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From body to meaning in culture

From body to meaning in culture

Martin Lavicka24 Feb 2015Leave a comment


Written by Wei-lun Lu

Yu, Ning. 2009. From body to meaning in culture: Papers on cognitive semantic studies of Chinese. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

This book is a deep analysis of cultural elements of body parts in the Chinese lexicon that may attract readers from various sub-disciplines of Sinology. The possible readership includes scholars and students in the fields of Chinese Linguistics, Learning/Teaching Chinese as a Second Language, Cultural Studies of China, Chinese Literature, and (Ancient) Chinese Philosophy. Most papers are written from a comparative perspective (comparing Chinese and English), so that the distinctiveness of the Chinese thinking can be highlighted via a comparison with another language (and culture).

The book comes in three major sections, each of which I provide a synopsis below.

The first section deals with bodily experience in feeling and thinking. Chapter 1 discusses metaphorical expressions of anger and happiness. The author argues that Chinese uses the concepts fire and gas for expressing anger, while English uses only those of fire and fluid. In addition, he argues that Chinese tends to utilize more body parts than does English, especially internal organs, in expressing emotion states. The author also provides a principled analysis by referring to the cultural theories of yin-yang and of the five elements of Chinese medicine. Chapter 2 is a semantic analysis of how emotions and emotional experiences are linguistically elaborated in Chinese. The chapter focuses on how native Chinese speakers’ use of idioms and compounds are essentially based on Chinese cultural models, which will be of interest to learners and teachers of Chinese. Chapter 3 presents a case study on the language of Mo Yan’s selected novels and short stories. The chapter focuses on synesthetic metaphors (a special kind of poetic metaphor), which will be interesting to scholars and students of Chinese Literature. Chapter 4 studies the Chinese metaphor of thinking. The author demonstrate how the Chinese conceptual system is different from the English one, by showing xin ‘heart’ as housing both emotions and thoughts in the Chinese culture, which is different from the Western binary distinction between the heart and the mind. It shows how different cultural models interpret the functioning of the mind and the body in culturally specific ways.

The second section is on external body parts in conceptualization. Chapter 5 presents how the concept of hand is used in the Chinese lexicon. The study shows how Chinese idioms and fixed phrases involving shou ‘hand’ are formed via metaphor and metonymy and are grounded in our immediate bodily experiences. This chapter will be a good read to learners and teachers of Chinese. Chapter 6 is an extension of Chapter 5, a deeper analysis of zhi ‘finger’ and zhang ‘palm’. The author shows that zhi is used primarily to express intention and guidance whereas zhang power and control. What is interesting is that the concept of power and control is stronger in the Chinese language, which constitutes a main difference from English. Chapter 7 investigates lian and mianzi ‘face’ in the Chinese culture. It shows how the concepts of face and facework are manifested more richly in Chinese. This chapter will be of interest to scholars and students interested in Chinese culture and society. Chapter 8 focuses on yan and mu ‘eye’ in the Chinese lexicon. It shows convincingly that the Chinese language uses eyes to express thinking, knowing or understanding. The author also demonstrates how Chinese expressions that involve yan and mu may bear totally different meanings from their English counterparts, which will be useful to learners and teachers of Chinese. Chapter 9 discusses the Chinese cultural model for speech and language by looking at she ‘tongue’, chun ‘lip’, chi ‘tooth’, zui and kou ‘mouth’. It is shown that the Chinese ideographic writing reflects the conceptual pattern of using speech organs for language that is widely attested across languages though, as such is not really reflected in its lexicon. This chapter also shows how the Chinese writing system may be an under-investigated area for scholars interested in language and cultural thinking, as it provides a culture-specific tool for expression of cultural models.

The third section is on internal body organs in conceptualization. Chapter 10 discusses gan ‘liver’ and dan ‘gallbladder’ in the Chinese lexicon. The author argues that the Chinese lexicon reflects the traditional Chinese medical theory in the sense that therein the semantics of dan is related to the function of making judgments and the concept of courage, which is a pattern of thinking specific to the Chinese culture. This chapter demonstrates how the Chinese cultural model sets up a specific perspective from which certain parts of the body are more culturally and linguistically meaningful. Chapter 11 presents a case study of how ancient Chinese philosophy has a role in the Chinese lexicon. The author argues that xin ‘heart’ as the ruler of the body is a concept that runs in the Chinese society and culture, and that it is conceptualized as the organ of thinking, reasoning and feeling, which is rather different from the Western dichotomy between reason and emotion. This chapter will be of interest to scholars and students of (Ancient) Chinese Philosophy. Chapter 12 is a special attempt to link Chinese Cognitive Linguistics and Metaphor Studies to language teaching and learning. The author discusses the importance of investigating cultural conceptualization and embeds his argument in the context of second language teaching and learning. It is claimed that an understanding of culture-specific conceptual metaphors may facilitate the acquisition of competence for learners of Chinese as a second language.

In all, the book is a nice thematic collection of papers on Chinese Cognitive Linguistics and is expected to benefit both scholars and students of Sinology from various subfields.

Dr Wei-lun Lu works at the Department of English and American Studies, Masaryk University, Czech Republic.

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