a completely different tack.  I suspect that Madeleine Thien, who was born in Vancouver in 1974, doesn't know Chinese very well, if at all.  Indeed, Armitstead tells us:

As the sole member of her family who was born in the west, Thien is the only one whose mother tongue is English. She has no Mandarin, but learned Cantonese as a child, and has “the writing age of an eight-year-old”. As for speaking: “My mother used to say that my tones are all crooked: it’s like hearing a song sung out of tune.”

I believe that what happened is that somebody told her (speaking through 11-year-old Marie, AKA Ma-li, in the novel) a garbled etymology of the word for "future", which is precisely wèilái 未來 ("not yet come / arrive"), and we do have a "tree" radical lurking in there.

As I have been quoted here:

There is probably no subject on earth concerning which more misinformation is purveyed and more misunderstandings circulated than Chinese characters (漢字, Chinese hanzi, Japanese kanji, Korean hanja) or sinograms.

–from the foreword to Ideogram, by J. Marshall Unger

The lay public, including some who know Chinese minimally or poorly, don't know the difference between a character and a word, between a radical and a character, between a stroke and a letter, and so forth and so on.  I have seen people look at two characters (a word) and call them a character; I have seen people look at one character and call it two characters. Such people even proceed to pontificate on these matters and write whole books based on their ignorance.  See, for example:

"danger + opportunity ≠ crisis:  How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray"

Thus it appears that someone sold little 11-year-old Marie, AKA Ma-li, a bill of goods, but it worked!  They wanted to console her with thoughts of the future, perhaps when she might meet her sister again.  Unfortunately, little Marie is now very confused about Chinese characters, radicals, words, etc.

On the future in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Latin, Sanskrit, Turkic, and other languages, see:

"Mirai" (11/19/14)

"Past, present, and future" (12/4/14)

Someone else will have to explain what Thien means when she explains the title of her novel (Do Not Say We Have Nothing) as:

…the English transliteration of a line from the anthem of the Communist party of China, which was translated via Russian from the French socialist anthem “The Internationale”.

[VHM:  emphasis added.]

I'm exhausted from my labors on little Marie's discovery "that the Chinese ideogram [sic] for the verb 'to arrive' is made up of the radical for 'tree' and the word 'not yet'".

[Thanks to Steve Harlow]


  1. maddie said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 9:25 am

    hi Victor,

    thank you for the sleuthing. I found your post beautiful for its attentiveness to language, and commitment to precision. Here is the line from my novel, in a scene where the game is played to distract a child from an imminent departure :

    "We lingered over breakfast, inventing a game that involved drawing words in the air. Ai-ming said that to arrive 来 is made up of the radical for tree 木 and the word not yet 未 : arrival is a tree that is still to come."

    I don't know if providing the line will make things better or worse (and you are right, I've absorbed most of Chinese from parents who speak Chinese minority languages), but thought you might be interested. Would love to hear your thoughts, even if critical. Many thanks!


  2. KWillets said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 11:11 am

    To be fair, the statement is from a child's perspective, and the article does make that clear further in, so I suppose any objection would be to the critic over-interpreting it.

    The child perspective usually involves simplification or misinterpretation, although it also "imbues a potentially hackneyed subject with delicate tension and subtle dignity" (I happen to have some critical comments on Mama and the Boarder open next to me.)

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    Hi Maddie,

    I am honored to receive your comment.

    More than three thousand years ago, the character for "wheat" was borrowed to represent the abstract verbal notion of "come" because the two words sounded alike (discussed here [a couple of paragraphs from the end, and also in the comments] and here [and in many of the comments thereto]).

    For the evolution of the forms for lái 來 ("come"), see here and here.

    For the evolution of the forms for mài 麥 ("wheat"), see here and here.

    On the Chinese Etymology website, the oldest, oracle bone forms, circa 3,200 years ago, are listed at the bottom. There you can see the stalk and the roots of the plant, which naturally also resemble the character for tree 木. But the distinctive thing about the character for "come" is the depiction of the wheat spikes hanging down. In addition, the character for "wheat" has a foot at the bottom, which indicates movement by walking. It's odd that the character for "wheat" 麥 would better represent "come", and the character for "come" 來 would better represent "wheat". But that's a quirk of the early borrowing of forms that went on in the writing system.

    In the passage cited from your novel, you used the simplified form for lái ("come"), namely 来. It's interesting that this simplified form arose already more than two thousand years ago, and by about 1,300 years ago, probably more people were writing the character as 来 than as 來. Obviously, they must have gotten tired of writing the extra strokes to depict the wheat spikes (especially since by that time they almost certainly had no idea that 來 originally depicted a wheat plant with its spikes). Naturally, it would be hard to resist the impulse to streamline the character from 來 to 来.

    I look forward to reading your novel and hope that it does well for you.



  4. AntC said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

    Thank you again Victor for a fascinating post.

    The whole Chinese writing system seems to be designed to make communication as difficult as possible. (I hesitated writing 'designed' rather than 'evolved', but somebody had to make a conscious choice for each character, and each change for a character, and get it acknowledged widely enough it could be understood.) Does the system stand as a job-protection device for the scribe class? The same accusation could perhaps be levelled at English spelling (in a mild form, relatively).

    In your comment you say the form for lái used in the novel is simplified. Perhaps you mean simpler to write (fewer strokes), but to my eyes it's no simpler to read.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 5:01 pm


    "In your comment you say the form for lái used in the novel is simplified. Perhaps you mean simpler to write (fewer strokes), but to my eyes it's no simpler to read."


    Lái 来 is the official simplified (jiǎntǐ 简体) form of the character in use in the PRC.

  6. maddie said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

    dear Victor,
    thank you for your reply, it's fascinating and illuminating. This is of the reasons I've loved studying the language, the palimpsest qualities of Chinese writing and history.
    We come, possibly, to Chinese language and linguistics from two different directions, in that I grew up surrounded by spoken Chinese languages (Cantonese and Hakka) but not the written one – in the world of my parents and their friends, this involved many jokes, puns, etc. (And my own resistance to studying the language, when I was a child.) In this passage, a 10-year girl and an 18-year old girl are playing a game, trying to decode the ideograms, in order to aid memory. The two girls don't share the same languages, so there is a playfulness (and love) to their interactions; and in this scene, the 18-year old is about to leave, alone, for an uncertain future. So she is using the ideogram to tell the younger child something she can hold onto.
    I can see how their interpretation/misinterpretation of the language at their disposal would be aggravating to someone with expert knowledge. But I've been thinking about this a great deal (today and in all my previous work), about the way we come to know and learn and use language. I'm not saying this to defend or counter your critique, but simply to say that a novel also asks questions about how language comes into our possession, and how we renew it in art, politics, scholarship, etc., in many ways.
    Thank you for taking the time, I really appreciate it.

  7. maddie said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 6:07 pm

    ps, about "transliteration", this wasn't my word (as you can see in the article, it is not a direct quote from me). I suspect the choice of words is a nod to The Internationale being translated as well as slightly re-imagined as it moved from French to Russian to Chinese.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 6:35 pm

    Your points are well taken, Maddie.

    My students and regular readers of Language Log know that I am a staunch defender of the spoken languages of China, especially Cantonese and Hakka, but also including Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, and many others. I love these languages and do everything I can to preserve and promote them. All the more am I happy to know of your background. When I read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, that knowledge will help me appreciate it at a deeper level.

  9. Simon P said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 12:19 am

    The etymology of 來 is a favorite of mine that I've used before to illustrate the convoluted ways that Chinese characters evolve.

    Folk etymologies of Chinese characters are fun, too, though they are far too often taken seriously. For the scene in question, I suggest that 來 represents two people (人) coming together under a tree (木). The future (未來), then, is simply the state of affairs before this reunion has taken place, since this gathering (來) has not yet (未) happened. A reunion in the future is thus inevitable.

    Of course, this interpretation would only work with the traditional character, as would be used in Hong Kong or Taiwan, or by an older Chinese emigrant family.

  10. JS said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 1:45 am

    The real mystery here being why the picture of wheat 來 has come down to us writing 'come' and the phono-semantic character with 來 + 夊 (a foot) writing 'wheat'…

  11. JS said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 1:47 am

    As Prof. Mair said above :/
    I believe the situation is "normal" in early inscriptions though.

  12. Smith said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    As always, a great post touching on various aspects of one's favourite subject (with Vancouver added, to boot!). Just one note, though – it seems that the link provided in "Incidentally, looking at the character frequency list from which I took these figures…" is to the Character frequency list of Classical Chinese, while the figures cited are drawn from the Modern Chinese Character Frequency List by the same scholar at http://lingua.mtsu.edu/chinese-computing/statistics/char/list.php?Which=MO . Though I find these lists NSFW myself as a hazard to productivity, I do thank Victor for bringing them to my attention!

  13. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 2:07 pm


    Thanks for catching that. Got my URLs mixed up. Fixed in the post now.

  14. Rachel said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 8:12 am

    If we allow even worse than usual etymology, I can imagine a way to make it work: 來 is composed of 木 'tree' plus 从 'never' (as in, well, 从来 and 从未). Really wrong in a bunch of ways, but it's tempting to think about as a 'wrong way to get the right answer'.

  15. January First-of-May said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

    In Anna Korostelyova's incredible fantasy story "Школа в Кармартене" ([The] School in Carmarthen), it is claimed that the Chinese character for the verb "to teach" features a child under a roof, and claws above it.
    Later in the story, it is explained that the claws are – supposedly – not actually claws, but an alternate form of the character xiao "small".

    Anyone knows whether there's any truth in either? I don't know enough Chinese to comment (not even enough to put the correct tone on the word for "small").

  16. Simon P said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 12:31 am

    The Chinese character for "teach" is 教. It does have a child under a roof of sorts, though that's just the phonetic component of the character (孝). The top of it is 耂, which is usually thought of as meaning "old". This makes sense, as 孝 means "(filial) piety", represented as a child and someone old.

    In 教, the 孝 part is simply a phonetic component, since it has a similar pronunciation (gaau3/haau3 in Cantonese, jiao4/xiao4 in Mando). It seems likely that it was partly chosen for some semantic reasons, too, though.

    The character talked about in Anna Korostelyova's story seems more likely to be 學 (simplified 学), which means "to learn" and not "to teach". I'm actually not sure what the top part means, but I'm guessing it's a phonetic component, taken from 覺 (simplified 觉). The readings are quite similar: Canto hok6/gok3, Mando xue2/jue2). Or maybe 學 was the original character, used in 覺 as a phonetic? At any rate, the top part is used for other similar-sounding characters, like 壆 (bok3/xue2). I wonder where it comes from?

    I can sort of see how the simplified version of the character (学) could be interpreted as having a 小 (small) on the top, but I highly doubt that this has anything to do with the etymology of the character. The traditional character bears little resemblance.

  17. January First-of-May said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 5:18 am

    The confusion between "to learn" and "to teach" is my mistranslation, sorry (I realized that later but forgot).

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