Scurrying (like a rat)

« previous post | next post »

Someone referred to Pelosi's visit to Taiwan as "foolhardy".  That prompted the following response from a sensitive and perceptive Chinese observer:

Foolhardy – reminds me of the phrase, cuàn fǎng 竄訪, used to report Pelosi's visit in all official Chinese news / channels. Whether appropriate or not, I have to marvel at how the single word 竄, both its graph and sound, conjures up an image of reckless rats scurrying. There are people good at wording for the purpose of controlling.

That is a stunningly brilliant insight.  It will take some unpacking to explain why.

The fǎng 訪 part of the locution is easy:  for the purposes of this expression, it simply means "to visit", though in other contexts it can also mean "to ask; to inquire".  To fully comprehend the implications of "cuàn fǎng 竄訪", one must grasp both the denotations and the connotations of the modifier, cuàn 竄.

Dictionaries list the following definitions for cuàn 竄 (18 strokes) (simplified 窜 [12 strokes]):

escape; flee; go in exile; banish; leap; run away; hide; revise; edit (to doctor, alter); expel; channel(ing)

The glyph is said to be an ideogrammic compound, showing a rodent (shǔ 鼠) [hiding in] a hole (xué 穴).

I doubt that any Western media have captured the caustic nuances of cuàn fǎng 竄訪 in their accounts of the whirlwind visit to Taiwan of the Speaker of the House.  Since I will soon be going down into the SEPTA subway, I will certainly have a vivid appreciation of the furtive-assertive behavior of rats scurrying over, under, and around the tracks — and hiding in holes next to them.


Selected readings


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 11:02 am

    "[When] a rat crosses the street, everyone chases it down," (过街老鼠,人人喊打 guò jiē lǎo shǔ, rén rén hǎn dǎ), a popular Chinese saying meaning: "everyone detests a lowlife." Or, to paraphrase today's headline:
    (佩洛西访台, 中国行军演, Peiluoxi fang Tai, Zhongguo xing junyan, When Pelosi visits Taiwan, China carries out military drills.)

  2. Chris Button said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 12:42 pm

    FWIW, 竄 may be related to 㕙 by the generally unrecognized yet overwhelmingly conspicuous Old Chinese schwa/“a” alternation

  3. AntC said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 5:15 pm

    China carries out military drills.

    Yes, the CCP phraseology is as if it's a force of nature for military aircraft to be overflying the median line — oh! surprise they're from the Mainland and flying into Taiwan airspace.

    Then Pelosi's approach has to circuit round over the Philippines, as if avoiding a typhoon. That sort of 'scurrying'.

  4. Chris Button said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 9:03 am

    Further to my 竄 vs 㕙 comment, the idea that 竄 is a simple ideograph is probably not that simple. The role of 鼠 is likely as a representation of the phonetic 㕙 in the same way that 鳥 (or rather 雞 in its earlier forms) in 鳴 is representative of the phonetic 令 (as in 命).

  5. ~flow said,

    August 5, 2022 @ 5:05 am

    @Chris Button

    The question that comes to my mind when reading the—elucidating—theories about the 'true story' of some characters is whether or not one has to stick to a single true story. FWIW there could be a 'porque no los dos' solution, especially if there is a single character with multiple ancient forms, which happens regularly. What I'm trying to say is that the linkages between 竄 and 㕙, and between 鳥/雞 and 鳴 are sufficiently obscure as to be missed even by the interested and eager layman, given that for example neither of the often-cited sources [1], [2] provide any hint of it, be it in the expositions or the lists of variant forms. Conversely, uncounted millions have over the millennia leaned on the explanations given in the 說文解字, (墜也。从鼠在穴中。 and 鳥聲也。从鳥从口。) so should one not conclude that these have become the true *motivations* for the character forms?


  6. Chris Button said,

    August 5, 2022 @ 6:50 am

    @ ~flow

    I think there are two questions to answer here.

    1. The schwa/“a” alternation is pervasive across the lexicon but does not often surface in reconstructions of Old Chinese based on a priori theories rather than phonological evidence. It is not contingent on what characters are used to write what words.

    2. One look at the oracle bones shows that “ideogram” (huiyi) cannot be distinguished from “pictogram” (xiangxing). The idea that new ideograms/pictograms would then continue to be readily coined despite the recognized role of phonetic components is implausible. Isolated cases of polyphonic usage do exist even in the earliest inscriptions, but they are better viewed as instances of “playing” with script, and they were crucially never the basis for the formation of phonetic series (unlike has been claimed).

  7. ~flow said,

    August 5, 2022 @ 8:09 am

    I'm not sure I can fully follow your argumentation, but I think my line of reasoning is largely independent of what I think you're saying. My idea is that for the past 2000 years people have been taught that 竄、墜也。从鼠在穴中。 or, according to a more modern source, 老鼠在洞穴裏,表示“隱匿”、“逃竄”。[1] Now whether the *origin* of 竄 is to be sought in the combination of 穴 and 鼠 is one question, but what we can say for sure is that people have been told that not only is 竄 written like 穴 'hole, cave' and 鼠 'rodent, rat, mouse' (undoubtedly true for the modern form)—it is also what the character *means* (or originally meant), namely 'hiding (like rat in its burrow)'. I guess most learners having digested that explanation will never ask again or look back, meaning that their 'motivation' for the character having this shape may be at odds with the historical events (as far as we can prove or safely assume them), and I think this should be accounted for in the sense that for these users of the script, 竄 is a rather pictorial character with no phonetic hint.


  8. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    August 5, 2022 @ 11:04 pm

    A Chinese friend notes:
    抱頭鼠竄 means to cover one’s head and sneak away like a rat, to flee ignominiously. When “竄” is used for person, it’s always negative, like in 流竄犯 (criminal at large) or 上竄下跳 (to jump about, to run around on sinister errands.) 竄訪 is an interesting new invention, showing how much PRC people hate Pelosi for going to Taiwan.
    [Btw: Re: 抱頭鼠竄 doesn’t mean “cuddling”; that is the only the meaning of the first character “抱”. Someone should 吐槽一下 ('make a serious complaint') about google translate.

  9. Chris Button said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 12:00 am

    @ ~flow

    Is 竄 ever actually used on its own with a sense of "hide"? I wonder if that's just a fanciful Shuowen analysis that has persisted as a cute interpretation in dictionaries and few people are actually exposed to–something akin to the claim that 武 means "stopping halberds" or the like …

  10. ~flow said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 2:57 am

    @Chris Button—exactly. I have no way to judge whether in fact 竄 was indeed ever used in the sense of 'hiding', and, yes, the Shuowen has many fanciful explanations. Which is not as much of a mistake if one understands the book more as a crib for the student than as a guide for the scholar. One source I know of argues that 止 should sometimes be understood as 出, so 武 is not 止戈 (which makes little sense) but 出戈 (which does make sense). The 'explanation'/'etymologies' for this and other characters have been the subject of funny stories already in antiquity. They're entertaining stories and sometimes quite helpful to memorize characters, but claims to their truth should not solely be founded upon their age. Yet, many of these ditties have become today's lore, so have to be taken seriously, I think, in that function.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 7:07 am

    See now also "Ask Language Log: 'He who plays with fire will get burned'" (8/5/22).

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 7, 2022 @ 11:57 pm

    Cuan4 remains a cromulent word of MSM meaning (frequently metaphoricaly) to creep/scurry/sneak/crawl, often into or out of a small/hidden spot. I can't see any reason to doubt hole + rat as far as motivation for the written form is concerned…

  13. Chris Button said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 7:29 am

    @ Jonathan Smith

    Take a look at the examples of “synonymic interchange” in Qiu (2000:215-220).

  14. ~flow said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 11:35 am

    @Chris Button—for those of us without ready access to the source, would you mind to enlighten us about the main thoughts expressed there?

  15. Chris Button said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 4:19 pm

    @ ~ flow

    Things like reading 頫 as 俯

  16. Chris Button said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 6:47 pm

    So 鼠 is being used for 㕙 in 竄

  17. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 9:51 pm

    … the idea that cuan4 'scurry' was first written with an unattested form "穴" on top of "㕙" (this a practical hapax occurring only in the name of legendary wascally wabbit 東郭㕙~逡 and employed as a subcomponent within 0 attested characters), the bottom portion later to be replaced by "鼠" (with which "㕙", writing neither 'rat' nor even 'rabbit', is not vaguely synonymous), is shall we say somewhat more convoluted than the idea that someone came up with a "compound pictograph" rat-enters-hole “竄” in one blow. :D

  18. Chris Button said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 11:05 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith

    I’m not suggesting an unattested form like that.

    I’m saying that sometimes characters have phonetics with readings that are aberrant, or even as full-blown characters (see for example Takashima’s discussion of the use of 日 for 時 in instances in the earliest inscriptions). They are one-off ad hoc cases of polyphony, and they have occurred throughout the history of the script. But, unlike some have suggested, they are crucially not used as the basis for phonetic (xiesheng) series.

    The idea that pure ideograms (again, give or take some playful exceptions) were being created once the notion of phonetics had been realized in the script is hardly plausible, and frankly a rather patronizing way of looking at the script.

    The word family of 竄 “scurry” (not “hide”) ultimately falls under 允 (concur—literally run together) which is ultimately phonetic in 㕙 and other speedy things like 駿, and also contains things like 迅.

    So yes, perhaps it might be better to state that 鼠 is being used for 允 or 夋 as phonetic in 竄 rather than 㕙.

  19. Chris Button said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 11:07 pm

    *rather than it is being used for 㕙

  20. Chris Button said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 11:23 pm

    So to my other comparison above, that’s why 鳥 (or rather the rooster 雞 in its earlier forms) in 鳴 can represent the phonetic 令 (with its downward facing mouth) as a one-off case of polyphony. And that one goes all the way back to the earliest inscriptions.

  21. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 10:56 am

    of course "component X used in place of [apt phonetic] Y" could in theory be part of some individual character creator's idiosyncratic mental procedure, but again such notions are unprovable and in this case of no use whatsoever given a plausible, simple alternative. The idea that at some stage (practically) all newly invented characters *must* use phonetic devices is counterfactual and more importantly just game-playing… here ~flow's first comment is apropos.

  22. Chris Button said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 12:23 pm

    Hmmm… So then why is 頫 read as 俯? That’s a fact. And there are many other isolated cases.

    The idea that people happily continued to create fanciful ideograms for a complex phonetic-based script is not a “plausible, simple alternative” to me. It flies in the face of how the script actually evolved (bar these isolated instances of phonetic aberrancy). Polyphony was/is real, but never as a formative character building process. It was/is however very much “game playing” to borrow your turn of phrase.

    頫 should usually be read something like 兆, and 竄 should usually be read something like 鼠 by the same logic.

    鼠 is a scurrying graphic representation for 允 (or 夋, 㕙, or even 迅, or whatever is used to represents other etymologically related scurrying words) in 竄.

    And, FWIW, I can find no attested cases of 竄 ever being used to mean “hide”. That is a fanciful Shuowen interpretation.

  23. Sanchuan said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 4:51 pm

    I am of the idea that categorising characters by historical design and categorising characters by orthographic practice are two different things and that – unlikely as it may initially sound (please bear with me) – they are of equal truth value. One is about the typology of the character at the time of creation/evolution and the other is about the typology of the character as interpreted by the brain of the user.

    To take the example at hand, at some point in the past it might well have been customary for the literate elites to learn/teach to recognise and produce 竄 (or rather 穴+㕙) as a phonosemantic compound. In that case we could say that there was an overlap between the typology of the character as initially construed and the typology of the character as interpreted by the brain of the user and as taught by orthographic conventions.

    Likewise, it's entirely possible to entertain the idea that other users of that very same character, whether contemporary readers or ancient non-Chinese users of hanzi, might learn/teach to recognise and produce that character as an ideogram.

    At that point, whatever the etymological origins (important to know as they are), the character is being remembered and interpreted by the brain as an ideogram. For these users of 竄, the 'technology' of writing is only doing its job because it's activating reading/writing strategies of an ideogrammatic type.

    So I think it would be useful to appreciate the difference between character type at point of origin and character type at point of use. In my view, every character can thus fall under two different categories at the same time. Confusion about the historical typology of a character vs its 'orthographic' typology has led to many wrong-headed arguments, in my view. Chief among them are those arguments made to dismiss the bulk of the sinographic corpus as a kind of baroque syllabary due to the presence of phonetic components (ie due to those characters' historical typology), when in fact many of them are clearly learnt and taught and used as ideograms in everyday practice (and in every student's experience going back generations).

    If 竄 (and many other characters like it) is interpreted and used as an ideogram in the brain of millions, then I would maintain that it is (or has become) in fact an ideogram in orthographic practice.

RSS feed for comments on this post