At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
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Monday, December 27, 2010


A correspondent opined that the Chinese are devoted to their character-script as a matter of cultural identification and preference, and it was further suggested that there was something not entirely logical about adhering to a system that seemed so much more cumbersome than the alphabet.

Well, yes.

And no.

The main reason the Chinese won’t switch to an alphabetic system is that it would not convey anything other than mere sound. When many morphemes are homophonous – even if tones are taken into account – a strictly phonetic script is far less precise than an ideographic script with phonetic elements to the characters.

Mandarin has approximately 600 distinct syllables that are morphematically independent.
If multiplied by the four tones, you end up with around 2400.
Yet the script encompasses about 8000 characters (more or less, and entirely excluding alternate ways of writing the same character).
Some syllables have only two or three meanings. Others, like 'shi' and 'zhi' have dozens of meanings – most not in any way related to each other or derived from each other.

Additionally, spoken Chinese and written Chinese diverge considerably – spoken Chinese uses many more bi-syllabic and polysyllabic constructs than are necessary in Written Chinese, which tends towards brevity.
Old-style literary Chinese is even more condensed – thus, attempting to convey what a piece says by writing as if one were speaking, will lead to a text three to five times longer than the original, which is unnecessarily prolix by the standards of anyone with more than a grammar school education.

Largely as a result of this density, when you read a passage from the classics or a poem aloud, your listener will often not be able to make much sense out of it – unless they’re already acquainted with it.

However even if only barely literate, most people know enough quotes, sayings, and idioms based on literary references that unless something is really abstruse they can make an identification.


As just one example of a literary idiom that can be used to convey much meaning more brevitously than a mere flat phrase, consider the expression 'se mian chu ge' (四面楚歌): literally translatable as "four faces Chu song" - in idiomatic English, "the songs of Chu can be heard from all sides".
Meaning that one is surrounded, the cause is hopeless, the situation extreme.


Han-bing yi luo di,
Se mian Chu-ge sheng;
Da-wang yi qi jin,
Jian-qien he liao sheng?

"The army of Han has conquered our land,
On four sides there are the songs of Chu;
My lord's spirit is exhausted,
How then should this lowly concubine hold on to life?"


In 202 BCE, General Liu Bang (劉邦) of Han (漢) faced the army of the prince of Western Chu (西楚) at Gai-Xia (垓下) in the Central Plains (Zhong-Yuan: 中原). At night he had patrols entirely surround the encampment of the Western-Chu forces, singing well-known songs of their homeland, thus fooling the opposing side into believing that Han had conquered the state already and incorporated it’s people into the Han army, and that consequently the surrounding force was far greater and far more successful than it actually was – this so demoralized the soldiers that many deserted and fled.

[Interpolated addendum as of 12/28/2010
Tzipporah said: "Please clarify the pronouns in your account. Which "he" is surrounding the camp? It sounds like the songs of HAN are surrounding them, not the songs of Chu... ?"
Chu is the ancient name of a Central-Southern state that was a barely Sinicised periphery to the rest of the Chinese world - which at that time did not extend significantly further south than the watershed of the great river.
At its greatest extent Chu included Hunan (湖南), Hubei (湖北), Henan (河南), Anhui (安徽), the southern part of Jiangsu (江蘇) and the northern reaches of Jiangxi (江西). Like the other Chinese states, Chu vied for power and primacy - unifying China always proved that one had the Mandate of Heaven.

Han is the term for the dynastic polity founded by Liu Bang, subsequently holding sway over all China upon conquering the other territories of the Chinese world, including Western Chu.
By having his men sing the familiar airs of Chu, Liu Bang of Han waged psychological war against the soldiers of Western Chu (Xiang Yu's army). It was utterly successful. ]

Rather than being an encumbrance and possibly dishonoured - and so furthering disgrace and defeat for her lord - the consort of the Western-Chu leader committed suicide.
Prince Xiang Yu (項羽) was eventually left with only a few hundred men, which was gradually whittled down to 28 when the remnant of Western-Chu reached Dongcheng (東城) across the Huai river (淮河). Rather than returning to Chu, they fought till their deaths in a last stand on the banks of the Wu (烏江).

Thus, with only four syllables, four words, a huge wealth of reference is called to mind, and a desperate set of circumstances made clear.

How much more evocative than merely saying "the jig’s up".


Before facing the forces of Han with his remaining men at the Wu channel, Xiang Yu asked a ferryman to escort his beloved dappled steed Zhui (騅) back to Jiandong (江東).
After his death, the state of Western Chu surrendered, and Liu Bang became the first emperor of Han.
Xiang Yu was given a grand funeral, and his relatives were ennobled.

Yu xi, Yu xi, nai ru he?"
Oh Yu, Yu, what will become of you?"

If you've seen the movie 'Farewell My Concubine', you are already familiar with part of the tale - specifically the suicide of Xiang Yu's consort (the lady Yu - 虞姬) at Gai-Xia, theme of the famous opera 霸王别姬 - Ba-wang Bie Ji. The movie borrows from the opera, which in turn is based on events described in The Records of the Grand Historian ('Shi Ji': 史記) and The History of the Earlier Han ('Qian Han Shu': 前漢書), as well as a wealth of subsequent analysis and poetification.


Xiàng (項): Back of neck; numeral classifier for clauses, tasks, projects, etcetera. Surname.
yǔ ( 羽): Feather. A musical tone. Yú (虞): Expect, anticipate. Concern, anxiety. Surname.

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  • At 9:31 PM, Blogger Tzipporah said…

    Please clarify the pronouns in your account. Which "he" is surrounding the camp? It sounds like the songs of HAN are surrounding them, not the songs of Chu... ?


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