The Chinese Written Character


The ideograph
The second major type of character, the ideograph, has two sub-groups: the simple and the complex. Below are five simple ideographs: the numbers one, two, and three; and two words that can be interpreted, by extension, from “up” and “down” to “on” and “under;” “up from” or “up to” and “down from” or “down to;” and “superior” and “inferior.”

As you might imagine, there are relatively few simple ideographs: it is very hard to draw an elegant image to suggest an abstraction or the action inherent in a verb. Below are examples of the type called compound ideographs, whose invention extended the writing system beyond the pictographic. The compound ideograph attempts to communicate an idea by parataxis: pointing toward meaning by juxtaposing visual images. Parataxis, important to character construction, is also a major structural feature of Chinese lyric poetry.

Beginning from the left in the line above, a character made up of two trees together (in the same square space on the page allotted by the writing system to every character, no matter how complex or how simple) make a “grove,” and three a “forest.” Sun and moon together mean not a full day (as bright students often suggest), but “brightness.” Sun above the line of the horizon means “dawn” rather than “dusk.” Woman and child together make a wonderfully earthy and fundamental word for “good,” while a human (restylized for the sake of combination) standing beside the number two makes a nice abstraction: Confucius’s “compassion” or “benevolence.” An ear and a gate mean “to hear.” The last character looks a lot like that for “sun,” but notice that the horizontals are longer and the verticals shorter. It is a juxtaposition of tongue and mouth and means “to speak”—-the verb in all those famous “the master says” passages in the Chinese classics.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.