Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tradition + Characters = Eternal Truth

You may know that the written language of Mandarin uses characters, and not letters, to communicate words and ideas. I've heard that you need to know at least 2,000 characters just to be able to read a simple newspaper. There are thousands more that should be studied in order to be considered well-educated. There is little phonics to be learned when studying characters. It's mostly memorization and repetition that helps to learn and understand characters. Those that have a deeper understanding of the characters, and why they mean what they do, amaze me. I was speaking with one such amazing person the other day. She wrote down some information for me, and I just had to share it.

The first thing you should know about these pictures is that they are traditional Chinese characters. Meaning, most of China does not use these anymore, and only those who live in Hong Kong or are interested in studying traditional characters on their own would have any knowledge of them. In recent decades, traditional characters have been replaced by the simplified versions--which in most cases, are much simpler to read and write. However, the rich history connected with the evolution of Chinese characters is sometimes lost in the simplified version. In ancient times, characters sprouted as a form of written language in Asia--and many of the characters resembled the thing which they represented. A form of pictographs. Ancient versions of graphics and typography. As the centuries unfolded, the characters changed as well. It's similar in some regards to the formalizing of spelling and definitions in the English language. Characters became more standard and functional, and in some ways--less like pictures. This is my very primitive understanding, of what has been communicated to me by several Chinese friends, of how characters have evolved. But if you look it up, there are sometimes dozens and dozens of examples of how one character has changed throughout history. It's neat to see the earliest version and compare it to what is used today. Sometimes there are still similarities, and sometimes you would never know it was the same word unless you saw the progression.

So, the first thing you should know is that these are traditional characters (not in usage in mainland China). The second thing is that characters are composed of radicals. It's similar to how English words are composed of letters. But it is a little more complicated than that. Each little section of a character is its own radical with its own meaning. If you know the meanings of the radicals, you can guess at what unknown characters mean based on the radicals that compose them. It's a type of "phonics". It has nothing to do with sounds, rather it is about meanings. So, the following pictures and stories are of traditional characters (that can be traced by centuries in history, or at least forms of these characters), that have been pulled apart (radical by radical) to show an interesting interpretation. Of course, I can't take credit for knowing any of this, since I am no expert in Chinese. I've had people explain other characters to me before, but these were really interesting and I didn't want to forget them.

Looooong explanation..........sorry!

Here we go!

This is a simple one. I noticed this when I first learned the character a few years ago. It's the character for "hao" which means "good". It's used in many phrases and is a common descriptive word. In fact, we live in "San Hao Jie" (literally, Third Good Street). The first half of the character (on the left), is actually a separate word when its by itself. It means 'girl'. The right half of the 'hao' character is a radical that when standing on its own means, 'boy'. So, if you put the girl and the boy together, it means 'good'. Cute!

Now it starts to get interesting. This character is for 'righteousness', (yi). Take the two portions (the top half and the bottom half) and they can actually be two separate characters with their own meanings (if separated). The top half means, 'sheep', and the bottom half means 'I' or 'me'. Thus, the Lamb is our righteousness.

Here is the character that means 'complete' or 'finish' (wan). Let's look at the bottom half first. It is composed of several features. The first being the two horizontal lines, which is how you write the number two. The very bottom is how you write the character for 'people'. And if you put those two radicals together, it means 'first' or 'garden'. Now, the top portion of the character, if written separately, carries the meaning of "home". So, if you put it together: first + home = complete. I was told that perhaps this is a link back to the beginning days, when the VERY first home, was in a garden, and there were two people placed in it; and it was COMPLETE. Probably some interesting eternal truths that could be taken from this.

Here is the traditional character for 'yuan', which holds the meaning for 'garden'. There are several components to this character as well, and if separated, hold their own individual meanings. First, there is the top portion (inside the box), that looks like a cross standing on a line. This is the character for 'dust'. Underneath that is a small square--which is the character for 'mouth' or 'breath'. Underneath that is a character that looks something like the English letter, K--which means 'two persons'. The box the encloses all the other radicals indicates the meaning for 'enclosure'. All together, these markings create the character for 'garden'. I was told that this rings true of a story, once again from those very early days. Days when a man was breathed into life from dust, when two people were placed in a safe place, an 'enclosure' that was prepared especially for them. A perfect place, a garden. I was also told that the pronunciation sounds something like the word, "Eden". Interesting.

Next up is the word 'chuan'. Translated, it means 'boat' or 'ship'.
On the left side is a radical which by itself form a separate character--when by itself, it means 'vessel'. On the top right, is the radical which stands for the number 'eight'. Below that is a small square which means, 'mouth'. Using your powers of inference, if there are eight mouths, there must be eight PEOPLE. Where are these people? On a vessel. Eight people on a vessel? Somehow this idea birth the character for the word used to describe a ship or a boat. Sounds familiar....sounds like eight people of heard of in history who obeyed a seemingly foolish command to build a boat. Even when it had never rained before. Whenever we see a rainbow, we are to remember a certain promise. Eight people in a vessel = boat. It's very interesting to wonder HOW China knew about this centuries ago. The power of spoken words, rhetoric, oral tales! It's interesting to speculate the story moving from village to village, across time, over the Silk Road...

Right away, I recognized the top portion of this character. All together, these marking for the traditional character which means 'forbidden' or 'to warn' ('jin'). The top half is actually two parts which mean the same thing, 'tree'. When you put two 'tree' characters together, it becomes plural ('two trees' or 'trees'). On a side note, when you put three of these ('lin') characters together, it means "forest". Fascinating! Anyway, here you have two trees. The bottom is the character in the abbreviated form for 'God'. Thus, two trees + a supreme being = forbidden/to warn. That should bring another tale to mind.

Almost done! Thanks for bearing with me on this long post. I also apologize for being a little vague at times, but it's due to 1) my vast ignorance on this subject, and 2) I'm a little nervous. Next is the traditional character for 'create' (zao). If broken up into it's basic components, the characters for 'speak', 'dust/mud', 'life', and 'walk' can be found. Speak something (or someone) from the dust into life and to walk with. Hmmmmm....Another familiar story.

Finally, here is the character for 'tempter' ('mo'). There are lots of little pieces in this one, so I'll just tell you what they are: 'secret', 'man', 'garden', 'alive'. If you put all those radicals together, it forms the character for 'devil' (gui). There's more! Above the character for 'devil', there are the familiar looking 'two trees'. Around these two portions is the radical which means 'cover'. A man, alive in the garden. He has a secret. Something to keep hidden. He fashions a covering for himself and his wife. They have disobeyed, and taken from the tree they were forbidden to eat from. They were tempted by the devil. Once again, this character, altogether, means "tempter". So interesting!


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