Accidents in learning
The beauty of the character
This character, 人, opened up a world. It is the Mandarin symbol for person/people – written as rén, generally pronounced jhen, with the sound rising on the e. These two lines, or strokes, have now come to mean people to me. This picture of what looks like someone walking – two legs in motion – has found its way into the depths of my brain. This image is now stuck there. It is the first Chinese character that I really learnt. It is visually simple and, in my eyes, elegant.
I never wanted to learn the Chinese script, at least not so soon. It was too difficult, or so I thought. By script, I mean Chinese as represented by characters, whether traditional or simplified, not Pinyin. Let me explain. Chinese has three written scripts to represent the language. The script using Chinese characters has two versions: a simplified version, which is easier to understand and therefore to learn; and a traditional script, more complex and ancient. And, thirdly, there is the Pinyin script, which uses the Latin alphabet. This makes it vastly easier for many new learners, especially those who already use a Latin script, such as English speakers.
I have been learning spoken Chinese and Pinyin for some months now. My original plan had been to learn the script only after I was able to converse in the new language. And I expected that achieving conversational Mandarin would probably take at least a year of intense study, and practice with my language exchange partners China.
The script was intimidating because it appeared incomprehensible. The Latin-script languages that I have learned, Italian and Spanish, share so much with English. But for most Westerners, Mandarin seems utterly different, dishearteningly distant; the idea of learning it conjures an image of climbing Mount Everest.
Simply characters: People – Big – Sky –人大天
To explain how I ‘discovered’ the simplicity of the Mandarin script, let me go back to the first character I mentioned 人, people. It will illustrate my approach so far – which seems to be working.
But I need to emphasise that, when I use the words like ‘discovered’ and ‘simplicity’, I am talking about my personal experience at a specific stage in my own learning process. My language journey may continue in the same vein, or get easier, or, as I anticipate, become much more complicated. Using the analogy of climbing a mountain, some sections will be easy to climb – but then you can hit a part that challenges you severely.
Our character 人 is one of the simplest: two strokes, two neat lines. It is also one of the most common characters in Mandarin, just as some words are very common in English. We can construct additional, and different, characters by adding strokes. When we put a stroke around the middle of 人, people, we make 大, which means big. In Pinyin, it is written as dā, pronounced with long tone on a. Then, we can add another line at the top of 大 to get 天, which means sky, heaven or day, and, in Pinyin, tiān. The new word grows by transmuting from one idea, 人, rén, people to another idea, 大, dā, big, and then continues to another, 天, tiān, day/heaven. Traditionally, the line added to the top of 大, big, represented the spiritual level above humans and earth.
Different languages, different horizons
By rising from human, 人, rén to 天, tiān, heaven, the process enlarges the space in my imagination. At the same time, it makes the connection between human and heaven intimate – the concepts are no longer separate and impossibly distant from one another. Their relationship redirects my way of seeing the world, as though my sense of feeling the world, experiencing it, is moving outwards, in different directions, as if I am at the centre of an expanding bubble. The sensation is strange, but magical.
In English, the word people has absolutely no connection to the word heaven – they are separate things linguistically, and very separate conceptually. Indeed, we would often think of them as things in opposition, alien to each other. But the way the ideas are expressed in Mandarin, through the characters 人 and 天, seems to suggest an organic connection, an association that stems from each to the other. I am not sure which way to think about it – that people are derived from sky/heaven, or the other way around, that sky/heaven is derived from people. The mechanism by which meaning is created in Mandarin characters suggests to me that heaven is derived from people.
Now, let’s extend the use of the 人, 大, 天 characters. We can use these individual ‘bricks’ to create compound characters: two or more characters placed together to form new words or expressions, and thereby create new ‘units of meaning’. Let’s take a concrete example by starting with the character 人, rén, people. By doubling up the character 人 we get 人人, rén rén, meaning everyone. Placing the two characters together creates a completely new character, with a new, and different, meaning.
Let’s try another combination: if we add 大, dā, big to 人, rén, person, we have adult (大人, dā rén). Here, again, two different characters (with their own independent meanings) come together to create a compound character with a different meaning to either of the separate characters.
This mechanism can be also applied to 天, tiān, sky and 大, dā, big. Together, they form the compound character 天大, tiān dā, which means extremely big. And if we double up 天 it will give us 天天, tiān tiān, meaning every day.
Characters into another world, the space within
Chinese characters suggest connotations to me – some more than others – and incite my imagination, forming visual and symbolic connections. It has been a revelation: characters build on other characters, simple ideas combine to express more complex ideas, compound characters add new meanings.
Mandarin characters are graphically and visually beautiful – they are enlarging my inner world. Each character I get to know extends, ever so slowly, this new space. That’s how this exciting journey – which has really only just begun – is proceeding, step by step, character by character. It is more than climbing Mount Everest, just going up, but more like a centre, myself, expanding constantly outwards, in every direction.
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