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Ideograms in Modern Chinese

Ideograms in Modern Chinese

Martin Lavicka29 Nov 2014Leave a comment


Written by David Uher

Slaměníková, Tereza: Ideogramy v moderní čínštině. Olomouc: Univerzita Palackého v Olomouci 2013, 164 s. ISBN 978-80-244-3909-9.

Tereza Slaměníková’s work Ideograms in Modern Chinese represents a grammatological study, which is small in range but undoubtedly significant in its content. Unfortunately it is available only to readers able to read Czech. The theme of the work may only seem trivial at first glance; however, the author not only verifies some generally accepted facts that usually both lack sufficient exemplification and arguments in the relevant literature, but also analyses a large amount of material which better illustrates the plasticity of the studied subject. Euro-American scholars do not consider the science of writing a significant issue for linguistics, which makes the importance of this monograph even greater. Similarly, the academic interest in Chinese characters is quite low. This is definitely an unfortunate consequence of misunderstanding de Saussure’s proposition that spoken language is clearly superior to written language. This mistake has nevertheless been sufficiently clarified by Florian Coulmas in his Writing Systems (Cambridge University Press 2003).

The organization of the work is efficient because the author does not historicize unnecessarily. Moreover, where she refers to relevant literature, she does it well. It is also worth mentioning that the theoretical part represents less than one third of the entire text. A substantial part of the theory is then included in the section entitled “Chinese characters”, where the author initially mentions its genesis and graphics. It appears polemical to begin describing the development of Chinese characters through mythological ideas about their origin. On the other hand, it is just one paragraph in the text, which, moreover, the author sums up with: “The existence of these legends tells undoubtedly much on the way of understanding the world of the ancient Chinese, as well as the importance of writing in shaping the Chinese society at that time” (p. 14). The passage devoted to the development of the graphic forms of Chinese characters, beginning from the inscriptions on bones and ending with reforms of writing after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, does not bring any new substantial information, but on the other hand, the interpretation is given accurately and efficiently, especially in relation to the text that follows. The author also defines the basic grammatological concepts, i.e. strokes, elements and characters, which are used in her interpretations. It should be noted that the sources of the monograph are primarily works written in Chinese, and thus the author had to – with success – deal with considerable terminological difficulties. Simultaneously, the author does not passively accept the existing literature: she communicates previous grammatological works in her book. The chapter in which she does this is concluded by a description of the categories of frequency within the Chinese characters. The theoretical part ends with a passage dealing with the categorization of Chinese characters, and it examines “the relationship between graphic units on one side and the meaning or pronunciation of characters on the other” (p. 21). This section also presents a very innovative reflection on grammatological terminology, where the author separates the notion of structural elements and constructional components from each other (p. 21). This is followed by a description of the oldest categorization, credited to Xu Shen (?54–?125), and which divides the Chinese characters into pictograms, symbols, ideograms, phonograms, loan graphs, and variants. It is remarkable that the author presents these categories not in Xu Shen’s but Ban Gu’s (32–92) order, because it better reflects the very genesis of Chinese characters. The author, unlike her predecessors, verifies her interpretation with a number of examples. The benefit is undoubtedly the definition of the concept of determinatives, while existing literature avoids clearly defined phrases, still using the relevant but not synonymous terms radicals, classifiers or keys. It should be pointed out that the author has not failed to emphasize the contribution of the Qing philologist Wang Yun (1784–1854), whose significant grammatological research is unjustly overshadowed by the lexicological research of Duan Yucai (1735–1815). Later, the author follows the modern classification in Tang Lan’s (1901–1979) and Chen Mengjia’s (1911–1966) systems, both of which are mostly positively evaluated and accepted by contemporary historical grammatology, for example Qiu Xigui (1935). This theoretical passage ends with Su Peicheng’s (1935) categorization (pp. 35–37), who was inspired by the reformers of Chinese characters such as the “father” of the official transcription of Chinese pinyin Zhou Youguang (1906). This part can also be seen as an introduction to the relevant literature for those who intend to deal with the categorization of Chinese characters.

The next passage called “Background of the analysis” is a prelude to the corpus (part 4) and analysis (part 5). At the beginning the author correctly identifies the absence of relevant literature as one of the main reasons for writing her monograph. In addition, literature in European languages is marginally, inadequately or amateurishly engaged in this issue, and it serves readers several mostly trivial examples. The structured exemplifications in Tereza Slaměníková’s work are more complex and more concrete. At the same time, the author draws attention to the fact that the existing works on the subject of Chinese origin, often ignore the changes that have occurred during the development of the graphic forms of Chinese characters, as well as interventions which related to the proportional composition of individual categories in Chinese script. This part demonstrates, among other things, a critical analysis of Xu Shen’s definition of ideograms, and the author presents a description of the phenomenon in relation to the research, whether traditional or modern, in the introductory part. Equally useful is the introduction of Andreas Guder’s little-known classification, which is based on a pragmatic understanding of the issue. The author then discusses the use of semantic components as the construction material of ideograms, their motivation and their ability to be combined together, which is unfortunately used insufficiently. The venerable corpus is compiled on the basis of seven thousand Chinese characters introduced by the Analytical Dictionary of Chinese Characters (Cao Xianzhuo; Beijing Daxue Chubanshe 1999). However, since the value of the dictionary is too diachronic, the author compares the information contained therein to the more synchronous Chinese Characters with Ease (Yang Hongqing and Zhu Xinlan; Jiangsu Guji Chubanshe 1996), which on the other hand is too didactic. This means that the author collects 1241 ideograms, i.e. approximately 18% of the characters included in the Analytic Dictionary. She further excludes 430 characters which are ideograms only diachronically. Synchronously, however, they belong to other categories of characters because their appearance was changed dramatically or their etymology is difficult to determine as they are proper names, two syllable morphemes or dialect expressions. Exclusion from the analysis, however, does not mean the author lacks interest in these categories, as is evidenced by the passage that follows (pp. 47–53), which discusses the issue and demonstrates it again through a number of examples.

A precise analysis of extensive material forms an important and organic part of the work, including a fruitful attempt at internal stratification of the phenomenon. The analysis covers 811 characters that can be, from a synchronic point of view, still regarded as ideograms. An important part of this analysis is an interpretation of the etymology of these ideograms. Such an overview is available in Czech only in the basic shape in the Chinese Characters Textbook (Kučera, Ondřej et al.; Palacky University 2005). Approximately 95% of them, i.e. 722 characters are the ideograms, which consist of only two components, so-called two-component ideograms. A complete overview of them is enlisted (pp. 114–139). A major problem, that the author satisfactorily manages, are names of the determinatives; this question is not well addressed in relevant Czech literature, because the semantic analysis of 9,353 characters in Xu Shen’s Shuo Wen has not yet been detailed. Equally important is the fact that within the characters occurring with a low frequency, ideograms significantly decrease. Also, a precise description of the frequency of the components in ideograms, divided by the author into four frequency groups, is remarkable. Overall, the number of such components is 526: the figure is very close to 540 determinatives – basic semantic units of Xu Shen’s Shuo Wen. Equally interesting is the author’s distribution of these components into purely semantic and semantic-phonetic components. Purely semantic components are 244 in number: this is very close to the amount of radicals in the dictionaries of Chinese characters. Of this number, it is evident that their capacity of creating new ideograms is very low. The fact that a large number of the component’s frequency is low, while a few of them are used very often, unbalances the entire system. The passage about the penetration of ideogram and phonogram categories inspires. Undeniably beneficial is the attached table “Combinations of the most frequent components in ideograms”, which clearly demonstrates the assemblage possibilities of sixty-six of the most frequent components in ideograms.

The author presents a comprehensive analysis of the second most frequent category within Chinese characters – ideograms. This is a highly professional study based on extensive bibliographic material and a large corpus analysis, which seeks to define a major category of Chinese characters based not only on theory but also on many examples. The reflection on the motivation for the construction of ideograms is very satisfactory, as well as the description of the combination of components and the explanation of the position of ideograms within the remaining types of Chinese character construction types. The work also introduces an analysis of the qualitative composition of ideograms and it also depicts the composition quantitatively.

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