Thematic cluster: Understanding Chinese culture through key concepts
The “ideograph” and the 漢字 hànzì
A cross-cultural concept with two mutually invisible faces
In the Anglophone sphere, according to popular and most academic understandings, the term “ideograph” is regarded as an unproblematic synonym of 漢字 hànzì ‘Chinese character.’ On graphological grounds, i.e. as applied to writing systems, it can easily be shown that the concept of “ideograph” is both theoretically incoherent and practically unfeasible (McDonald 2016); while historically it is clear that the notion was founded on an imperfect understanding of Chinese characters as a writing system, and grew out of a European obsession with the notion of a “universal character” at a particular historical moment (Mungello 1985; Saussy 2001). Nevertheless the concept has become deeply embedded in European understandings of Chinese language and culture, to the extent that it is, in effect, a valuable conceptual possession of Western modernity (Bush 2010), and promoted alike by those with a detailed knowledge of Chinese writing, such as H. G. Creel (1936), as by those in blissful ignorance of it, like Jacques Derrida (1967/1976). In the Sinophone sphere, while for most practical purposes, as well as in a large proportion of scholarly work, more grounded understandings of Chinese characters as a writing system operate either implicitly or explicitly, the traditional emphasis on characters as a link between civilization and the cosmos (O’Neill 2013), as well as a long tradition of pedagogical “just so stories” about the construction of individual characters (e.g., Zuo 2005), provide a key point of contact with Western notions of the “ideograph” as symbolizing not a word, but an idea or an object. The situation may thus be described involving a type of inversion of the phenomenon of faux amis or “false friends,” where two different words are understood as being more or less synonymous; or alternatively as an example of Lydia Liu’s (2004) notion of a cross-lingual “supersign” where two comparable terms exercise an influence on each other across linguistic and cultural boundaries. This article will attempt to trace the genealogy of these complex and overlapping notions, and see what differing understandings of Chinese characters have to tell us about notions of cultural specificity, cultural production, and cross-cultural (mis-)communication in the contemporary globalized world.
Keywords: Chinese characters, ideograph, writing systems, nativised orientalism, cultural nationalism
- Argument: What exactly is the problem?
- The archeology of the “ideograph”
- The ideograph and the hanzi: Translingual scholarly interaction
- The ideograph as nativised orientalism: Claiming cultural uniqueness
Published online: 12 October 2018
Ames, Roger T. and Henry Rosemont, Jr.
1605 The Advancement of Learning. Renascence Editions: An Online Repository of Works Printed in English Between the Years 1477 and 1799. http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/adv1.htm
Boodberg, Peter A.
Chao, Yuen Ren 趙元任
Du Ponceau, Peter S.
1919 The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Ed. by Ezra Pound. reprinted 1936 San Francisco: City Lights Books. Fenollosa, Ernest & Ezra Pound 2008 New edition. Ed. by Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition. Fordham University Press.
Gu, Ming Dong
2000 What’s the code for ‘We’ve heard this one before’? Times Higher Education, August 20, 2000. Available at: www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/whats-the-code-for-weve-heard-this-one-before/155936.article. Last accessed 18 May 2018.
Hodge, Bob & Kam Louie
Liu, Lydia H.
Lurie, David B.
Oxford English Dictionary
Rosemont, Henry Jr.
Saussure, Ferdinand de
2015 “Review of Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism by Ming Dong Gu.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture. http://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/gangzhou/