So it’s finals time, and I’ve been studying for my upcoming 文字学 Chinese Graphology exam, to be held Wednesday morning, and so naturally my attention has been wandering to things unrelated to Graphology (e.g. cake, my upcoming birthday, the grievous lack of good, cheap coffee machines in Beijing, the question of whether or not penguins might be taught to serve as butlers).

In <<现代汉字学纲要>> (An Overview of Modern Chinese Graphology), I came across this passage:

“Chinese characters have a strong timeless quality to them. While a modern-day English person reading 600 year-old poems by ‘Qiaosou’ [Geoffrey Chaucer] would find them difficult, almost foreign, and hard to understand in many places, modern-day Chinese can read Confucius and Mencius with no problem.”

This is bullshit, plain and simple. Even leaving aside the archaic, highly formal language of Confucius and Mencius, the written texts – which are after all what this guy was talking about – pose a problem: modern-day Chinese read Confucius, if they read him at all, in the 楷书 forms of the characters, as they are written today. On top of that, they’re almost certainly reading a version that uses the simplified forms of the characters, and has footnoted explanations in modern Chinese of what, exactly, the Master is saying. By contrast, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ are left with Chaucer’s original spelling intact.

So it’s a lousy, unfair analogy. In order to make it a bit more fair, I’ve written out a passage of the Analects of Confucius in small-seal script (strictly speaking, I guess it should be in Zhou script, but my 汉字源流字典 Dictionary of Character Etymologies doesn’t have enough samples of that), and am setting it side-by-side with a section of the Canterbury Tales, and we’ll just see which one’s easier to understand.

–Cast your votes for which is the harder in the comments.

Anyway, I don’t really have any point here, other than that Graphology was a pretty cool class, and I’m sorry it’s over. It’s the only exam I’m taking; when I turned in my roster at the start of the semester, I opted not to take exams in <<老>><<庄>>导读 Guided Readings in Laozi and Zhuangzi (a pity, as it was my favourite class, and I think I’d have done well on the exam) and 现代汉语 Linguistics of Modern Chinese (probably just as well).
The semester’s drawing to a close, and so is my time in China. After a couple months of fruitless, inconclusive inquiries, it turns out that transferring to Beida would require me to start over as a freshman, and, like, fuck that.

I was surprised when I heard this, not so much at the university’s policy as at how non-bummed -out I was by it, and at how relieved I was not to have a choice in the matter after all.

So I’ll go back to Philadelphia, back to Temple, and take courses until I get my goddamn stupid B.A.. Right now, I’m thinking that Classical Greek and Film could be fun, but we’ll see.

I wrote on here before about what a wonderful feeling it is to know that there’s nothing you’d rather be doing, and nowhere else you’d rather be, and I think a kind of corollary to that is that sometimes there’s a great comfort in knowing where you need to be, and what you need to be doing, and that there’s just no getting around it.

Comments (16)

  1. oli wrote::

    if you want to be super fair, check out an original copy of the Canterbury Tales:

    The text is still readable, and the whole site’s pretty cool.

    Tuesday, May 25, 2004 at 7:27 am #
  2. chriswaugh_bj wrote::

    I vote for Chaucer. Almost every time I’ve quoted the Dao De Jing to Chinese friends they’ve looked at me like I’m a total freak speaking the most obscure dialect of Mongolian. You’d have to go back to Old English (Beowulf, for example) to find any comparison. (Chaucer is Middle English)

    Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 1:05 am #
  3. John wrote::

    I am highly amused that you would even ask people to vote for which one is easier, as if there’s a single person on Earth who’s qualified (language-wise) to make an objective comparison.

    Still, interesting stuff.

    Glad to hear that you’re going to finally get that diploma (and not one with crazy oriental chicken scratch all over it! hehe).

    Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 1:48 am #
  4. 香山异人 wrote::

    “Nothing is impossible.” if one put sometime into reading them. Soon, he will custom to them and have no problem to read them. the problem is that majority of public(both English and Chinese) wouldn’t the time and/or the opportunity to try them, old Chinese or old English.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 4:43 am #
  5. laska wrote::

    Have you considered taking a year off school to teach English at a Chinese university, so you could continue your studies and stay in China for 12 months. You could use the time to read more widely, while applying, if you wanted to, to transfer to another undergrad program with a stronger Chinese program, say Yale. Also, I bet you could find a program where you could complete a B.A. and an M.A. at the same time.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 6:27 am #
  6. Sarah wrote::

    Ooh, I definitely agree on the last paragraph.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 7:45 am #
  7. Patrick wrote::

    Hey: Happy Birthday, Stoat. Now you are a man. I thought Chaucer was WAY easier.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 8:09 am #
  8. jane I wrote::

    i have known you for 21 years and i still like you.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 9:23 am #
  9. Adam wrote::

    I think it’s really just a matter of what your used to, since Confucian quotes are quite often used in modern Chinese, even a foreigner who has never formally studied seal characters can easily discern that the quote begins with 子曰, and due to the fact that the quotes you selected are very commonplace (I was given an instant-noodle bowl last month that had 有朋自遠方來不亦樂乎 emblazoned on the side) I would say that it is much easier for the average Chinese person to read Confucius in the original than it is for the average American to read Chaucer. Morever, I think it is worth pointing out that even though seal characters are visually distinct from modern Chinese, the component parts of the character remain the same for they have only undergone stylistic, rather than substantial, changes. Also, you kind of equivocate by comparing Chaucer to Confucious while neglecting to mention the nearly two millenia that sperate the two. The continuity of the Chinese cultural tradition is in no small part due to the use of Chinese characters throughout the ages, you shouldn’t give short shrift to this critical aspect of Chinese culture simply because you’re studying for some crappy exam.
    要懲罰: you owe me one beer.

    Thursday, May 27, 2004 at 2:10 am #
  10. Brendan wrote::

    I was going with Chaucer versus Confucius just because that was the comparison that the author of the random Graphology book made. And I agree that the characters are important to the continuity of Chinese culture (whereas being able to read the alphabet will do you zero good when you read Beowulf if you don’t know Old English) – I just thought it’d be fun to try writing things in seal script.
    I will, however, gladly buy you a beer the next time I see you – probably not in Beijing, as I’ll be leaving on or around August 1.

    Laska: I’ve done the English-teaching thing – that was how I first came to live in China – and am pretty strongly resolved never to do it again.

    Hillock Kong: I’d like to think that I would be free after getting the BA, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a kind of inflation at work. College used to be optional, and now a B.A. is the only way to get even an entry-level job. I guess it’ll be an M.A., in a few years.

    Thursday, May 27, 2004 at 8:07 am #
  11. kong qiu wrote::

    Bravo! Get the BA, and then you can do whatever you want for the rest of your life! It’s not the way things should be, but it is the way things are.

    Thursday, May 27, 2004 at 12:46 pm #
  12. Erika wrote::

    Well, Happy Birthday, Brendan! It looks as if you are now legally an adult (should that be in quotes?)!! Shall I embarass you with stories about when you were 3 or worse, 12, or should I just let it go and wish you the best–and actually am glad that you’ll be back in Philly where I can torment you in person (from time to time)??
    See you starside–


    Friday, May 28, 2004 at 10:34 am #
  13. adam wrote::

    Ahhhhh! I was so looking forward to getting Jingy with you in the capital, oh well, guess we’ll just have to get together over some illadelph skunk ish next time I’m in the states (I have to attend a skanky wedding in Trenton in November). My Taiwanese visa also expires in a few days, so I have to high tail it to Thailand for a week (oh no!) then come back and await the resuls of my admission to TaiDa’s Grad History Department. I’ll see if I can get you some of that refined Burmese heroin you’ve grown so addicted to.

    Happy Belated Birthday,
    much love,

    Friday, May 28, 2004 at 12:26 pm #
  14. Adam wrote::

    I just realized the next time I see you I won’t have to sneak you into some crappy Lower East Side dive to pay shit-loads for a can of Pabst. Fuck the penalty, I owe you a (legally obtained) drink.
    Happy 21st!

    Friday, May 28, 2004 at 12:29 pm #
  15. trevelyan wrote::

    If you track some of the older English dictionaries you can see major changes to the English language roughly 500 years ago, so the 600 year claim is reasonable.

    That being said, if any Chinese person ever tried feeding that to me, I’d just give him one of the Imperial edicts from the late Qing Dynasty.

    Sunday, May 30, 2004 at 6:58 am #
  16. Ian wrote::

    Shame you you didn’t use the bit out of Wife of Bath’s tale where Chaucer wrote something (very) roughly along the lines of “and she hangeth her hairieth cunt outeth the window”

    Tuesday, June 8, 2004 at 5:50 am #