Character acting

Following on from the short aside about studying kanji a couple of posts ago, I remembered an article I read some time ago on the story behind a Chinese word. Among the kanji I’m plowing my way through at the moment is “危機” (きき, or kiki), which means crisis. The two characters which make up the word are ‘危’ (danger) and ‘機'(opportunity). This is exactly the same as the Chinese word which gave rise to the belief that “in Chinese, danger + opportunity = crisis”. It’s been the springboard for a mysteries-of-the-orient view that the best time for finding opportunity is in a crisis. Seems to me a slightly patronising, orientalist view of things, like those businessmen who read samurai texts to improve their business skills. The article debunks this view very nicely, and you learn a bit about the Chinese language as well. What more could you want?

Also, I referred to kanji as ‘ideograms’ in the previous post. I’ve since edited it, as Prof. Mair puts me right in the third paragraph of his article:

Linguists and writing theorists avoid “ideogram” as a descriptive referent for hanzi (Mandarin) / kanji (Japanese) / hanja (Korean) because only an exceedingly small proportion of them actually convey ideas directly through their shapes. (For similar reasons, the same caveat holds for another frequently encountered label, pictogram.) It is far better to refer to the hanzi / kanji / hanja as logographs, sinographs, hanograms, tetragraphs (from their square shapes [i.e., as fangkuaizi]), morphosyllabographs, etc., or — since most of those renditions may strike the average reader as unduly arcane or clunky — simply as characters.

So now you know.


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Filed under education, language, linkage

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