The Path to Chinese


So I started a new project about nine days ago, a twist on the fault journals of Benjamin Franklin and Leo Tolstoy. I don’t know what else to call them—they’re not diaries, they’re almost like account books, where instead of numbers and prices you take down your faults and achievements of the day, tally them up, compare them to other days, and try to improve yourself over the course of your entire life. It’s a method of perfectionism, a way to keep track of how close you are to attaining your goals.

Perhaps I’m not so obsessive about it as they may have been, and I’m not really keeping track of the bad things I do, but I have set out a number of basic goals for myself. To achieve all of them, every day, would bring about a great deal of happiness. The idea that this thin book is there, and that I have to fill it out every morning, and think over what I did the day before, should push me closer to the person I want to be. Gibbon wrote that the invention of money created more wealth, and that the invention of writing created more words, and in my mind this means that really keeping an eye on what you want will bring you closer to getting it.

Great writers probably give about eight hours of each day to their work, but for now I can only spare 4—ideally I would have eight, with an hour or two for eating and exercising in between—and then there is reading (2 hours); the need to get up at or before 7; guitar practice (1 hour); running (1 hour); photography (1 hour); and, at last, language learning (1 hour).

I had neglected this last necessity for several days because I am far from being able to achieve everything that I desire. Nonetheless I decided to get back to work on Korean this morning, after guzzling a cup or two of strong coffee, and reading just a few pages of William H. Prescott’s The History of the Conquest of Mexico—What can I say? I was inspired. I started taking down vocabulary from the racist, ignorant, but fun, Iutnara Monnara, or “Near Countries Far Countries”, by Ree Won Bok, something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, after spending hours translating the text and filling the margins with notes. I started transcribing to help better remember terms like “ceramics”, “pottery”, and “Neolithic Age”, and checked my definitions with a portable electronic dictionary that my wife bought a few years ago.

Pretty self-explanatory, and very typical, blood-libel type stuff from Ree Won Bok's Near Countries Far Countries. Of course if it were really true it would be impossible for anyone to discuss these things. There's also plenty of idiotic jingoism about how much better Korea is than Japan.

This device is pretty amazing. It contains four languages, English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, it can speak every word aloud, and effortlessly jump back and forth between languages. It’s built for a country that’s really serious about learning other languages, so it’s no surprise I’ve never seen anything like it back in America, where I believe it’s mostly immigrants and their families who speak multiple languages, without needing anything so fancy to teach them either English or their ancestral mother tongue!

So Korean is a bitch, we all know that, but the question is this—why is it such a bitch? One of many reasons is this: Korea has been close to China for thousands of years, and the peninsula has sponged up a ton of Chinese words; perhaps even sixty or seventy percent of the language is derived from Chinese. But for the uninitiated, Chinese is a tonal language, and Korean is not. A single syllable like ma can have several completely different meanings in Chinese, depending on the tone you use to speak it aloud, but in Korean you get all five of these ma’s, and thousands of other words too, without the tones.

An example gleaned from the day’s work—

공공장소, gong-gong-jang-so, public meeting place. There’s two gongs in there, they’re both Chinese, but in Chinese they would have different tones. There’s public (公, gōng), and together (共, gòng), but in Korean they’re both just gong. This is kind of confusing. I’ve probably whined about all of this before because what am I really except a poor imitation of myself? A linguistical amateur? There’s also another gong I know, a very pretty picture used for airplanes and airports—空—it means “air”.

Anyway, this etymological research led me into practicing my Chinese writing skills, which are barely functional. You’re supposed to write each character in a specific way, and if you mess up the order of the strokes, or write some of them backwards, you’ll probably ruin the effect, and write something that others would find difficult to read. The stroke-order interests me. It’s so counterintuitive. Take two common symbols you see here in Korea: 生 (fresh, shēng, 생) and 無 (Wú, none, 무). For sheng, you have to write the diagonal first, then the top two horizontal lines, then the vertical line, then the last horizontal line on the bottom. Without the dictionary’s instructions I probably would have written the same symbol backwards.

I suppose I discovered that to write in this startlingly different way is a method of imbibing another universe. It’s not enough for an abstract concept like freshness to be expressed with those five lines (symbolizing a plant shooting up out of the ground according to the fascinating Chinese Etymological Dictionary), but to write that symbol in such a counterintuitive way says that by taking up your pen and putting it to this paper you are entering a new world, and connecting with a form of thought that is much more ancient than your own—at least one step closer to the cave paintings that gave birth to writing, than a syllabary like Korean’s Hangul or an alphabet like the one I’m using now.

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