Influence of Chinese Characters

Note: Chinese script has evolved, as have all other languages and scripts. The oldest script (about 3,000 years) is called Oracle Bone. Charles references old Chinese and I believe he is referring to script of the oracle bone era. The script of the time when he was in Shanghai is called Traditional. Since 1949 mainland China has used another script called Simplified. At the time of the creation of Semantography Charles would have encountered traditional and oracle bone script.

Charles’ references to Chinese script have come under criticism as being too naďve, demonstrating a lack of knowledge about Chinese script. I do not agree with this assessment and reference two of the Semantography Series that deal specifically with Chinese script.

The first article is a letter to Dr.T.C.Backhouse of the School for Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney, written June 6, 1951 (Semantography Series 29).

Leibnitz, the great mathematician and philosopher (1646 - 1716) wrote letters to missionaries in China, and then developed his ideas about a simple and logical writing "similar to the Chinese, but better than theirs". However, he himself never tried to draw up even one single symbol, and the idea was considered a practical impossibility for 300 years. I claim now to be the first man .who has fulfilled Liebnitz prophecy, who said in 1679 “l think these thoughts will someday be carried out so natural and agreeable appears to me this writing… for easy communication with distant nations… but if introduced also among us, without however renouncing ordinary writing would be useful in giving thoughts less surd and verbal than we now have”.

In short, he wanted this new writing to comprise a simple Logic and Semantic, something which Chinese writing has not. Indeed the Chinese symbols are much too complicated, cumbersome and archaic, and the product of thousands of years, in which many scholars have added complex symbols. But once you have learned the meaning of a Chinese symbol, you glance over it as quickly as you take in a complex chord when playing piano, and suddenly not the word, but the real thing stands vividly out in your mind. Here is one example and its counterpart in Semantography:

Chinese Semantography
tree tree
tree(traditional) tree
grove grove
grove(traditional) grove
forest forest
forest(traditional) forest

And now an example of Chinese symbol combination. The meaning of “East." It is formed by the picture of the sun appearing between trees in the eastern sky. The symbol for “Sun” has been conventionalised through the "brush stroke" mode of writing.

Chinese Semantography
sun sun
sun(oracle bone) sun
east east
east (sun and tree, traditional) east

Now ask your friends to close their eyes and imagine vividly the golden fireball as it shines through the trees just after sunrise. And now imagine that children are accustomed to this symbol, and every time they see the symbol for "east" they do not think of the various words for "east " in the various Chinese languages, but see vividly the sun between trees.

The second article is a document entitled “Is Chinese Writing a Picto-Ideography?”, written February 20, 1954 (Semantography Series 136).

It is amazing how little is known about Chinese script outside China. But even inside China you will find the most divergent ideas about their writing even among Chinese. In the same way you will find many people who differ about the correct writing, correct use and especially about the origin of many words in English, French, German etc. I shall give here but one example.

I was a poor immigrant when I came to war-torn China in 1940 and it was very hard for me to make a living in a foreign country and with no means at my disposal. Consequently I had little time to absorb myself in the most absorbing and fascinating Chinese writing. Slowly the thought of constructing a modern symbolic script took hold of me. With greater interest I studied what I could see of Chinese writing on shop signs, notices in the street, etc. when I went about my business. Chinese whom I showed then the first symbols of my Semantography could easily discern the origin of Chinese characters and here we differed sometimes. For instance, it is easy to see that my symbol for human is directly taken from the Chinese character of the same form human male. However, I maintained that my symbol shows an upright being on two legs, whereas the Chinese character shows the outline of a penis, the male genital. My Chinese friends were greatly shocked, and demanded an explanation. I then asked them to explain to me what the character for female human means human female. This they could not do, because the lines do not show anything referring to a human or female characteristic. I too was very much puzzled about the lines of the character for woman until I happened to see a Chinese shop sign written in old-style Chinese. The oldest Chinese characters show round lines, as for instance in the sign for sun sun. Later, the Chinese calligraphers developed the brush stroke technique and all round lines disappeared in favour of fairly straight strokes sun. That shop sign was written in old Chinese, somewhat similar to what we sometimes find in England YE OLDE SHOPPE. And there in that old shop sign I found the old-style writing for the meaning of woman female a perfect pictorial outline of a. female genital, the vagina opening.

Chinese Semantography
sun sun
human male human male
sun sun
sun(oracle bone) sun
female sun
human female (traditional) human female
human female (oracle bone)

This example shows how I had to analyse Chinese characters myself and how I came to quite different opinions than the prevailing ones. I wish to stress the fact that I was entirely disinterested in learning the so-called Shanghai dialect. All the Chinese men and women with whom I did business could make themselves understood in English and that was enough for me. It is only during my analysis of shop signs that I came upon the fact that Chinese is actually a hodgepodge of some pictographs, some ideographs, but in the majority phonographs, used in a crazy way. I shall try to explain this in the next paragraphs.

No doubt, in the beginning Chinese was a purely pictorial writing. Later on ideographs had to be invented to stand for unpicturable meanings. But then phonetic characters were used. There are different explanations for this. I offer two. No doubt, phonetic characters have their advantages, and Chinese scholars must have heard from earlier travellers, but surely from Marco Polo’s father and uncle who came to China in the 13th century that in Europe a phonetic script is used. There were many attempts to introduce a phonetic script with simple characters, but all those attempts, made during the centuries, failed.

The other explanation which I offer is that unfortunately Chinese languages are monosyllabic. Now, when. you try to form as many monosyllables as you can (for instance ba, be, bi, bai, bo, bou, boo, bu, then ca, ce, cai, etc. etc.) you will arrive at not more than 400 possible syllables. How to express many thousands of meanings with only 400 sounds? It is impossible, and therefore Chinese sounds have hundreds of different meanings. Li has about 100 meanings. This is called a homophone (same sound). Consequently when a Chinese said Li, nobody knew for certain which of the hundred meanings he has in mind. The only way to make himself understood was then to use a synonym word, which means the same, but has a different sound. For instance Pi means in Shanghai Chinese a pig. But Pi has many other meanings. So the Chinese added Se, which means swine. "PiSe" the Chinese says “pig-swine” in order to be understood. When they learn English and come upon a monosyllabic word like “look” they are afraid that it may have many meanings and therefore they usually say “Look-See.” Another help to overcome the monosyllabic handicap is to use a word (and sign) which is a classifier, and classifies the next sound whether it falls into the human class, animal class, furniture class, a class which refers to things which one can count in pieces, etc. A Chinese boy when he answers the door bell, will come to his master and say: "Two pieces girls outside.” He is afraid that "girls" may have another meaning and therefore he puts the classifier for "pieces" before.

This terrific handicap of monosyllabism has developed into a strange hodgepodge. Going through the streets of Shanghai I looked for ever recurring signs and found the one below, which means "overseas." It is found in the name of every foreign company and forms together with another character the meaning of overseas company. As you can see, it is composed of two characters. Together it means ocean (overseas).

Note: In other Chinese languages sheep and ocean have the same sound, but differing from yan

ocean ocean sheep
ocean (sound: yan) water drops (classifier) sheep (sound: yan)

Note: Charles refers to the water drops symbol as a classifier. It is known today as a radical, with means it is a symbol that combines with another symbol to form a different meaning.

These compound symbols originated somehow as folIows: there was first the sign for sheep yan. Then the ocean was given the same sound: yan. Then a pun was devised. Yan means either a sheep or the ocean. But to classify the ocean yan a few drops of water were put in front thus yan, ocean.

In short: Chinese is a curious phonetic writing, in which quite different pictures and ideographs stand for sounds only, with a few picto-ideographs used too.