The Chinese Written Character


Pictographs and ideographs of both types together comprise fifteen percent of the nearly fifty thousand characters included in the largest Chinese dictionaries. The earliest types of characters invented, they name the most obvious and important nouns and verbs of human life, and thus they often occupy a much higher percentage of a given text than one would expect, particularly in poetry.

The phonetic-signific compound
The third type of character, the phonetic-signific compound, is also important, if not quite as important as its numerical preponderance would seem to predict, and in fact has something very interesting to offer the poet.

As the name implies, the phonetic-signific compound gives some indication of both pronunciation (something that pictographs and ideographs do only arbitrarily) and meaning. Its sound-carrying elements can appear independently, as characters with meanings of their own, but in compound characters they merely indicate approximate pronunciation. The signifying elements are generally weak or nonspecific. The three characters below illustrate some of the range of information offered in a standard phonetic-signific compound.

P0 ( ) consists of a tree element and an element that means “white.” If it meant “white birch,” anyone who knew the meaning of the two elements would recognize it as a compound ideograph, but it means “cypress,” and since cypress trees are not white, we can tell that the character is a phonetic-signific: a word for a tree whose name is pronounced “Po.”

K ’u ( ) is among a large number of the type of character that indicates that the people who originally created them Were thinking to provide as many mnemonics as possible for their creations. Its signific, “tree,” is very general, but its phonetic, gu ( ), meaning “ancient,” combines with “tree” in the manner of an ideograph: “tree” and “ancient” nicely suggest the character’s basic meaning, “withered.” Thus we end up with a word that is pronounced “ku” and means “withered” and has a supporting mnemonic: a juxtaposition of “ancient” and “tree.”

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.