Can China Think – In Ideograms

By Andrej Mrevlje |

In an age when our planet is flooded with Chinese merchandise, money and technology, it makes sense that there is also resistance to it — that there is an effort to diminish the effect of a bare economic reality, especially when it comes to defending cultural heritage and intellectual property that are quintessential to Western values, right?

And among all the possible places to defend these values, is there a better one than the New Yorker? And who better to discuss the differences between China and the Western world than Ted Chiang, an American science fiction writer who fought his way onto the pages of the New Yorker through talent and (in this particular case) his Chinese roots that give him the authority to write about an issue that has tortured Western minds for centuries? Do the Chinese think in the same way as us Westerners? Or is their written language — which is largely pictographic, prevalently monosyllabic and non-phonetic — an indication that they have a completely different way of thinking?

Ted Chiang, who was born in the U.S., tried and failed to learn Chinese as a child. He thinks that the Chinese language itself is an obstacle:

“I’m a fan of literacy, and Chinese characters have been an obstacle to literacy for millennia. With a phonetic writing system like an alphabet or a syllabary, you need only learn a few dozen symbols and you can read most everything printed in a newspaper. With Chinese characters, you have to learn three thousand. And writing is even more difficult than reading; when you can’t use pronunciation as an aid to spelling, you have to rely on pure memorization. The cognitive demands are so great that even highly educated Chinese speakers regularly forget how to write characters they haven’t used recently.”

Chiang is completely wrong in his lament when he goes on to say that, “Computers and smartphones are impossible to use if you’re restricted to Chinese characters; it’s only with phonetic systems of writing, like Bopomofo and Pinyin, that text entry becomes practical.” He becomes easy prey for Tom Mullaney, who attacks him for superficiality about the use of Chinese in technology. However, Chiang is not wrong when he says that, “The ease of reading classical Chinese has been significantly overstated,” meaning that classical Chinese uses characters that are more pictograms than letters, and that therefore communicate not only their meaning, but images of what they represent. French post-structuralists like Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida abused this idea abundantly, claiming that reading Chinese is more compelling than anything written in Western languages, and that it reinforces practical human behavior. It was in this way that some of the post-structuralists justified many of the revolutionary practices introduced by Maoism during the Cultural Revolution, while trying to explain that the grip of ideology on Chinese society was stronger because it provided more compelling images by using characters.

But I had a somewhat similar experience to Chiang. Unlike him, I decided to learn Chinese of my own free will, but when I started to study it in Beijing, the teaching methods of the Chinese lecturers were so rude and direct that learning the language almost felt like a heavy workout. Of course, when one first starts to learn Chinese, a foreigner who only knows Indo-European languages cannot associate the new language with any other language that he knows. At least, I could not. If you are not a newborn and Chinese is not your native tongue, you need to learn the language’s grammar, that fundamental tool to studying a language. In the repressive society that was China at the end of the Cultural Revolution, that tool was not automatically given to us. It did not fit into the elementary Chinese classes that I attended for six hours a day. I rebelled against the repetitive method of teaching and against the idea of memorization as the only method of learning, and almost risked getting expelled from China. I envied my new foreign friends who came to China with already good knowledge of Chinese and who were in Beijing only to polish their tones and pronunciation and to enrich their vernacular. The problem was resolved when, after a few months, I managed to meet a professor who, in a few hours of “fudao” — or coaching — in the language, helped me to open the door that Chiang never managed to crack.

Richer for this experience, once I was back in the West, I wanted to continue with my Chinese studies. It seemed only natural that, in the period of post-structuralism, one would choose to study in Paris, which was still considered an intellectual Mecca. Besides, famous post-structuralists like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze were still alive at the time. But I picked classical Chinese and history without knowing that structuralism penetrated Chinese studies.

I went to Jacques Gernet at Collège de France and asked him to accept me as his  master’s student because in his book Chine et christianisme, action et réaction, Paris, Gallimard 1982, he wrote a chapter on Chinese language and culture, claiming that Chinese classical thought could never develop ontological thinking because it lacked the adequate grammatical structures.

Ah, grammar again, I thought when I jumped into the argument. Gernet largely quoted Emile Benveniste and his book, Problèmes de linguistique générale, which in turn cited Aristotle’s Organon as the book that defined the 10 basic categories that generated Western thought. I was trapped. I studied the history of classical Chinese, went through all the libraries possible to figure out whether it was really true that the Chinese could never understand us because they simply did not have the verb “to be” or the “cupola” that generated the notion of “being” and all other concepts of metaphysics.

It was the last stand of French poststructuralism. Jacques Derrida was still debating the issues, but Gernet himself admitted to me that he already received a lot of critiques. But Gernet was a gentleman and did not balk when, a few months later, I discovered that Angus C. Graham, a genius in the study of Chinese language and classical philology, had invested 30 years of his life to researching this problem, analyzing all philosophic schools during the period of classical Chinese philosophy that corresponded to the Greek pre-Socratic period. I started to spend some time visiting Graham in his home near London.

Graham’s book, Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science, was a revelation in many ways. But for the purpose of this piece, let’s just say that he not only proved the French wrong — though Graham never actually entered in polemics with the French thinkers — but he reconstructed the corrupt Mohist text that had previously been only partially translated, and wrote the grammar of the language that the school was implementing. In the particle 也 (ye), Graham found that missing link, a grammatical structure that in many cases played the role of the verb “to be,” or the cupola that denoted the being. It was Graham’s conclusion that 也 in the language of the Mohist school of thought represented many more notions than Aristotle’s cupola in ancient Greek. In other words, the ancient Chinese did not impose limits on the philosophers before Confucius. So what happened later on? The “night of the long knives” in China that came with the first emperor Qin Shihuangdi, who burned books and installed Confucianism as the doctrine of the state. With Qin Shihuangdi came repression — the end of philosophical disputes among the different schools of thought. Instead, memorization of classical texts and dynasty chronicles with short excursions into the freedom of poetry and religion. So it is Confucius and Qin Shihuangdi who Ted Chiang should blame, and not the language he never mastered.       

Also published on Medium.

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