Ken Liu reinvents Chinese characters

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In "Inside the world of Chinese science fiction, with 'Three Body Problem' translator Ken Liu" (Quartz, 12/2/16), Nikhil Sonnad conducts an interview with the sci-fi author and translator of the Sān tǐ 三体 (Three-Body [Problem]) series by Liú Cíxīn 刘慈欣.

The interview focuses on an anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction called Invisible Planets translated by Ken Liu.  Near the beginning of the interview, Liu refers to, Chen Qiufan, one of the authors represented in the volume:

He's very linguistically talented, his English is excellent, and he speaks Cantonese as well as Mandarin and his topolect [a regional language].

Upon reading that sentence, my eyes opened wide.  I knew that Ken Liu must be a particularly percipient practitioner of Chinese language arts.  He knows and appreciates that there's more than one Chinese language out there and knows how to talk about them in a precise way.  The rest of the interview only confirmed my initial impression:  Ken Liu has a sophisticated understanding of Chinese language and literature.

The fact that he specializes in science fiction reminded me of a vibrant series of exchanges on Chinese language issues that we had earlier this year which were stimulated by another noted Chinese-American science fiction writer, Ted Chiang:

"Ted Chiang uninvents Chinese characters" (5/13/16)

"Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters " (5/16/16)

"Firestorm over Chinese characters" (5/23/16)

See also:

"'Arrival is a tree that is still to come'" (10/10/16)

"How many more Chinese characters are needed?" (10/25/16)

I especially like Liu's answer to the last question of the interview:

QZ: Do you think that sci-fi in translation is a good way for Western readers to begin to understand Chinese literature?

Liu: That's interesting. I really question the extent to which Chinese sci-fi is a good representation of Chinese literature.

To give a little background, most Chinese literature these days is written in what's called modern standard written Chinese, which is very different from classical Chinese. It's a new language as far as literature is concerned. It has a history not much longer than 100 or 120 years.

Because it's a relatively new language, the literature written in it shows all the same kind of roughness and unsettledness and complexity that you would expect of a vernacular literature still young and in development. Just as English and French literature went through centuries of instability when they were first being written in these vernaculars, as opposed to Latin.

The contemporary Chinese literary tradition is different from the classical one that came before it, too. Even though it draws on that classical tradition all the time, in the same way that the English language's earliest vernacular works drew on the classical Latin tradition.

So what you end up with is, reading contemporary Chinese sci-fi is a good introduction to contemporary Chinese literature. It is, however, not necessarily a good introduction to "Chinese" literature, understood as a whole.

I find Liu's sensitivity to the sheer newness of writing in Modern Standard Mandarin to be refreshing.  The fact that writing in the modern standard vernacular is still new and rough makes it all the more exciting and, indeed, experimental for those who are engaged in forging modern Chinese language and literature.

Ted Chiang challenged us to think of a world in which Chinese characters never existed; Ken Liu shows us a world in which Chinese characters are being reformulated to accommodate the needs of emerging Chinese languages.


  1. Sam said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    Ken's translations are great, and his own books are excellent as well. The Dandelion Dynasty series (two books out now, starting with "The Grace of Kings") is a fantasy series, but I think it has helped me understand more about Chinese culture. A big theme in the book is the society's relationship to an older "more civilized" language system known only to scholars, and the more modern vernacular used by everyone else. The characters struggle over whether the poetic beauty of the old language outweighs its tacit use as a tool of oppression by withholding art and knowledge from the population at large. Something tells me that is a theme based on Ken's knowledge of language history in China.

  2. Dan Fitch said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    I picked this collection up on the strength of his Cixin Liu translations, and it's fascinating. I have to say, Ken's translations are fantastic, but his own short story collection is something else entirely. It's one of my absolute favorite things since Ted Chiang's collection, and is likely my current pick for best short story collection, scifi or not, in the 2000s. Do yourself a favor and check it out!

  3. Jenny said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    Ken Liu is amazing in every way and in every language he uses. If you haven't read his work, his award-winning short story "The Paper Menagerie" is available online and well worth the time. Just make sure you have tissues handy.

  4. Carl said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 3:35 pm

    An interesting quote from Death's end (the third and final book of 三体) with a perhaps even more interesting note from Ken Liu:

    […]Trisolaran writing was purely ideographic; unlike human scripts, which were mostly phonetic, Trisolaran writing had no connection to their speech but expressed ideas directly. In the distant past, humans had also used ideographic scripts—such as hieroglyphs—but most of these later disappeared.*

    *(Translator's note): Some Anglophone readers may raise an eyebrow at this assertion. The common description of Chinese characters—the script this novel was originally written in—as "ideograms" is inaccurate. The Chinese script is phonetic, like almost every other script still in use, though it still contains a few (very few) ideographic elements that have survived through the ages. An introduction to how Chinese characters really function may be found in John DeFrancis's Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 5:52 pm

    Hieroglyphs? Most hieroglyphs stood for one, two or three consonants, plus a few word signs.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 1:06 am

    I am grateful to Carl for quoting Ken Liu's very interesting "Translator's note", which shows that he has done his homework and has a clear recognition of the way Chinese characters work, and realizes that "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 William C. Hannas, Asia's Orthographic Dilemma (University of Hawai'i Press, 1987). Liu's citation of John DeFrancis's Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy is also very much to the point.

    As for hieroglyphs, I asked my Egyptologist colleagues if there was ever a stage in their development when the script consisted purely of pictograms and ideograms, or whether they already had phonetic properties from the very beginning of the script. Here are two responses:


    1. David Silverman:

    A lot depends on whom you are speaking to. Gunther Dreyer who excavated the early royal tombs at Abydos felt that the inscribed bone tags he found in tomb UJ actually had signs that were already indicative of sound signs, and the analysis of the material dates well before 3100 BCE. It is not long after that that we see phonetic signs being used to comprise words.


    2. Jing Wen:

    I think the hieroglyph signs had phonetic value at the very beginning. On the labels found in tomb U-J at Abydos, which were considered as the earliest examples of writing in Egypt, some of the place names, such as Buto or Bubastis, were written with signs that represent phonetic value (Dreyer 1998, Umm el-Qaab I: Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse).

    Some scholars believe that a sophisticated form of script including phonetic signs had already developed 200 years before the 1st Dynasty (3000 BCE) (Morenz 2004,Bild-Buchstaben und symbolische Zeichen; Kahl 2002-2004, Frühägyptisches Wörterbuch, 3 vols.).

    [VHM: referring to photographs of inscriptions that she sent to me, Jing Wen states:] The one on the bottom left reads Baset. The bird is pronounced ba, while the other sign representing the throne is pronounced st.

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 5:09 am

    If something didn't represent language (and therefore sound), why would we consider it "writing" at all?

  8. Simon P said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 6:18 am

    @Andreas Johansson: Do you not consider sign language to be language?

  9. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 6:44 am

    @Simon P

    Good point.

    Still, if Trisolarian "writing" expresses ideas directly, it presumably doesn't represent a Trisolarian sign language either, so its status of as writing still seems suspect to me.

  10. Simon P said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 7:04 am

    @Andreas Johansson: Do you consider Blissymbols writing?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 3:52 pm

    From Joe Wegner:

    In its earliest known appearance (tomb U-J at Abydos, ca. 3250 BC) hieroglyphs had the principal characteristics known later: logograms, phonograms/phonetic value, as well as use as determinatives. Aspects of the full developed system, particularly use of phonetic complements, are missing. The more formal system emerges from Dynasty 1 onwards. A good overview is:

    Kahl, Jochem 2001. Hieroglyphic writing during the fourth millennium BC: an analysis of systems. Archéo-Nil 11, 101 -134.

  12. Eidolon said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 8:39 pm

    Should we be surprised that Liu Cixin, Ken Liu, and Ted Chiang have all made direct allusions to the history of Chinese writing in their works, and that two of them, Liu Cixin and Ted Chiang, have attributed to aliens the practice of using scripts that most linguists would consider older and perhaps more primitive in human history? Come to think of it, Liu's trisolarians and Chiang's heptapods even share the same popular Latin naming scheme, though I wonder whether that is an artifact of the translation.

    Trisolarian = tri-solar-ian = "[of] three suns"
    Heptapod = hepta-pod = "[of] eight feet"

    I would expect such eccentricities out of a tight-knight science fiction community that is constantly influencing one another, to be fair, as indeed this was/is also the case with Anglophone science fiction writers. But the particular similarities are telling in and of themselves. For example, the emphasis on the theme of orthography is quite persistent.

  13. Eidolon said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 8:42 pm

    I have no idea why I wrote "eight" in the above. I meant "seven."

  14. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 7, 2016 @ 1:45 am


    'Heptapod' doesn't use Latin (which could have given something like 'septiped' or 'septemped(e)').

    Also, heptapods come from a story written in English. What translation could their English name be an artefact of?

    According to the Innernets, Trisolaris is 三体世界 (literally 'three-body world') and Trisolarans (not '-solarians') are 三体人 (lit. 'three-body 'people").

  15. January First-of-May said,

    December 7, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

    IIRC, there aren't any known Egyptian hieroglyphic texts so early that they actually are pictographic/ideographic (I'm not sure if those are different things) – i.e. all the texts are at least in some way phonetic, and it's presumed that a more ideographic system was the origin but no known examples survive – but something similar is a known stage in Sumerian proto-cuneiform (which by that point still has a long way to go before it acquires the characteristic cuneiform shape, and only tradition prevents it from being called hieroglyphic).

    Some of the more exotic "writing" types (mostly belonging to assorted US and Canadian natives) appear to indeed be perhaps ideographic, or something very close. More often than not the pictures involved change significantly from writer to writer.
    Then again, people thought Mayan writing was ideographic before someone deciphered its phoneticity.

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