I Ching, Yijing or Zhou Yi
"Oracle of the moon": © 2000 LiSe

  Yi Jing, Oracle of the Moon

Etymology, fact and fiction

Lots of fiction among laymen, but maybe just as well among sinologists

  Someone who attended Harmen's course told me that Harmen mentioned my name as one of the people who 'erroneously' assume that the sound of a Chinese character has anything to do with the meaning.
  I know that many (most?) sinologists agree that the sound is not related to the meaning. It makes me wonder - how can Chinese, when they talk, understand each other when the sounds they utter have no meaning?

  Harmen gave the example of the character ching. Of course he didn't say what qing means, because it "has no meaning". (I know now it has a meaning on its own, just very often not as part of a character).
  But how often? General consensus is: not that often.

  According to Wenlin and Guoxuedashi dictionary qing means: nature's color, green, blue, greenish black; not ripe. It is also when things only have their own natural color. Many characters with qing have to do with clear or clean (up). Blue and black are the colors of heaven, green of nature. Back then, Chinese made no difference between blue and green. I don't know about today.

  When there are no clouds which cover the sun, the sky is blue, the day is clear, qing. An insect with big clear wings and an intense-blue-green body: a qing, dragonfly. A fish with a blue-green back with black stripes: a qing, a mackerel.
  The real color of a heart: emotion. The real color of words: inviting. The sun, the insect, the fish, the heart, the words, they are added to qing to indicate what this is about or the context. They are called the radical. But the sound is the thing itself.

  The radicals are important for the meaning, especially in writing. Without them you cannot understand what qing is about, you don't know the context. But when people talk, the context is much easier to know. When you step outside and say "qing!" it is quite obvious you talk about the weather. Or you point at an insect at the waterside. Or fishermen are talking about a good catch of qing.

  Life is much more complicated than 3000 years ago, so in the course of time often another character got added instead of a radical, and then you get a word of two characters, which makes it easier to know what is meant, because you also hear the context instead of only seeing it when it is written.

  Qing with radical heart is not only emotion but also inclination, passion: the real color of a heart. Without any meaning to qing, only meaning for heart, how can one guess what it says about the heart? There are almost 200 characters (at least) with heart in it. Not in all of them as radical, but in a large number.
  How can one understand when so many different characters only have the meaning heart?
  BY THE SOUND!! The sound which 'has no meaning'.
  Talking is all about sound with meaning. Writing (with its radicals) came aeons later. Even now a very large number of people cannot read or write, but they can talk and understand what is said, without knowing anything about radicals. They add the context, but with the limited number of sounds they need more. More than only 'fish', but 'the blue-black one'.

And then My reaction to Harmen's reaction to my reaction
(Harmen also posted about this on his website, not only in the course where I cannot enter)

  First of all one little thing: I don't think the sound in a character ALWAYS has meaning. The ideographs are extremely old, and in several thousands of years a language changes. Nobody can claim the rules of things stay fixed, people here and there use a word for another thing than the original one and more smaller and bigger changes like that. But many characters of which I know the parts give me reason to think the phonetic compound very often has meaning and was originally meant to have.

  In Harmen's list of characters with component gong I see quite a number of characters in which gong makes sense. Not all of them, but Gong is something which demands respect, and what Karlgren says “Some of these forms suggest a phallic interpretation” is a way of expressing it which is common in many societies. If it is a phallus or not is not really important, a picture of 'the one who speaks or decides' might also be a good way to depict this respect and standing tall. A pine, a tall and high tree, growing straight up rather than wide - I think 'gong tree' is a good name. Personally I wouldn't think underwear does or the centipede, although a friend and I had a good laugh about that one. But praise, ode, a judge, a prince, bamboo with long joints, terror. They all have something of 'straight up, rigid, respected'. Associations, not literal depictions.

  I don't think meanings develop in a cause-and-result way with one literal meaning, but rather in an associative way. It is not easy to find a way to write 'respect', so a picture of something which demands respect is the solution.

  Harmen quotes me: "Qing with radical heart is not only emotion but also inclination, passion: the real color of a heart. Without any meaning to qing, only meaning for heart, how can one guess what it says about the heart?" and he says "It is not a matter of ‘guessing’ – when it comes to learning Chinese characters it is mainly a matter of memorization."

  Yes, a character needs memorization - of how it looks, how it is WRITTEN. But what I meant is: how can you guess when you hear only the SOUND and you don't know it has this special radical. You hear 'qing', but nothing about heart or day of fish. When you hear it, you decide with the HELP of the context, like you can decide for the written character with the HELP of the radical. Removing one of those two, either sound or context, takes the meaning away.
  If you point in the water and say "qing", you talk about a mackerel.
  If you say "bào", you mean a carp.
  If you say "jīng" you mean a whale.
  If you say "yóu" you mean a squid.
  If you say "fáng" you mean a bream.
  If you say "nián" you mean a catfish
  If you say "jì" you mean an anchovy.
  If you say "jiāo" you mean a shark.
  I will skip the fishbone and the dried fish, but there are a lot more fish and they all have a different sound. You need the sound with its meaning and the context with its meaning, both are important. Only the context, here fish, is not enough. Before writing was invented, there was only the sound, and especially in a wide context you absolutely needed its meaning.

  And there is something else - I have no principle. I just cannot understand the principle of the phonetic part not having a meaning. Like I said above, a language changes, even writing can change the spoken language. We are looking at thousands of years, and it is as if we talk about two different languages, an ancient one and a modern one.
  Here and there someone says, that 'this phonetic seems to have both meaning and sound'. Karlgren does occasionally, and it is as if it surprises him. I don't think there is anything strange about it, it is one of the basics of a language, certainly when there is no reading and writing yet. It can be diluted or partly lost in the course of time, but languages start out with sound being the meaning. Chinese used to have many more different sounds in the past, which makes sense when sound had meaning, with the context as helper. And when the first writing appears, there is the choice of writing the sound, like here in the West, or drawing it as a picture, like in China.

Harmen (about his visit at my place):

   Crisps in blue and green - why not the red one? The character qing has one part which means 'red'. No idea why, but it does have an association with new-born (it does, I am not making that up). You know, the clean slate, tabula rasa?

Here we go...

But I think it has more to do with the skin-color of new-born babies. Often they are very red.


  Most characters are simple, a picture of the object. But there are enough words which are not so simple to depict. Maybe I have a real example which is easy to understand: how come 'image', xian, is a picture of an elephant? There is no logical connection. But there is a associative one. An image catches your attention, it is something important (at least it used to be in the past). How can one draw that? By something which makes for a very impressive sight.
  Meaning doesn't automatically imply cause and effect logic. Symbols are a great source of meanings (and meanings of symbols).

  There is one thing which makes me wonder. Most sinologists agree that the phonetic compound of the written character or the sound of the spoken character has no meaning. In modern Chinese that makes enough sense, even though I still don't agree with "never". But do they also agree that it was like that several thousand years ago? It might be that you and I talk about different things.

And then Hilary sent me a mail with her own answer to Harmen

  "Excellent! Very glad to see you and LiSe getting into the thick of things.

  The thing is, Harmen, you've managed to convey the idea that the phonetic component can *never* have anything to do with the meaning, and looking at the images in a character's etymology is to be, if not forbidden, then certainly frowned upon from a great height, as the sign of a sad ignoramus.

  For instance, when you talked about 厲 , li, 'danger', you mentioned how you *used* to think the scorpion was relevant to the meaning, before you knew better. And this doesn't make any sense to me either, though for a different reason from LiSe's.

  Some ancient Chinese person who had been calling danger 'li' had to decide how to write this down. Presumably they had a few (dozen? hundred?) choices that would represent the correct sound, and they chose a scorpion - something dangerous.

  There's no reason for modern Chinese people to be aware of the etymology of the words they use most of the time, as it's quite invisible in modern script. And I can certainly believe that in general usage, people normally managed never to think of the etymology of the words they used. I can imagine someone saying 'li' without thinking of scorpions. However, the authors of the Yi were not normal people, and an oracle is not the same as general usage of language. Both just because it's an oracle, and also because it's this oracle, which is a complete, holographic organism, with meanings perpetually flowing to and fro through its internal relationships, and a work of exquisite and fathomless beauty.

  The authors of the Yi, like any poet, were very economical: every word and structure carries way more than a normal freight of meaning. I reckon they used etymology as part of the fabric of their creation where they could. It certainly looks that way to me."

Epilogue by LiSe

  People who create a written character for a word have to be artists, poets. Images like this don't originate from a purely logical mind. Some are easy, a picture of a cat is a cat. But there are innumerable words which have an abstract or emotional meaning. To draw a picture of love or fear, diminishing or augmenting, cycle, limit, waiting, succeeding, releasing - for that kind one needs the skills of association, fantasy and a sense for symbols.
  And for understanding ('reading') an ideograph one needs some of the same.

  And how can a sinologist tell if an ideograph has no meaning for a certain fish when he is no expert on fish? Or about plants when he is no botanist, for kinds of wood when he has no experience with woodwork, or about agriculture or husbandry when he has no knowledge about being a farmer? For stating things as a fact one needs to investigate and add one's source, not just use one's 'common sense', because to me it seems that is what happens. It can be quite random, a good guess or a wrong one.
  I am no sinologist, but in this matter I think my opinion is just as valuable as anyone's.
  The phonetic compound has meaning AS SOUND, but often not AS IMAGE. And that is what they didn't tell me. Not just one source, but several. Not one of them made the difference clear. And seeing how they discard very clear meanings of many images, I think I am fully entitled to my opinion.

last update: 23.08.2022


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