April 19, 2005 | Graham

Chinese character

The Weekend Australian devoted its opinion section on the weekend to a special on China. On Line Opinion asked “Is this the Chinese Century” back in November, 2003, showing just how responsive online media is to issues…or have I got that in reverse? Whatever, it’s clear that the Middle Kingdom is going to be a significant force in our world, but how much do we really understand about the Chinese?
I have been reading Margaret Attwood’s book The Blind Assassin. Or rather, I have been listening to a reading of it on my car tape deck on the long drive down here to Sydney. I am intrigued by her baroque structure with the device of the story within the story within the story, and I am wondering how you spell the name of the mythical city in the innermost core of the onion-like narrative structure. Is it Saki al Norn, or perhaps Saaqi al-Norn, or maybe Sakielnorn? I will have to buy the book to find out, but in the meantime, any reader will be able to approximate from any of these spellings how the name is pronounced.
But if the novel were in Mandarin, how would I approach this issue? Chinese script works on pictographs. There is no way that you can decode sound from them, or encode it into them, except as a whole. You can’t sound a word out letter by letter, or syllable by syllable. I assume I would have to invent a character to represent the city, but how would you show pronunciation?
Amongst the drivers of our free society, we should never underestimate the democraticising power of an alphabetic system which makes transferring sounds from ear to paper, and vice versa, almost a universal birthright, and extraordinarily easy.
I can only speculate how the Chinese script must operate to shape that society, but my guess is that knowledge, and hence power, is much less accessible to the mass, and that society will tend to be more hierarchical, at least at those levels that require knowledge. Perhaps this explains the extraordinary stability of the Chinese empire, and even the fact that it failed in the 19th Century to counter Western power, even though in the Middle Ages it was ahead of the West in most ways.
It must mean that in our negotiations with China we are dealing with a country whose habits of thought are potentially quite different from those of most countries we have been used to dealing with at a level of diplomatic parity, or inferiority.

Posted by Graham at 9:09 am | Comments (2) |


  1. Jeffrey,
    Your statements about the Chinese language are not quite correct. Chinese characters can roughly be divided up into 5 types:
    1) Pictographs (pictures of things)
    2) Ideographs (graphical representations of ideas)
    3) Compound Pictographs/Ideographs (characters containing two or more separate components – either pictographic or ideographic – which when combined contribute to the meaning of the compound character.)
    4) Phonetic (characters associated with certain sounds or rhymes. First used extensively to transcribe Sanskrit words in Chinese translations of Buddhist texts.)
    5) Semantic-Phonetic (characters which combine a “radical” – ie. one of the 214 commonly ascribed semantic components of every characters – and a phonetic character. The “radical” gives a hint about the meaning of the character while the phonetic component gives a hint about its pronunciation. Almost 90% of characters in common usage fall into this category.)
    Chinese readers can identify the pronunciation of a semantic-phonetic character on the basis of its phonetic component whilst there exist a number of commonly accepted characters used for the phonetic transcription of non-Chinese words. For example, the character for “horse” is pronounced “Ma”. This character is commonly used to transcribe the “Ma” sound into Chinese.
    Doesn’t seem like I can post Chinese characters into this text box so I cannot give actual examples unfortunately.

    Comment by Antonio — April 19, 2005 @ 12:48 pm

  2. “I assume I would have to invent a character to represent the city, but how would you show pronunciation?”
    The Chinese, and those learning Chinese use Pinyin. It is an English charactor based system that quite accurately reporoduces the sound of the word.
    Not too difficult really.

    Comment by anthypic — April 24, 2005 @ 7:39 pm

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