Wednesday, 01 January 2014 00:00

Vital Role of China’s Languages!

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Vital Role of China’s Languages!


There are a dozen or more fundamental elements of Chinese culture that make it different from Western cultures, but just one of these elements provides deep insight into the differences in their mindset and behavior.

This one element is the use of Han zi (Hahn-jee), literally meaning “Chinese characters,” which the Chinese and the Japanese and Koreans] have traditionally used to transcribe their languages. [The better known Japanese version of this designation is Kahn ji [Kahn jee]…and generally both Han zi and Kan ji are written as one word when transcribed into Roman letters.]

Hanzi originated in China between five and six thousand years ago and eventually numbered around 250,000 characters—a number that was gradually pared down over the millennia, and is now around 5,000 for scholars and from 4,000 to 2,000 for ordinary people.

All Hanzi are based on the stylization of concepts, objects and other things from real life. In other words, they are “pictures” of things that have inherent meanings—not just substitutes for sounds as in the Roman alphabet.

Furthermore, unlike the simple Roman alphabet, Chinese characters consist of one to as many as thirty or more individual “strokes” that must “fit” together, and by long tradition must be drawn in a precise order.

The Chinese Hanzi system of writing was imposed on Koreans more than two thousand years ago and was adopted by the Japanese between the 6th and 7th centuries A.D.

By 1,000 B.C. one of the key measurements of the cultural achievements of educated Chinese was how many of the characters they could read and write. As time went by how artistically they could render the characters as shufa (shuu-fah) or calligraphy became more and more important.

This same phenomenon occurred in both Korea and Japan, with the greatest calligraphy masters becoming historical icons who are still remembered and celebrated today. By the 1700s even Japan’s notorious samurai warriors took as much pride in their ability to draw Kanji as calligraphy, known as shodō [show-dohh] in Japanese, as they did in their skill in drawing and using their deadly swords.

The point of this is that learning how to read and draw large numbers of the intricate Hanzi has had a profound influence on the mindset and manual skills of the Chinese, Japanese and Korean since ancient times.

Still today from their earliest years in kindergarten and elementary schools, learning how to draw some two thousand ideograms forces them to focus with laser-like intensity on the characters and to develop eye-and-hand coordination that influences the rest of their lives.

Learning to read and draw the ideograms requires not only intense concentration but perseverance, acute concern with the finest details, and an appreciation for form, harmony and function—all characteristics that are associated with the mindset of adult Chinese, Japanese and Koreans in all of their affairs, from meticulous planning in business to scientific research.

Westerners, on the other hand, are expected to learn how to pronounce the sounds and to draw only twenty-six letters that by themselves have no meaning. This alone accounts for much of the contrast between the academic prowess of Westerners and their Chinese, Japanese and Korean counterparts.

Another important contrast between Westerners and Hanzi-influenced Asians is that popular Western culture—American culture in particular—now de-emphasizes long periods of concentration and meticulous effort in favor of speed and superficiality in everything, from education to manufacturing and entertainment.

This is a cultural weakness that threatens the future of the United States and other Western countries, and is a barrier that cannot be eliminated in a short time because it has become an inseparable part of the mindset and lifestyle of most Westerners.

Until well into the 20th century educated Europeans and Americans at least learned how to write the Roman alphabet clearly and often beautifully. Now, even mediocre handwriting appears to be on its way out.

I am not proposing that Americans and other Westerners learn how to transcribe their languages in Chinese ideograms, but unless we act to upgrade the level of our culture we will continue to be at a disadvantage in dealing with people programmed by their intense exposure to Hanzi.

There are, of course, links between the languages of the West that evolved from or were influenced by the Latin language, spread across much of Western Europe by the Roman Empire.

These Latin links have significantly influenced the cultures they merged with. But even Latin-linked cultures that are as close as American and British have language-based differences that are profound, and if not taken into consideration can—and do—lead to misunderstandings and gaps in cross-cultural communication.

It has been proven time and again that a gap in communication of less than one percent can eventually lead to serious problems if not recognized and remedied in a timely manner.

To understand and appreciate the role and importance of Hanzi in Chinese culture one would have to imagine that all of the European societies that came under the influence of the Roman Empire adopted the written form of Latin to transcribe their languages but retained much of their own system of pronunciation.

That is exactly what happened among China’s fifty-three ethic groups that originally had and still have the own languages. Twenty-three of these minority groups had their own writing systems.

Over centuries, these diverse groups of people gradually adopted Hanzi to write their languages. They kept the meanings of the individual characters intact, but they pronounced them in their original language. This meant that virtually all Chinese who were literate, regardless of their native tongue, could communicate with each other in writing, but not verbally.

This extraordinary factor was what made it possible for major elements of the primary Han [Chinese] culture to spread to the far reaches of the huge country. But the language diversity continued to divide the people into cultural enclaves that made the western regions of the country more difficult to rule.

  1.      Shortly after Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took over China in 1949 he took the extraordinary but commonsense step of decreeing that Mandarin, the language of the Beijing area of China, was to be the national language of the country, and mandated that it be taught in all elementary schools in the country.    Now, most Chinese whose native tongue is not Mandarin are verbally bilingual.

The impact that the Chinese language has on the mind of the Chinese is far deeper and far more comprehensive than the influence of other languages on other people because the influence is both verbal and written.

All people who are not weaned on Chinese ideograms naturally react to both the sound and the written form of words in their own languages. But the reaction to words that are written with phonetic script is not nearly as strong as the reaction to pictorial ideograms that are representations of real things and explicit concepts.

Both the verbal and written forms of the Chinese language are therefore like massive software programs. They create and control the Chinese mind to a degree that goes well beyond the power of other languages.

This is the primary reasons why expatriate Chinese who have been out of China for several generations but have persevered in learning how to read and write Hanzi and speak the language continue to maintain their Chinese identity.

Becoming verbally fluent in Chinese and learning how to read and write some two thousand or more Hanzi is a major undertaking that requires intense study and practice for one to three years.

However, it is not necessary to become fluent in Chinese in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of Chinese culture. And many people who do become quite fluent in the language as far as speaking and understanding is concerned still do not have a total grasp of the culture.

That requires full knowledge of the meanings and nuances of several hundred key terms in the language—words that incorporate and reflect elements of the culture in the deepest sense—and is a separate challenge in itself.

These are the terms I refer to as “cultural code words” because they are pregnant with cultural meanings that go far beyond their one-dimensional surface meanings.

Read 6446 times Last modified on Friday, 25 April 2014 05:20
Boyé Lafayette De Mente

Boyé Lafayette De Mente has been involved with Asia since the late 1940s as a member of a U.S. intelligence agency, journalist and editor. He is a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo, Japan and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, USA. In addition to books on the business practices, social behavior and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico he has written extensively about the plague of male dominance and the moral collapse of the U.S. and the Western world in general. Recent books include: CHINA Understanding & Dealing with the Chinese Way of Doing Business; JAPAN Understanding & Dealing with the NEW Japanese Way of Doing Business; AMERICA’S FAMOUS HOPI INDIANS; ARIZONA’S LORDS OF THE LAND [the Navajos] and SPEAK JAPANESE TODAY – A Little Language Goes a Long Way!




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