Chinese characters in the 21st century

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We've been having a vigorous debate on the nature of Sinograms:  "Character crises".  It started on June 15, but it is still going on quite actively in the comments section.  A new reader of Language Log, a scholar of late medieval Chinese literature from Beijing was prompted by her reading of this lively discussion and other LL posts to which it led her to send in the following remarks:

Thanks to your blogs, I begin to be aware of some amusing aspects of Chinese languages, though I am still struggling with the terminology.

Recently a rice noodle restaurant we frequent has been redecorated, and its name on the signboard has been changed from Āxiāng mǐxiàn 阿香米线 to Āxiāng mǐxiàn 阿香米 [mǐxiàn 米线/線 means "rice noodles"; Axiang is the name of the shop]. while all references to rice noodles remain as 米线 on its menu.  [VHM: xiàn 线 is the simplified form of traditional xiàn 線, which means "line; wire; thread; string; filament".]  It makes a curious mixture of a traditional Chinese character only for its formal name and a simplified one on all other occasions. I wonder if using traditional characters has become a fashion nowadays when much propaganda is given to the traditional culture which one hardly knows what it exactly is.

Another amusing case has to do with my daughter’s art teacher. She has opened an art school and asked me to translate her favorite catchline into English, which reads “yòng Zhōngguó xiěyì wénhuà de yǎnjīng kàn shìjiè 用中国写意文化的眼睛看世界“ [VHM:  GT tr. is "look at the world with the eyes of Chinese freehand culture"]. I was totally baffled with the phrase xiěyì wénhuà 写意文化, as I couldn’t figure out how a painting technique could be connected with culture as a whole. She explained that xiěyì 写意 is the very essence of Chinese thinking and culture. Although I hardly agreed, I did the translation.  [My correspondent — in a later, separate message — told me that she paraphrased xiěyì wénhuà 写意文化 (lit., "freehand culture") as "understand the world with Chinese perceptiveness and a spirit beyond form".  She explained:  "I didn't translate 写意 as 'freehand', for 'freehand culture' doesn't make any sense. My translation is more like an explanation as "understand the world with Chinese perceptiveness and a spirit beyond form". I am not sure if that corresponds to the original idea of my friend, but it at least makes some sense. That's the best I could come up with."]

The neighborhood I am living in is a wealthy one with housing prices soaring up to RMB100,000 per square meter. Many of my neighbors, mostly women, engage in keeping healthy (
养生)Zen meditation (禅修), or any other traditional methods that help to live longer or acquire inner peace. My husband once joked that they bore a resemblance of Li Pinger (李瓶儿) and her companions in Gold Vase Plum (金瓶梅).*  So, this might be one of the real traditions the Chinese community is following nowadays.

*[VHM:  Famous pornographic vernacular novel from the late Ming period (1368-1644).  There is a magisterial translation into English by David Roy and an earlier one by Clement Egerton with the most highly erotic and explicit portions rendered in Latin.  There are also translations into Manchu, German, and French.]


  1. Starry Gordon said,

    June 22, 2018 @ 11:11 am

    'Freehand culture' for sumi-e?

  2. R Steinmetz said,

    June 22, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    I wonder if the phrase "understand the world with Chinese perceptiveness and a spirit beyond form" would be associated with an art school, of course the name of the school might make that obvious, where as 'freehand culture' makes that clearer. Of course 写意 may be well understood as having a cultural significance.

  3. Colin McLarty said,

    June 22, 2018 @ 11:35 pm

    I think I agree with Starry Gordan and R Steinmetz. "Freehand culture" is no familiar or precise term, that is true. But it makes a lot of sense for an art school, especially in relation to the Chinese tradition that values rapid spontaneity of brush work in both paintings and calligraphic poems.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

    Colin: your second sentence interests me, because I still remember very clearly being corrected by my (Chinese/Vietnamese) uncle-by-marriage when I first attempted to draw Chinese characters (hanzi). I had found when practising at home that if I drew the characters quickly, they appeared more natural, more artistic and less forced than if I drew them slowly and carefully. But when Uncle Hong watched me, the first thing he said was "Slow down — you will never master the Chinese script if you do not take considerable time drawing each character". His comment was later echoed by another native speaker/writer at a summer school in Poland.

  5. Colin McLarty said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 5:48 pm

    Philip, I don't try to write quickly either And I would not trust my own sense of what looks either natural or artistic. Several sources, some friends and some media, have told me that in at least one tradition of calligraphic poetry the peak achievement is to spend a long time conceiving a poem — not only the words, but the look on paper — then write it swiftly "all in one motion." Others will know more than I do. But certainly every not one is supposed to write this way, let alone beginners.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 3:28 am

    "draw characters"

    Whenever I see someone say that, I know he is a neophyte and that he is treating the characters as though they are little pictures, which they are not.

    One writes Chinese characters, just as one writes the letters or symbols of any other writing system.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 5:14 am

    From a graduate student in art history:

    “Xiěyì 寫意” is indeed a regular term in Chinese art theory/technique. In the context of painting, the term xie 寫 means “to depict.” Depiction operates between two poles: depiction of the underlying conception (xieyi 寫意), and depiction of the visible phenomenon (xieshi 寫實). Xieyi 寫意 usually has a close connection to spontaneity or expressionistic brushwork — a fine example of xieyi hua 寫意畫 is "Grapes" by the Ming painter Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521-1593), and we can see that he places a value on explicit and extreme improvisation — but not all xieyi 寫意 artists (especially earlier ones, like the Northern Song painters) necessarily emphasize this point, just as xieshi 寫實 ("depict reality") does not necessarily imply a painstaking realistic gongbi 工筆 technique.

    The key of xieyi 寫意 is to depict an experience of the world, not a depiction of a “world out there” like xieshi 寫實 does. In the case of xieyi 寫意, depiction in the Chinese context incorporates the beholder into the painting as an imaginary participant rather than positing an external God-like beholder of the scene. In this respect, painting in China is consistent with lyric poetry, which is similarly empirical and participatory. Two examples are as follows:

    “酒可銷閒時得醉,詩憑寫意不求工。” (宋陳造《自適》詩之一)


    Here, we can see that xieyi 寫意 is no longer a term for a specific painting technique, but extends to mean a kind of expressive and empirical quality in poetry and prose poems. In my opinion, xieyi 寫意 does not need to be confined to the sphere of painting — it can gain potential multiplicity of interpretations in different contexts. In this sense, I agree with the art teacher who uses the loosely-combined term xieyi wenhua 寫意文化 in the context “用中國寫意文化的眼睛看世界” and explains that “xieyi 寫意 is the very essence of Chinese thinking and culture.” It works for me, and I believe she hoped to teach students a specific attitude toward life and thinking, not just a painting technique.

    As for the case of the rice noodle shop (阿香米線), I am curious where it happened—in a big city like Beijing or other small towns — and who its main audiences were. My mother lived in a small town and I believe she wouldn’t recognize any traditional characters and she does not care about any propaganda given to the traditional culture. It means that such a change in a restaurant signboard makes no sense to audiences like her. And for the practices of keeping healthy 養生 and Zen meditation 禪修, I believe they are very popular among housewives and old mothers. They have much spare time and most of them do not like sports. In this case, such activities provide them with good choices — they gather together (just sit or have tea), spend money there (they are always rich), and have a place to chat with friends (they are not simply attracted by the activities themselves). Anyway, I do believe practices of traditional Chinese culture have been more popular among common people these years, and also think not all of them understand what they are really doing.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 5:15 am

    From a graduate student who concentrates on esthetics and premodern poetry:

    I think I understand the reason for her confusion: To begin with, xiěyì 寫意 was a distinctive concept in literati circles since the N Song, developed and popularized by none other than my love Su Shi (1037-1101). This idea inaugurated the whole genre of wénrén huà 文人畫 ["literati painting"] — literati painters claim their works are superior to those by professional painters because their (lofty/unusual) 意 is embodied–or visualized, whereas painters' painting is merely mimetic–without spirit nor depth (similar to Plato's denigration of art…)

    寫意 is therefore a form of artistic expression rather than a way to conceive or receive external entities.

    However I think that line can be understood as subjective aestheticization of the world — or perhaps closer to the teacher's intention, to perceive the world beyond its form, i.e., grasp the spirit — the 意.

  9. Tom davidson said,

    June 24, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    西域土貓肉 anyone?

    [VHM: I found this in the spam folder, and rightly so. Our spam filter was doing its job to send this comment there, since more than 99% of LLog readers wouldn't have the foggiest clue what it meant. So I'll explain it for everybody:

    Xīyù tǔmāo ròu 西域土貓肉.

    Superficially, that looks like it means "Western Regions local cat", which is fairly nonsensical.

    So, instead of "Xīyù tǔmāo ròu 西域土貓肉", we should parse it as "xī yù tǔmāoròu 西域土貓肉", which is a Mandarin sound transcription of English "see you tomorrow".

    This may strike LLog readers as bizarre, but young people in Chinese-speaking countries do communicate like this a lot.]

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 3:30 am

    Victor, I hesitated over whether to write "draw" or "write" (of the action of producing hanzi by hand) and decided on "draw" since I used a brush; for me (perhaps a typical Westerner) one writes with a pen and draws with a brush. One can do either with a pencil.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 4:15 am

    Some interesting (but probably irrelevant) statistics — Google hits for "Draw/write Chinese characters" (Huà hànzì and Xiě hànzì) in traditional and simplified scripts :

    Huà hànzì ("draw Chinese characters") — 畫漢字: 386K+ 画汉字: 394K = 780K;
    Xiě hànzì ("write Chinese characters") — 寫漢字: 78.3K + 写汉字: 571K = 649.3K.

    Overall, a preference for simplified "write" but "draw" in both traditional and simplified is well-attested and of the same order of magnitude. Simplified "draw" is the least attested.

  12. JK said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 6:38 am

    xieyi reminds me of yanyi 演义, something like "performing meaning," found in the title of Sanguo Yanyi, sometimes translated as Romance of the Three Kingdoms

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