1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Language - Introduction. Written Language.

(Part 36)


Chinese Language - Introduction. Written Language.

The Chinese language is the chief among that small class of languages which includes the Tibetan Cochin-Chinese, Burmese, Corean, and Chinese and which is usually described as monosyllabic. It is language in its most archaic form. Every word is a root, and every root is a word. It is without inflexion or even agglutination ; its substantives are indeclinable and its verbs are not to be conjugated ; it is destitute of an alphabet, and finds its expression on paper in thousands of distinct symbols.

It is then a language of monosyllabic roots, which, as regards the written character, has been checked in its growth and crystallized in its most ancient form by the early occurrence of a period of great literary activity, of which the nation is proud, and to the productions of which every Chinaman even of the present day looks back as containing the true standards of literary excellence.

Written Language

But in treating of the two branches into which Chinese naturally divides itself, namely the written medium or characters and the spoken medium or sounds, we propose to begin with the former. And in following this course we shall be doing no violence to the language, for it would be quite possible to separate the characters from the sounds, and to treat them as two languages, as indeed has already been partly done in Japan, where the Chinese characters were at one time in general use as representing the phonetic value of their Japanese equivalents. Beginning at the other end, but with a similar ultimate result, various members of the missionary body have published text-books and dictionaries in Romanized Chinese, that is to say, they have avoided the use of the characters by transcribing the sounds of the language in Roman letters. But since, though the characters are rich and copious to a degree, the sounds are out of all proportion poor, this last dismemberment presents the language in a very denuded form, and is at the same time attended with difficulties which only the most sanguine can hope to see overcome. The necessity of distinguishing between words having the same sound can only be met by the adoption of distinct diacritical marks for each word ; and as one sound often represents as many as a hundred words, such a system cannot but be attended with confusion.

The characters of the language form the medium which speaks to the eye, and may be described as the equivalents of the written words of other languages ; but unlike these, instead of being composed of letters of an alphabet, they are either symbols intended to represent images, or are formed by a combination of lines, or of two or more such symbols. All characters, say the Chinese lexicographers, had their origin in single strokes, or in hieroglyphics, and this, no doubt, is a correct view of the case. Legends differ as to who was the first inventor of writing in China. One attributes the invention to Fuh-he (3200 B.C), who is also said to have instituted marriage, and to have introduced the use of clothing, and who caused the knotted cords, which had been up to that time in use to be superseded by characters founded on the shapes of his celebrated diagrams. Another record states that Tsang Ke who lived 2700 B.C., wa the Cadmus of China. According to received native accounts, Tsang Ke was a man of extraordinary ability, and was acquainted with the art of writing from his birth. While wandering in the neighbourhood of his house at Yang-woo, he one day met with a tortoise, and observing its shell distinctly and beautifully spotted, he took it home, and thus formed the idea of representing the objects around him. Looking upwards he carefully observed the figures presented by the stars and the heavenly bodies ; he then attentively considered the forms of birds originated the written character.

But however great the uncertainty may be as to who invented the first characters, we may take it for granted that they were simply pictures of the various objects of sense he wished to express a mountain, he wrote, as did also the ancient Egyptians, _____ a symbol which is written at the present day _____ ; _____ now written _____ , served him to signify "the eye," and so on. But such a written medium was naturally extremely limited, and by degrees, in some instances by the addition of strokes, and in other by a combination of one or more of these primary characters, the written language has been formed as it is at the present day.

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