Weird characters

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At the conclusion of "Mystery characters and variant characters", I promised that I would introduce Language Log readers to some truly weird characters. Herewith, I fulfill that pledge by presenting the following five photographs forwarded to me by Don Clarke. They were taken by a friend of his in Shēnkēng 深坑 ("Deep Pit"), Taiwan.





Even if one does not know Chinese, the super weird nature of many of the characters in these photographs will be obvious to most people who look at them.

What sense can we make of these strange characters? In the first place, I should note that the majority of the unusual characters in these photographs consist of characters or parts of other characters that are smashed together into the space of a single character. To the extent that one can recognize the characters from which the components have come, they bring with them — more or less — the meanings they bore in their original settings.

Secondly, I should mention that these weird characters have the look of the talismans and amulets that are encountered in Taoist religious rituals and practices, so they are not entirely alien to those who are familiar with Taoist paraphernalia. Thus, most of these composite characters are more or less related to Taoist practice, but have been integrated into popular beliefs of the Sinosphere, and may even be found in advertising, felicitations, etc.

Third, we may observe that, while a few of these complex fusion glyphs may be known nationally by aficionados, others can be very local in nature and have limited circulation outside of where they are found.

It is not my intention to explain all of the bizarre symbols in these photographs. Rather, I will merely analyze and annotate the construction and meaning of a few representative examples to give an idea of how they work.

The first one is a compressed form of "anhǎo Kǒng Mèng" 安好孔孟 ("safe and sound with Confucius and Menius"). This is the sort of fusion glyph calligraphy you also see in the very popular single character form of zhāocái jìnbǎo 招財進寶 ("attract wealth and summon treasure"), which is often found on Chinese piggybanks. If you Google on 招財進寶, you will find images of this well-known fusion glyph. Note how the elements of the four constituent characters are rearranged and squeezed together.

Photograph number one is the shop sign of a Taiwan food chain, āmā de suānméitāng 阿妈的酸梅汤 ("Grandma's sour plum juice"), one of my favorite drinks for a hot, summer day when I'm dying of thirst. I think that it is a traditional trade mark. Perhaps one of our readers will be able to enlighten us further.

In the second photograph, some of the characters may be decoded as cáizhǔ 財主 ("person of wealth"), fāngbiàn 方便 ("convenient", about which we have often written on Language Log), yuánnán 元南 ("primal south"), and qīngqì (tiān) 青氣(靝)("cyan vapor", a Taoist term for "heaven"). Here we also have tiānguān cì fú 天官賜福 ("the celestial official bestows blessings"). This is a jocular introduction to some of these expressions.

In the third photograph we have sìjì rúshì 四季如是 ("may all four seasons be like this", with 如是 written in archaic small seal (xiǎozhuàn 小篆) script.

I think that the characters in the fourth photograph are related with the bāxiān 八仙 (the famous so-called "Eight Immortals" of Taoism [I would prefer to call them the "Eight Transcendents"]). We can find references to the names of the Eight Transcendents hidden within the composite characters. For example, Guójiù (Cáo Guójiù), Xiāngzi (Hán Xiāngzi), Xiāngū (Hé Xiāngū), and Láncǎi (Lán Cǎihé) 國舅(曹國舅)、湘子(韓湘子)、仙姑(何仙姑)、籃采(藍采和). For further identifications see here and here.

The glyph in the fifth photograph is a compressed reworking of the characters for this widespread felicitation: fùguì píng'ān 富 貴平安 ("wealth and peace", with 貴 in a variant form), which is what all Chinese in traditional society dreamed of, except for a handful of eccentrics.

Denis Mair comments:

These mashup characters again show how strongly entrenched the graphological imagination is in Chinese culture.

You wouldn't believe some of the modern Chinese painters that have entered a sort of abstract thicket of graphological, etymological associations. One example is Wei Ligang 魏立刚 and his "Calligraphic Image School." 书象学派. It's a remarkable tangent of modernity that involves continued study of old character lexicons, as if they can't plumb the depths of their graphological sea with utter freedom of association until they know all phases of their writing system's history.

天官 is a beautiful concept that I've been thinking about for a long time. It is mentioned in the Yijing (Book of Changes) (#17, line 1). In early Daoism there was a lot of talk about subsidiary gods of bodily organs convening in some kind of inner Yellow Coutryard to pay court to the 天官, which would be one's highest center of selfhood. Jin Shengtan 金圣叹, whose comments on Tang poems I like so much, uses this term to indicate a level of selfhood that can only be discovered through special epiphany. I think Jin got it from Daoism, but he was willing to use it in a personal way, to convey his own more syncretic outlook.

WARNING! With perhaps one or two extremely rare exceptions (e.g., tiān 靝), none of these odd characters are found in any dictionary or data base, no matter how large (60,000, 80,00, even 100,000 or more characters). Nor, with rare exceptions, will they be found in the specialized dictionaries and data bases for variant glyphs that I cited in my previous post. The composite, fusion glyphs studied in this post belong to an entirely different subspecies of the Chinese writing system. If you try to find them in conventional dictionaries and data bases, you are likely to go mad.

[Thanks to Stephan Stiller, James Benn, Rostislav Berezkin, Cheng Fangyi, Nathan Sivin, and Gianni Wan]



17 Comments

  1. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

    A still more extreme version of this phenomenon can be seen in some styles of Chinese Islamic calligraphy, in which the Arabic script is moulded into forms that resemble Chinese characters.

    Here is an example showing the names of God:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fa/Allah_Names_in_Chinese_Arabic_Script.jpg

    Another example—"Praise be to God and to my knowledge of the Quran":

    http://chineseislamiccalligraphy.com/calligraphy-2/calligraphy-first-set-2013/#jp-carousel-737

    A particularly cleverly contrived scroll can be seen here, in which the calligraphy can be read either as Chinese cursive script (zhēnzhǔ zhida 真主至大, "God is great") or, by rotating ninety degrees, as Arabic script (bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm ﷽, "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful"):

    http://chineseislamiccalligraphy.com/calligraphy-2/calligraphy-first-set-2013/#jp-carousel-747

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

    Even if one does not know Chinese, the super weird nature of many of the characters in these photographs will be obvious to most people who look at them.

    You may underestimate ignorance. I'm sorry to say that even with my attention called to them, I don't notice anything weird except for the character(s?) above the diamond in the first picture and maybe the bottom character in the third.

    Daniel Trambaiolo: I'm astounded that someone can write something that's meaningful, and appropriate, in two scripts at once. Are there other examples of that? (Aside from simple possibilities such as making the characters of one script out of "pixels" that are small characters of another.)

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 1:49 am

    @Jerry Friedman, a search for "multi-script ambigram" turned up a paper on Devnagari-Latin ambigram construction with a detailed example at http://www.typoday.in/2012/spk_papers/pallavi-apte-typographyday2012.pdf‎ (PDF); and a page ( http://www.ambigram.com/nagfa ) which talks about some artists who create multilingual ambigrams.

  4. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 2:46 am

    Jerry Friedman:
    The character above the diamond is in fact the perfectly normal Chinese character 阿; it is the characters inside the diamond that are strange. Probably the main thing that might appear strange about these characters if you don't read Chinese is that they are much more complex that normal characters and don't have the usual left-right balance. However, it is true that many regular Chinese characters that might look just as complicated and unusual to an untrained eye
    (e.g. 鬱).

  5. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 2:47 am

    Jerry Friedman:
    I can't think of any other obvious examples of simultaneous writing in two different scripts. The Chinese-Arabic example is made possible by the traditional flexibility of Arabic calligraphy – think of the ways that Arabic calligraphers sometimes form their writing into images of animals, people, ships etc. There are comparable instances in Chinese calligraphy, but they are probably less common. I believe that true calligraphy connoisseurs in both traditions regard these sorts of things as cheap gimmicks, but the rest of us can feel free to be amused by them.

    I am only familliar with the basics of the Arabic script and don't read calligraphic Arabic, so I can't really judge whether the 真主至大/﷽ is legible in Arabic if you don't already know what to expect; however, the Basmala is such a commonly written phrase that I suspect the form of the characters probably gives enough clues to let a viewer know what they should be "reading". For the Chinese interpretation of the glyphs, it is remarkably easily legible; probably only the third character zhi 至 ("most") would be illegible to a reader who didn't know what they were looking at, since fitting in the Arabic script al-rahman introduces a few too many twists and turns to look like anything that a Chinese calligrapher might plausibly produce for this character.

  6. Rubrick said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 3:46 am

    Jerry Friedman: Given the almost superhuman virtuosity of Scott Kim and other master ambigram creators, I've no doubt that writing text which is interpretable in two scripts simultaneously is well within the range of what is possible.

  7. Jongseong Park said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 5:38 am

    Scott Kim's œuvre does contain multiscript ambigrams, though in the two examples found on his website, it's the case of a text in one script being embedded in the other rather than the whole text being readable in either script:

    Origami/折紙 ambigram (1988)
    Elise Diamond/אסתר ambigram (1997)

    From Scott Kim's descriptions for the latter: This is the third bilingual English-Hebrew inversion I've done. I'm told that there are similar bilingual signs in Israel.

  8. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 8:09 am

    Getting away from the ambigrams but closer to the original post, perhaps it is also worth mentioning the "English calligraphy" of the Chinese artist Xu Bing, who moulds English words into the general form of Chinese characters (without trying to make them legible in Chinese). Other works by Xu Bing, such as his "Book from the Sky" (天書), are made up entirely of "weird characters" that are not meant to have any pronunciation or meaning whatsoever, but simply play on the aesthetic form and the idea of Chinese characters (with more subtle allusions to the sorts of Taoist talismans mentioned in the post).

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 8:13 am

    Some Chinese-English ambigrams:

    http://chinese-ambigrams.blogspot.fr/
    http://www.sinosplice.com/life/archives/2009/06/30/chinese-english-bilingual-ambigrams

  10. Jean-Michel said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    I feel like these "mashup characters" are cousins of some of the polysyllabic characters discussed here—particularly 瓩 for 千瓦 "kilowatt," formed by simply combining the component characters of the original form. Stuff like 圕 (for 圖書館 "library") is a bit different since it's only combining components instead of whole characters.

  11. Faldone said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

    Chinese portmanteau words?

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 11:41 pm

    Thanks for all the answers. I'd forgotten the word "ambigram". Yes, those are amazing.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 4:39 am

    @Faldone

    Portmanteau characters, perhaps. When we're talking about the Chinese writing system and Chinese languages, "words" and "characters" are very different things.

  14. Zev Handel said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 10:37 am

    For more on portmanteau characters like 瓩, see the recent article by David Branner:

    Branner, David P. 2011. Portmanteau Characters in Chinese. Journal of the American Oriental Society 131.1:73-82.

  15. JS said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    David Branner's "Portmanteau Characters in Chinese" may be of interest…

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    Although if I want to be rigorous I would have to disentangle several related concepts, the general idea of fusion glyphs can be found in the tradition of several writing systems. Latin inscriptional forms often had whimsical ligatures, nested letters and the like. Or look at some of the more exotic Byzantine Greek ligatures. Most of these forms didn't survive the transition to modern typography, but in other writing systems the idea of fusion glyphs (such as conjuncts in Indic scripts) became integral.

    Just for fun: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiocular_O

  17. Victor Mair said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

    From Jonathan Lipman:

    I've been looking at Sino-Arabic calligraphy for years–Fletcher introduced me to it through the work of Wasma'a Chorbachi, with whom he planned a project on the subject before he got too sick to work.

    James Frankel has a wonderful example on the cover of his 2011 book about Liu Zhi's search for Allah's Chinese name, an incredibly simple piece of Mi Guangjiang's 草書 of the character 主, for God, which when turned on its side reads "Allah" in Arabic. I don't know enough about either Chinese or Arabic calligraphy to work on it professionally, but it constantly intrudes into consciousness whenever I look at pictures of Chinese mosques.

    I have a large "character" scroll on the wall behind my desk at the college, and it baffles my Chinese students because they can't read it. It's "as-salaam aleikum" in Arabic, rendered as a single Chinese-character-like image using cloth-wrapped bamboo as a "brush" and thus producing lots of flying white and a stroke made up of dozens of parallel but separate lines. There couldn't be a better metaphor for the Sino-Muslim intellectual condition.

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