Barbarous scratchings or universal system? The Chinese puzzle on paper

Roy Harris reflects on our attitude to an 'alien' language whose characteristics have so strongly influenced China's intellectual and pedagogic traditions.

February 7, 2008

When asked to explain why he called the Chinese "barbarians", Samuel Johnson gave the famous reply: "Sir, they have not an alphabet." Johnson was not alone. Jean-Jacques Rousseau regarded Chinese script as an example of the writing of a barbaric people. In the chapter on writing in his Essai sur l'origine des langues, he unhesitatingly identifies the alphabet as the mark of civilised nations. By this reckoning, civilisation did not reach China until the introduction of romanised Pinyin spelling in the 20th century (bitterly opposed by the more diehard Chinese traditionalists).

Western attitudes to the "exotic" appearance of written Chinese run all the way from ethnocentric scorn to hyperbolic admiration (to borrow terms aptly used in this connection by the late Jacques Derrida). Johnson and Rousseau exemplify ethnocentric scorn. Of hyperbolic admiration perhaps the most remarkable modern example was the French professor at the Sorbonne in the 1960s who advocated the adoption of Chinese script as an international language.

One of the reasons why Chinese originally attracted the attention of Western scholars was their belief that this form of writing expressed ideas "directly", thus bypassing the spoken word altogether. As early as 1605, Francis Bacon declared in The Advancement of Learning that "it is the use of China ... to write in characters real, which express neither letters nor words in gross, but things or notions". This misconception was doubtless based in part on recognising that some Chinese characters were originally simplified drawings of the things represented. In the supposed use of "characters real", Bacon found the explanation of what seemed to him a truly remarkable fact: that different provinces "which understand not one another's language, can nevertheless read one another's writings".

Later in the same century, this view of Chinese provided the inspiration for John Wilkins and others to devise a universally comprehensible writing system or "philosophical language". Wilkins presented his system of 1668 as an improvement on Chinese, in that the shapes of his characters were all systematically related to the meaning designated. This avoided the arbitrariness of Chinese forms and made it possible to work out from the configuration of strokes, loops and squiggles exactly what each shape meant.

The notion that Chinese writing could express the ideas of the writer "directly" never found favour in modern linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure, for one, insisted that although Chinese writing remained comprehensible to speakers of mutually incomprehensible forms of spoken Chinese, nevertheless the characters represent specific Chinese words and not abstract ideas.

This did not, unfortunately, prevent popular pundits like Marshall McLuhan from coming out with absurd generalisations about Chinese writing and the Chinese mind. According to McLuhan, "the Chinese are tribal, people of the ear" and it is only the alphabet that "has the power to translate man from the tribal to the civilised sphere". Nor did it prevent one of McLuhan's colleagues, Robert Logan, from writing a book dedicated to an even more absurd thesis: that lack of a Chinese alphabet was what prevented the development of modern science in China.

Setting aside the nonsense, an English teacher transported to the Far East cannot fail to notice a profound difference between the attitude of Chinese students to the written word and that of their European peers. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that for most Chinese students, "the language itself" is the written language. How it is spoken is a secondary matter. What "really" counts is the written form.

It is difficult to believe that this has nothing to do with the effort of apprenticeship that has to go into memorising as a child the several thousand intricate characters needed to reach a fair standard of literacy. Leibniz may have been overstating the case when he remarked that it takes a Chinese a whole lifetime to be able to write his or her own language adequately, but the effort required to learn the alphabet pales into insignificance by comparison.

Nor is it a coincidence that rote learning, currently held in contempt by most European teachers, is still highly valued in the Far East. I once set a Chinese student to write an essay on an 18th-century English poem and subsequently discovered during the tutorial that she knew the text better than I did. Since the poem was several hundred lines long, I found her facility in quoting accurately from it quite extraordinary. It emerged that the first thing she had done before attempting to write her essay was to learn the entire poem off by heart. When you encounter a student who tells you that understanding a poem requires being able to "read it in your mind, not just on the page", you are dealing not just with a different attitude to writing but with a different concept of education.

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