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Space-time outlook shaped ancient Chinese language and thinking

CHEN TIANQI | 2019-09-12
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Humanity’s conception of space and time has generated profound influence on our cognitive models, thinking patterns and language expressions. Photo: FILE


Humanity has been curious about space and time since ancient times. This has fostered space-time views that have generated profound influence on our cognitive models and thinking patterns. When it comes to the use of language, rich and unique word-building rules and expressions have formed a scientific linguistic system for the spatial and temporal domains. How the conception of space and time shaped and developed language and thinking in ancient China deserves in-depth research.


Outlook on space
The outlook on space in ancient China stemmed from people’s perception of directions and physical forms. Space is the foundation for humanity to learn about the world, because human existence and development is inseparable from the scope of space. While we interact with or judge, describe and evaluate other people, objects and events, spatial relations emerge to varying degrees. Therefore, space has remained the most fundamental cognitive domain for humanity. Research from the perspective of space-time on language and thinking in ancient times has constructed a clear definition of the language expression system for the spatial domain.

On the whole, space is divided into physical, cognitive and language spaces. The objective physical space transitions to the cognitive space that is formed on the basis of the perception and experience of the physical space, and the cognitive space transitions further to the language space, which represents the cognitive space by particular linguistic means.

In the process of language processing, entities normally show specific, static or dynamic profiles or features in the physical space. From interaction with them through sense and body, humanity derives perceptual experience before perceptual processing, and then it abstracts, generalizes and categorizes related features.

For example, through observations of the sparrow, the most common bird, humans sketch an outline consisting of head, body, wing, leg and other features. Abstraction and generalization result through the prototypical category of birds with the sparrow as a typical member.
Features abstracted from some entities are trans-categorical. For example, “round” refers to the shape of a nearly closed arc, giving rise to such phrases as “round moon” and “round ring.” Hence many feature words have become adjectives to represent attributes.

When describing human beings, objects, motions and events, people tend to abstract entities in a space based on their profile or features and classify them in their vocabulary.

In the human world, there are substantive, visible entities as well as abstract concepts and connotations. The former constitute a physical space, while the latter reflect a virtual space on the basis of the former.

In cognitive linguistics, the Conceptual Metaphor Theory holds that models, shapes and rules recurring in people’s interaction with the outside world form various “image-schemas” as metaphorical expressions for abstract concepts, so that they can understand and express concepts and connotations.

For example, when comprehending the concept “category,” people are inclined to activate the “container” schema. Things in a container are of the same category, and vice versa. The process of understanding “power” features the activation of the “up” schema. The higher up, the greater the power.

In language expression, there is also an inclination of mapping from the physical spatial relationship to the virtual space. For instance, novelists from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) often used “xin shang ren,” literally “man on one’s heart,” to refer to one’s beloved. The well-structured and interactional relationship between the physical and virtual space is an important factor for a large number of metaphorical expressions in the Chinese language.

Moreover, language for the spatial domain is also determined by the categories of shape, direction and location. The category of shape can be further divided into two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes.

Measure words originating from the pre-Qin period can serve as examples. “Tiao,” or “strip,” is two-dimensional, with the features of being long and stretched. It is often used to describe tree branches, roads and the like. “Gen,” or “stick,” is three-dimensional, having the features of being bar-like and cylindrical. Even in the same dimension, the shape varies, such as “tiao” and “zhang” (sheet).

The categories of direction and location usually resort to frames of reference, including inherent, relative and absolute frames of reference, to delineate the location, path and direction of the focus.

Interesting examples include “book on the table,” “clock on the wall” and “light on the ceiling.” Despite different absolute directions in space, all of the three cases have the bearing surface as the relative frame of reference and are in the same direction of the supporting force, such that the descriptions for the direction are all “shang,” or “on.” In this light, language expressions tend to retain core features of shape, direction or location and downplay details.


Conception of time
The conception of time in ancient China can be traced back to people’s differentiation between day and night. Time is absolutely changing and developing. Nothing can be done without the participation and progress of time. It is invisible and elusive, but interminable.

In terms of the temporal domain itself, since antiquity there have been abundant expressions to denote specific qualifications of time, including cycles, like “tian gan di zhi,” or “Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches,” which is used to record hours, days, months and years; and time references, such as “hou” (after), “qian” (before) and “daozhi” (as of). Compared with visual spatial descriptions, temporal language expressions are more indirect.

Generally, the tendency of the fusion of spatial and temporal perspectives intensifies the relation between the two. Guanzi, an ancient Chinese political and philosophical text, which was authored by philosopher and statesman Guan Zhong from the Spring and Autumn Period (723–645 BCE), was the first of ancient Chinese documents to put forward the concept of space. In the part titled “Time and Space,” Guan noted that everything in the world is encompassed by the heaven and earth, and the heaven and earth are encompassed by time and space. In Guan’s view, time and space are in unity.

In Western antiquity, on the contrary, the cognition of time and space was separated. Not until Albert Einstein proposed the theory of relativity in the 20th century were time and space unified scientifically.

Therefore, whether from the perspective of philosophy or science, time and space are relative. Closely related, they cannot be isolated from each other.

Last but not least, the extension of the spatial domain to the temporal domain has enriched temporal expressions. Time is more of an abstract concept. It needs specific frameworks to be accurately described and expressed. The frameworks are spatial.

While space can be two-dimensional or three-dimensional, time that is absolutely changing and progressing can be, in an ideal state, metaphorically interpreted as a straight line without width. In terms of dimensionality, it is one-dimensional. Things happening in the temporal domain are akin to object sequences in space that include beginnings and ends, making the projection of the spatial reference onto the concept of time possible.

For example, if directional “xiamian,” or “below,” is regarded as a dynamic path from the top down, it is explained as “jie xia lai,” or “next,” when extended to the temporal domain.
It is worth nothing that the extension of space to the temporal domain indicates features of a continuum. When the spatial domain is dominant, the temporal domain will not be significant. When space gradually loses dominance to time, the spatial domain provides certain semantic support.


Significance of space-time perspective
Language is an important window into social change and development, and it is also a representation of a nation’s cognitive traits. Examining common or diverse cognition of space and time on the basis of language expressions from ancient times is conducive to understanding the customs and cultural thinking of different nations, along with changes to them. In addition, research of this kind can advance the utilization of strategies for teaching and learning in second language education and acquisition.

From the angle of information technology, a summarization of constant language expression models in the spatial and temporal domains will offer new paradigms for information processing. In the contemporary age when artificial intelligence is thriving, one of the major goals is to orient language output to infinitely approach natural human language. However, as “machines without hearts,” artificial intelligence itself falls short of a physiological foundation for acquiring languages and providing efficient corrective feedback. If researchers can sum up related language expression models from the spatial and temporal domains, the core of cognition, they will undoubtedly be able to offer more reliable models and paradigms for the grasping of context and logical judgment, thereby galvanizing the development of artificial intelligence. 

Regarding studies of language and thinking, straightening out language expression systems in the spatial and temporal domains will help discover richer language phenomena, dig out deeper cognitive motives and create more theoretical and application value.


Chen Tianqi is from the School of Liberal Arts at Renmin University of China.

edited by CHEN MIRONG