The Nanbanjin Nikki

ザ南蛮人日記

Some Léon Wieger quotes

As the decay of the 周 Chou Dinasty grew worse, studies were neglected and the scribes became more and more ignorant. When they did not remember the genuine character, they blunderingly invented a false one. Those non-genuine characters, copied out again by other ignorant writers, became usual. Confucius himself made this statement. Towards the year B.C. 500, he uttered this complaint: «When I was young, I still knew some scribes who left blank the characters which they could not write; now there are no more such men!» Consequently, the 奇字 ch’i tzǔ «odd characters» were multiplied without restraint, to the great prejudice of etymology.

1. Causes of the excessive multiplication of characters… First, the ignorance of scribes who continually brought to light faulty forms which were stupidly reproduced by posterity; then, the need felt to give names to new things. The Empire was growing, learning was spreading; writing had become a public thing; the process 形聲 hsing-shêng (see page 10) being an easy one, all took to it. From this disorderly fermentation, without direction, without control, without criticism, sprang up, together with useful characters, thousands of useless doubles. […] The index of Li-ssǔ contained 3300 characters. Two centuries later, there were 10.000. Now the dictionary of 康熙 K’ang-hsi (A.D. 1716), contains 40.000 characters that may be plainly divided as follows: 4.000 characters in common use; 2.000 proper names and doubles of limited use; 34.000 monstruosities of no practical use.

[On the creation of block and cursive forms] During his campaigns against the Huns, the general 蒙恬 Mêng-t’ien is said to have invented or improved the writing-brush, the ink and the paper. This invention was fatal to the characters. […] The writing-brush galloping, the strokes were connected up, giving birth to the 連筆字 lien-pei-tzǔ; then it flew, throwing on the paper misshapen figures, which are called 草字 ts’ao-tzǔ. The fancy for these novelties became a rage. At the beginning of the Christian era, a man believed himself dishonoured if he wrote in a legible way.

Page from L. Wieger’s “Chinese Characters”

Page from L. Wieger’s “Chinese Characters”

Note to the Internets: this is all utterly wrong :)

Caractères chinois (translated as Chinese characters: their origin, etymology, history, classification and signification), being from 1915, is hopelessly outdated; it’s also full of mistakes. That’s a shame, because it’s charming as hell, and a pleasure to read. I especially like the format of the “Etymological Lessons”, and I wish someone would make something like that using state-of-the-art scholarly knowledge. The impressionistic stories extrapolated from bronze inscriptions are textbook Orientalist fantasy, very entertaining. The book is still probably the best Western-language compendium on what I call the “traditional” school of Chinese “character-etymology”—i.e. the local philological tradition based on the Shuowen and (to a lesser extent) the Kangxi.

Comments

Obligatory link to terrible Chinese character etymology Rorschach testing:

http://www.bibleprobe.com/chinese.htm

By Carl on .

I was going to say: “it never gets old, isn’t it”, but then I was JUST in a talk with a respected emeritus professor about how the primitive Chinese religion is actually Jewish and stuff! He actually quoted the biblical character etymology thing! Apparently the uni has an entire streak of “finding God in ancient China” guys!