Mistranscribed character

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Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254-1322) is one of the most famous painters in the history of Chinese art.  Many of his priceless works still exist, and he was even honored by having a 167 kilometer-diameter feature on Mercury (132.4° west, 87.3° south), the "Chao Meng-Fu crater", named after him.

When Zhao Mengfu's name came up in a discussion on connoisseurship in one of my classes a few days ago, I almost fell off my chair upon hearing a graduate student from mainland China pronounce it as "Zhao Mengtiao".  Where did she learn that strange pronunciation for this ultrafamous artist's name?  Did she hear it from her teachers?  Her classmates?  Or was she just making a wild guess based on what she thought the ostensible phonophore, zhào 兆, would yield?  However she came up with "Zhao Mengtiao", the effect upon hearing it would be akin to hearing someone say "Michelanjump" or "Leonardo da Jump".

The correct pronunciation of 頫 in the name of the artist is fǔ.  How can we explain that reading phonologically or otherwise?  It is said to be equivalent to fǔ 俯 ("bow; nod; condescend; overlook; bend down").

Wiktionary lists the pronunciation tiào for 頫 but doesn't give any definition.  The online dictionary zdic only gives the fǔ reading.  Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), 12.290b gives both the fǔ and tiào readings for 頫 and defines the tiào reading as tiào 眺 ("gaze [afar]; look into the distance from a high place; look / gaze at; scan; survey").

The ostensible phonophore of 頫 is zhào 兆 ("omen; portent; mega-; million [China]; trillion [Japan and Taiwan]").  Characters I'm familiar with that have the 兆 phonophore are read as zhào, cháo, diǎo, diào, tiāo, tiáo, tiǎo, tiào, tāo, táo, yāo, and yào.  Quite exceptionally, in addition to its expectable tiào reading, the only character with the zhào 兆 phonophore that has the fǔ reading is 頫.

But the strangeness doesn't stop there. Zhao Mengfu didn't just quixotically make up the fǔ reading for himself, since it can be traced all the way back to the Hàn shū 漢書 (Book of Han), which was completed in 111 AD.  The tiào reading goes back even further, to the Guǎnzǐ 管子 (Master Guan) (traditionally attributed to the 7th century BCE statesman Guan Zhong; edited ca. 26 BC by the Han bibliophile Liu Xiang, with material from the intervening centuries, especially the 4th c. BC).

The final weirdness is that there's another character, , which seems to be a variant of guī 规 ("regulation; rule; compasses; dividers; gauge; plan; advise; admonish"), but which also has the fǔ reading with the meaning of fǔ 俯 ("bow; nod; condescend; overlook; bend down") and goes all the way back to the Han poet, philosopher, and politician Yáng Xióng 揚雄 (53 BC-18 AD).

What were these people doing when they assigned phonologically inexplicable readings to characters like these?  This is a real puzzle to me.  Were they just arbitrarily assigning semantic values to characters without regard to their phonological properties?

South Coblin notes:

According to Zhang Yi 張揖 (fl. ca. 230 AD), a scholar and commentator of the Wei period (220-265), in his now lost work, the Gǔjīn zì gǔ 古今字詁 (Exegesis of ancient and modern characters), the odd reading fǔ resulted from a purely semantic substitution of 俯 for 頫. That would be the oldest textual reference to the problem, so far as I know. According to Duan Yucai (1735-1815) in his Shuō wén jiě zì zhù 说文解字注 (Commentary on Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters), the Gǔjīn zì gǔ 古今字詁 (Exegesis of ancient and modern characters) quote is preserved in the later Kuāng miù zhèng sú 匡謬正俗 (Correcting errors and rectifying vulgarities) of Yan Shigu (581-645), which is an extant work. From there it got into commentarial literature of Qing times, such as Duan’s commentary.

The connoisseurship issue we were discussing actually has to do with language issues.  The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799; r. 1735-1796) was an avid collector of art, and he was (in)famous for writing comments in black ink on and placing his red seals all over the works that he acquired.  A good example of such a practice is one of Zhao Mengfu's paintings called "Man Riding a Horse".  Through the magic of Photoshop, all the latter day seals and inscriptions have been removed:

Which version do you prefer?

[Thanks to Mark Elliott, Pamela Crossley, Peter Perdue, Jerome Silbergeld, Xiuyuan Mi, Cecilia Seigle, David Moser, Yaoying Dai, Freda Murck, David Sensabaugh, Maggie Bickford, and Robert Harrist]


  1. AntC said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 5:33 am

    The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799; r. 1735-1796) was an avid collector of art, and he was (in)famous for writing comments in black ink on and placing his red seals all over the works that he acquired.

    Good grief what a travesty!

    Reminds me of one of the Lady Ingrams of Temple Newsam house http://www.leeds.gov.uk/museumsandgalleries/Pages/Temple-Newsam.aspx/.

    She decided the decoration in the Sitting Room was rather drab: very plain priceless Chinese silk wallpaper. What better to liven it up than snipping the colourful illustrations out of a print of Audobon's almost-as-priceless Birds of America, and pasting them on to the wallpaper. Double-sacrilege!

  2. KeithB said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 10:58 am

    Or the woman who "restored" that Spanish Fresco.

  3. Chris Button said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

    Qiu Xigui has a section on isolated cases of polyphony like this in his "Chinese Writing" book on p.315-320. The case of 頫 is on p.316.

    These isolated cases of polyphony even seem to go back to the oracle-bone inscriptions (Takashima has discussed some of these in his work).

    Incidentally, my MA thesis and subsequent monograph
    was devoted to debunking the Boodberg-Boltz hypothesis that polyphony ever went beyond isolated cases such as these to be a driving factor in the evolution of the Chinese script.

  4. Tom davidson said,

    December 12, 2017 @ 11:23 pm

    Professor Mair,
    May I suggest The Collected Works of Lu Shih-hsien魯實先. His work in defining 假借 and 轉注 may provide insights into 頫 and other characters with similar issues discussed above. Professor Lu frequently relied on research by 曾運乾 Zheng Yunqian.

  5. Tom davidson said,

    December 12, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

    Sorry 曾 is Zeng

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