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Logographic writing system gives Chinese literature a natural feel

YUE FEN | 2018-05-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In the long history of Chinese literature, natural objects and phenomenon are often employed as vehicles for tenors and images for conveying the message. In “On the Height,” the image of falling leaves immediately brings readers to autumn and a slight hint of desolation and sadness, which sets the tone for the whole poem.


In the context of world literature, Chinese literature has a unique quality. Chinese is a great example of a logographic writing system, where complex and figurative ideographic symbols compose a sophisticated writing system. The literary works based on ideographic language are not only vivid but also contain subtle structures and varied genres. The logographic writing system also endows Chinese literature with rich natural touch, revealing the most authentic sentiments of the community of the Chinese nation. Thus, Chinese literature is invested with an inherent vitality and lasting continuity that other forms of language and literature lack.


Chinese characters
From the psychologic perspective, when compared with phonologic writing systems based on the logic memory of abstract alphabet, Chinese characters have an advantage when displaying emotional memory, which relates to the readers more directly. To this end, Chinese fiction writing appears to be more specific, livelier and more capable of awakening the deep feelings of the collective unconscious.

Take Chinese poetry for example. In most cases, one poem centers on one image or a word. In “On the Height,” Tang poet Du Fu wrote, “The boundless forest sheds its leaves shower by shower.” In “The Dale of Singing Birds,” Tang poet Wang Wei wrote, “Vague hills dissolve into night void.” The image of “falling leaves” immediately hints at autumn season.


Meanwhile, since Buddhism was introduced to China, void, which originally meant “cave,” took on some religious connotations. So when it appears in a poem, it instantly evokes the concept of Zen among readers. Though feelings are not told directly, they are couched in a scene that foregrounds the poem. Over time, objects from the physical environment are associated with fixed emotions and are able to stir the same feelings in readers.

In turn, when these words are repeated in different poems, with the same kind of emotion, they become part of the Chinese national spirit. When reading these exact words in literary works, readers can quickly grasp the tone that does not reside in words but is accessed beyond text through readers’ active imaginations and artistic experience.

As a result, many say that in translating Chinese poetry and literature, a pivotal question to consider is recreating the realm of meaning or yi jing, which refers to an ineffable and meaning-laden artistic space that the poet intentionally constructs through a combination of the author’s thoughts and feelings with the objects or scene depicted in the poem.

As renowned Chinese scholar Wang Guowei put it, the best interplay of emotion and scene is to achieve a seamless integration and total fusion the two, to the extent that emotion and scene cannot be separated from one another, or the reflection of scene is at the same time an expression of emotion. For example, Song poet Ouyang Xiu once wrote that “My tearful eyes ask for flowers, but they fail to bring. An answer, I see red blooms over the swing.” In Chinese, the one character “red” alone is enough to create a powerful and emotional visual impact. However, when translated into English, the realm of meaning needs to rely on a specific imagery “red blossom” to create a similar, yet not quite the same, scene. 

In a way, ideograms are closer to human senses and instincts than the phonologic writing system, so that the ideographic function retains the most authentic natural attributes and purpose of language. For writers or readers, the disembodied meaning can be conveyed in the most convenient way.


Transcending time, space
From the perspective of cultural inheritance, ideographic features of Chinese are of great significance for the continuation of national history. Modern readers can understand literary works of thousands of years ago with little obstacles, even if these works are written in ancient Chinese and sometimes full of rare words, they will not affect the modern readers’ mastery of the core content. At this point, Chinese characters are superior to languages based on abstract letters because they are conducive to the dissemination and continuation of ideas and culture.

From oracle bone inscriptions to bronze inscription, official script and regular script, the evolution of Chinese characters has never been broken by the passage of time or the change of social politics. On the contrary, while the structure and pronunciation have been gradually enriched and improved, Chinese characters retain their ideographic function in essence, and develop into a combination of the concrete and abstract in form.

In particular, some commonly used Chinese characters have maintained their stability over the course of time, such as the character for “man,” which resembles a walking man, or the character for “wood,” which takes the shape of a tree. These words are not only the foundation of Chinese characters and Chinese literature, but they symbolize the Chinese perception of the universe. After Cangjie, a legendary figure in ancient China (c. 2650 BCE), invented Chinese characters, the Chinese understanding of the world was engraved in the texts and passed on one generation after another, leaving traces in the collective mind of the Chinese nation, among which ancient literary works tend to retain more memory, emotion and character of our ancestors.
Language is a powerful tool to accumulate the massive subconscious content. Thus, historical memory passed on from generation to generation, endowing Chinese literature with distinctive collective characteristics and complexity. In those outstanding literary classics, almost every word can be traced back to the distant ancient society, with these words, a series of history, legend, or mythology may be unfolded.

The advantages of Chinese literature in communication and continuity are mainly attributable to the concise form and rich contents of the Chinese language. Be it the Books of Songs or the later Yuefu poetry, quatrain, their popularity has a lot to do with the simple forms and catchy rhymes. Rich in pictorial concreteness and semantic connotations of yi jing, Chinese literature can be applied to different audiences in different times to express their own experiences.


Close to Nature
In form, many Chinese characters simply contained pictures of nature. For example, the hieroglyph for a river is written with the help of three wavy lines, the hieroglyph for a horse has a mane and four legs. Later these pictograms served as a basis for making more complex symbols—ideograms. In a sense, there seems to be some innate connection between Chinese ideograms and the natural ecosystem, making it easier for people using different languages to understand Chinese literature.

Apart from the seemingly complex ideographic writing system that corresponds to the basic form of the natural world, Chinese writers and poets often use individual physical objects or beings to create a coherent and unified message and evoke human sentiments.

In “Ode to the Goddess of the Luo River,” a signature work by Cao Zhi, son of Cao Cao, warlord of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), the author adopted a series of natural objects to indicate the peerless beauty of this goodness such as as “elegant as a startled swan and supple as a swimming dragon.” Light of carriage and attractive in appearance, she looks from a distance like the red sun carried up by the morning glow and, from nearby, like the lotus freshly borne out by the clear waters. For ancient Chinese, nature is pure beauty, so people who can stand on par with the beauty of nature would then be worthy of the compliment.

The basic commonality of the collective subconscious of different nationalities lies in their relationships with the nature, so the language and literature of each nation will contain the understanding of nature and man. Few people can escape the collective unconscious control of nature, and more often than not, writers immerse themselves in the wild to find inspiration. This is particularly true with Chinese poetry, as the popular sayings in Chinese cultural traditions goes: in the minds of Chinese poets and artists, an important notion that they abides with is “there is painting in poetry” and “there is poetry in painting.” This kind of artistic conception can only appear in Chinese writing where the realm of meaning is strongly highlighted.

Complex Chinese ideographic characteristics decided that the Chinese literature has a vivid visual impact, long collective historical depth and abundant naturalness. Therefore, Chinese literature conforms to nature and reflects the needs of the collective unconscious in the human spirit. Literary works written in logographic writing system do not need abstract thought to realize the communication between man and nature. While inheriting the national history, the Chinese language also bridges the national collective mind and the universe. Through the visualization of writing, the mind returns to nature, and realizes the harmony between man and nature. The ideographic Chinese has endowed Chinese literature with a strong inner vitality, absorbing nutrients from its rich history and feeding it back to the later world, giving it a unique place in the history of world literature.


Yue Fen is from the College of Education and Humanities at Changzhou Institute of Technology.

(edited by YANG XUE)