Woman, please let me explainAs a westerner, I have always been fascinated by the Chinese language and its written script.
I never meant to cause you sorrow or pain....
Woman (John Lennon)
Westerners think of language and writing in a linear fashion. We have letters; just 26, and when we put these together, we create syllables, and combine these to make words. In written form we structure these to make paragraphs, and so on.
And so our thoughts and ideas are threaded together, like beads on a string. With the flair of Flaubert, we might even end up with Madame Bovary.
The Chinese approach to writing is quite different. A written character can be thought of as a word, but it is much more than that. It's an ideogram, containing or encapsulating an idea or concept; one that is highly symbolic.
Inevitably, it reflects the culture it springs from, and as a word-picture it can't be divorced easily from its own history. It's also an art form, bringing its nuances along with it.
Look at this one. It got my attention as I saw it in front of me on the back of the seat ahead of me in a plane on the way to Urumqi, far out in China's west.
Above it was an English translation. FOR SAFETY. It was telling passengers to keep their seatbelts on.
The bottom half of it represents a woman. Above her, you can see a roof. So, a woman under a roof represents safety. It also connotes peace and order.
This is intriguing, because it's loaded with so many ideas.
It could be about a tender concern for the protection of women, springing from the idea that the outside world is a dangerous place they should avoid and can't really cope with.
It could mean that a woman's place is in the home, and nowhere else. Or that society can only be safe when the woman is inside the house and not in the public domain – that society's public order, peace and security depend upon it.
It might mean some combination of these. One way or another, it gives us clues to the nature of the society in which it was created, to be matched with other evidence to see if any or all of these possible interpretations are valid.
For Chinese literature, the ideogram integrates different art forms. A Chinese poem has layers of meaning simply because of the way written characters were devised and are now interpreted. Imagine trying to translate these collective layers of subtle meaning into English, and retain some semblance of its original poetic form. No wonder the Tao te Ching gets translated in so many different ways.
English is not immune from the cultural bias of the history of its words. "Woman" as an English word has been dissected and deconstructed a zillion times, especially in the past fifty years, and just going through the different shades of meaning in the word "husband" shows that it's not only ideograms that can't be divorced from their history.
This means that linear writing with its tiny range of just 26 characters has its own culture-bombs which create difficulties in translation, as we know so well when religious texts are converted to another language.
But that's another story. When it comes to written language as a beautiful and expressive art form, Chinese can't be beaten.*
Disclaimer: I do not speak or read mandarin. I began studying Chinese history, culture and literature, ancient and modern in translation in 1966, and taught it on that basis at two universities from 1971 to 2007.