When I was a little girl, my mom would continually ask my dad to teach us his language. That never really happened. And the most I can do now is scold children or pray out of frustration. But, even though we didn’t learn much growing up, I still feel a connection to certain aspects of his language.
My father’s mother tongue is both tonal and oral. Like in Taiwan, there’s no uniformly agreed upon transliterated (“pinyin” style) writing system. So, when you read something, it could have in any of several different spellings. That’s why most people skip writing all together. Instead, we typically tell (long) stories with lots of background details to give the listener a full context and to help him visualize all elements of the story.
A New Way of “Seeing” Words
Then, in college I had my first significant exposure to Mandarin. It’s tonal, just like my father language. So I had a strong affinity towards it for that reason. Despite not being able to communicate, I heard my dad speak a fair amount when he would talk to family members and friends. It’s always been comforting to hear the rhythm and the cadence of a language with tones. But even more than the sounds, Mandarin had a quality that really enticed… there is this very special and unusual connection between the written language and the spoken language.
The first character I learned to write was the word “good.” (好) My teacher told me not to look down on the word for appearing simple. She explained that there was a lot of culture packed into those 8 strokes. First, she drew the word woman (女), and then the character for child (子). “You see, when you put the two characters together, you get the word good, because a woman with her child is the epitome of goodness.” My mind started racing when I heard that explanation.
While that may make some of my feminist friends a little annoyed, I think that’s a beautiful cultural sentiment. And it inspired a new way of looking at words for me. You see, I had always been curious about words generally. I’m not a linguist, so I don’t think to take words and break them into their component parts, searching the history of each element. But after hearing her explanation I became extremely fascinated about the etymology of the characters. I never thought about how much an individual word could possibly tell its own story. And how much the stories could tell about culture.
Typically when people write about the complex elements of Chinese characters, they use some of the cheekiest examples they can find. “Three women (女) together means “evil, wicked, commit adultery” (姦). That’s probably why my teacher’s explanation was so meaningful for me. “Good” is such a high frequency (and positive) word. You see it paired with so many phrases. On the surface, you may be asking someone how they are doing (你好嗎?) or complementing someone’s Mandarin (你的中文真好), or expressing any number of emotions or thoughts. But regardless of what sentence you’re writing, you will continually be combining the words woman and child to express the concept of goodness. There will always be multiple layers of information expressed in each sentence or phrase.
Perhaps this is why I am so insistent on only learning traditional even when people scold me for being “impractical.” It’s the storyteller in me that needs to feel connected to all parts of the story. And I love the challenge of holding multiple meanings and ideas together simultaneously.
I “Heart” Characters
Obviously, this is not the case for every word in Chinese. Some characters are just sounds (radicals). Other words no longer connect with the original meanings or associations. But there are plenty that fit the bill.
My favorite radical is the heart radical (心). When you see it, you instantly know that some sort of feeling or act of thinking will probably be involved in the meaning of the word. So, I get excited about movie or TV lines like the one in Meteor Garden (流星花園). We learn early on that the leading male is really bad at Mandarin. Growing up, he even used to confuse the words love (戀) with change (變). In fact, it’s pretty easy to confuse the two. The only difference is that one has a heart and the other doesn’t. And even if I’m reading too much into the similarities with the two words it helps me remember them because I understand the repeated and pretty obvious theme in Taiwanese entertainment — being in love changes you. Both parties change because of their love. Whether or not these connections are intentional, I start to visualize a story in my mind with a very different kind of effort than I would exert as a child hearing my father’s stories.
A number of people have recommended the book Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler to me because of my interest in the stories behind the characters. I’ve never read it before. But, it’s in my ever growing queue.
Side note for my feminist readers: if you’d like to read a fascinating article about sexism in Chinese characters click this link.