You Don't Need a Character to Write a Chinese Syllable

The Chinese characters are still in use today not because of linguistic limitations, but because of culturally and politically influenced policies. The story of Qu Qiubai and Latinxua Sin Wenz prove this.

Qu Qiubai, known as the tenderhearted Communist, was the first Chinese journalist in Moscow after the Russian communist revolution. Before his departure he became a supporter of the communist revolution in China. Communist ideology mobilized Qu Quibai into designing a romanized and decentralized writing system with the help of Russian linguists. He intended for the system to eventually replace the characters. This system is known as Latinxua Sin Wenz “Latinized New Writing” (拉丁化新文字).

Qu Qiubai’s goal was to place orthographic agency in the hands of every Chinese citizen. This was to be achieved through promoting regional varieties of Latinxua Sin Wenz. Qu Qiubai’s goal stems from his belief that a writing system for the masses would contribute to the construction of a societal foundation from which an equitable China could be built.

Latinxua Sin Wenz was designed such that it could be molded to different Chinese dialects. This ability was partially realized with the northern dialects by providing a finite set of parameters from which the tools needed to write each dialect could be drawn. Qu Qiubai and his Russian colleagues selected features that would make cross-dialectal application unrealistic and excluded them from the system. One of these features was pitch variation (tone).

Latinxua Sin Wenz was widely used as an actual writing system. It was taught to illiterate Chinese immigrants in Russia. Several hundred works were published in China using Latinxue Sin Wenz before the PRC banned it. Before its demise Latinxua Sin Wenz had proven itself as a functional replacement of the characters and earned the support of Lǔ Xùn.

I witnessed a native Chinese speaker, who had never seen Latinxue Sin Wenz before, examine a newspaper article published in the variety designed for Mandarin, and after five minutes, with little assistance, she could read and comprehend the article.

The Chinese characters are still in use today not because of linguistic limitations but because of culturally and politically influenced policies. The story of Qu Qiubai and Latinxua Sin Wenz prove this.

Note:

The great paradox inherit in Latinxue Sin Wenz is that if it was adopted as a national standard it would have unified the Chinese people in terms of a comprehensive writing system while fracturing the Chinese people into regional groups in terms of orthographic intelligibility. That is, everyone would be able to write their native language, but they would not be able to read work outside of their region.

(Check wikipedia for some sources.)

The same claim was touted as an “advantage” of Tongyong, and has also been made about Hanyu Pinyin. But these claims are trivial: any romanization system can be adapted to multiple dialects.

Was this native speaker already familiar with Hanyu Pinyin? Latinxua Sin Wenz is not that different from Hanyu Pinyin. Also, in reading an article, the reading process is facilitated by context.

The same claim was touted as an “advantage” of Tongyong, and has also been made about Hanyu Pinyin. But these claims are trivial: any romanization system can be adapted to multiple dialects.
[/quote]

This is not true for Hanyu Pinyin because tone variation would make things very complicated. Of course, tones could be dropped all together.

Yes she was…good point.
Context is important, but that is the case for all languages.

For examples of Sin Wen, see the links at the bottom of my page on this romanization system: Sin Wenz 新文字.

Shouldn’t the title read “You don’t need Chinese CHARACTERS to write a Chinese syllable”? I hope you’re not confusing these terms:

  1. the old term ‘radicals’ (etymological word roots)
  2. the main modern use of the term “radicals” (bu4shou3 部首), i.e., the keys to dictionary searches, regardless of their role in the characters (if any)
  3. ‘character components’ or ‘elements’ in general, regardless of their semantic or phonetic role (calling these radicals is clearly incorrect)
  4. characters themselves. (calling these radicals is also incorrect)

I bring it up because I’ve seen these confused a lot. It sounds like you mean #4, which in no way are “radicals”.

:wink:

i get Che Guevara to write all my Chinese for me. He’s just shocking, though, I’d be better off using Plato, i think… at least if it’s all Greek to me, I’d prefer it to be good Greek.

[quote=“Dragonbones”]Shouldn’t the title read “You don’t need Chinese CHARACTERS to write a Chinese syllable”? I hope you’re not confusing these terms:
:wink:[/quote]

When writing the title I was thinking of the components of the characters; an example of a component is the shared element in the following set.







All of the characters contain the component 方.

If you don’t need radicals to write a Chinese syllable, then you don’t need characters either. That’s the assumption underlying my title. But I agree that replacing “radical” with “character” is more accurate :laughing:

[color=#000000]Do you consider “classifier” to be a more appropriate term?[/color] Radical is often used among Chinese language linguists who operate in English.

Then ‘component’ or ‘element’ are reasonable terms (for the way you’re using it in this sentence).
方 is not the bu4shou3 (dictionary ‘section header’, commonly referred to by the misnomer ‘radical’) in the whole group you list. Bushou really only refers to the part of the character under which it happens to be listed in a particular dictionary, and this may vary from dictionary to dictionary in a small number of cases. Note also that the bushou doesn’t by definition play any particular functional role in a character; some happen to be the (or a) semantic part, some happen to be phonetic, some are both semantic and phonetic, some are also an etymon (etymological root, or the original graph, the true “radical”, from radix meaning ‘root’), and some are artificial extractions of a graphic portion of the character, which may or may not have had an independent existence or role (see, e.g. Serruys, Paul L-M. (1984) “On the System of the Pu Shou 部首 in the Shuo-wen chieh-tzu 說文解字”, in 中央研究院歷史語言研究所集刊 Zhōngyāng yánjiùyuàn lìshĭ yǔyán yánjiùsuǒ jíkān, v.55:4, pp.651-754).

More appropriate for what purpose? We should use words appropriately, based on their meaning. It’s clear that a ‘classifier’ is something which functions to group items into classes or categories.
So should we use this:

To refer to characters used to write Chinese syllables? No, absolutely not.

To refer to the components of those characters. No, most definitely not.

To refer to the bushou? Not my first choice, because the sections of dictionaries are not fundamentally meaningful categories or classes. They are just groupings for lexicographical convenience. I like ‘section header’ as a translation. That is exactly what the term bushou means, and it describes their function well – they are the characters which are at the head of each section of the dictionary, and serve to organize the characters to enable convenient look-up in a dictionary. That’s all a bushou (‘radical’) is.

I also like bushou as a direct loan word, as it’s shorter, but I acknowledge that the horrible misnomer ‘radical’ is likely here to stay. Due to the inappropriateness of its coinage and the resulting confusion, some have suggested replacing it with other terms like index keys, keys, bushou, section headers, and yes, classifiers. It’s certainly an improvement when Prof. William Boltz uses ‘classifier’ instead of ‘radical’ in Boltz, William G. (1994; revised 2003). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-18-8.

However, ‘classifier’ has also been used to refer to the measure words, such as 本 ben3 for books and 條 tiao2 for long slender objects. I think we should avoid terms that will confuse beginners, and this kind of dual usage will certainly confuse a few.

Used HOW? You have to distinguish between the ways they have used it before such sentences gain any real value, and after one is done making such careful distinctions, one will IMO see the depth of the problem with the term. It has been used in different ways by such linguists over time, and this makes it problematic, and worth avoiding. There are linguists who ‘get it’, like Woon, Wee Lee (see e.g., 雲惟利, 1987 Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution. In English; Chinese title 漢字的原始和演變; originally publ. by the Univ. of East Asia, Macau; now available through Joint Publishing, jpchk@jointpublishing.com – be sure to provide Chinese author and title).

Then there are linguists who have used it in error too; not every linguist or professor of Chinese has looked into the problem I’m referring to. Ramsey (1987, pp.136-137) and Wieger (p.14-15) abuse the word, wrongly equating ‘radical’ with ‘semantic’, and thus confusing the separate notions of section header and semantic component (this confusion is widespread, and not just among beginners).
Have a read of the Wiki page here.

Dragonbones,

Firstly, thank you for your comment and for taking up my sloppy title. I now understand that we don’t need radicals to write Chinese characters.

“Classifier” or “radical” traditionally refer to the element under which a character is categorized in a dictionary. These terms have changed such that they have taken on an extended “semantic canopy”. You labeled their various non-traditional articulations as “abuses”. I agree with you.

I believe the problem here is that the unit of the “radical” corresponds to the unit of the “element”. This is not the case in English; we would not interchange “letter” with “citation form”, “root” or “base word”. (Although the later two are often confused.)

The Chinese characters are composed of a finite set of elements, most of which serve one or more functions. These elements and their functions, along with character definitions, were taken up by Xǔ Shèn in the Shōuwén jiězì. Xǔ Shèn did organize the characters in the Shōuwén Jiězì according to “classifiers” or “radicals”. Thus the book itself presents the dichotomy. If we were to refer to the functional elements that make up characters and to the radicals under which characters are categorized as radicals, the two uses of the word would provide contradictions in may cases, and would be sloppy in all.

Perhaps it is best to refer to a single element as a “simple graph” and to to say that characters that contain more than one graph are “compound graphs”. Thus we could say that the Shōuwén Jiězì contains an “explanation of simple graphs and analysis of compound graphs” (taken from my course notes).

Hi archylgp,

98% or more of the time, yes. I understand your point, although for the purpose of perpetuating my pedantic persona, I’m compelled to caution that in the case of some of the artificial glyph extractions (see Serruys) used as bushou, they are not actual functional component graphs (elements) so that particular subset isn’t on the same level.

[quote]The Chinese characters are composed of a finite set of elements, most of which serve one or more functions. These elements and their functions, along with character definitions, were taken up by Xǔ Shèn in the Shōuwén jiězì[/quote].

Sh[color=#BF0040]uo[/color]1wen2, but yes. :wink: Just bear in mind that some of the elements taken up by Xŭ Shèn were not real elements with distinct functions, but the result of improper dissection.

Bingo. :slight_smile:

But while ‘single elements’ seems to be used here to refer to any functional constituent part, references to ‘simple graphs’ generally means monosomatic (single element) standalone characters, such as 子 (which happens to also be a component of 好). There are components of characters which may or may not be actual graphs with an independent existence, and then there are monosomatic characters which may also be combined with other elements to form polysomatic characters. There is a difference.

There are numerous components (or portions perceived of as components, as evidenced by their use as bushou) which don’t have (or no longer have, in some cases) a standalone existence, like 丨 gǔn (yí shù) (which is often used as a bushou for 丫 yā, 中 zhōng, 丰 fēng, and 串 chuàn); 丶 zhǔ (yì diǎn) in 丸 wán, 丹 dān, 主 zhǔ, and 乓 pāng; 丿 piĕ in 乃 nǎi, 久 jiǔ, 之 zhī, 乍 zhà, 乎 hū, 乏 fá, 乒 pīng, 乖 guāi and 乘 chéng, etcetera.

For instance, I would term the bushou 丿 piĕ a ‘stroke’, not a functional element, and not a simple graph; the bushou 二 èr is a non-functional, artificial ‘glyph extraction’ in 于 yú, 云 yún, 互 hù, 五 wǔ, 井 jĭng, 亙 gèn etc., which happens to LOOK like the unrelated ‘simple graph’ 二 er4 ‘two’; the bushou 田 tián in 禺 yù isn’t a separate functional element or ‘simple graph’; rather, it’s just the artificially detached head of what is presumed to have originally been a pictograph of a monkey; and 豕 in 象 is just the artificially extracted body portion of the elephant – again, not a ‘simple graph’, but a fiction for lexicographic convenience. The bushou 宀 mian2 ‘house’ (now though of as ‘roof’, but it is the whole dwelling, with sides contracted) is definitely a component element which once had a standalone existence in the OB (oracle bones) and which was relegated to component status in the bronze inscriptions. It is a functional (semantic) element but not a ‘simple graph’, at least not since around 3 millennia ago. The same goes for the functional element 豕 jiā ‘male pig’ in 家 jiā; it is no longer a standalone character (although its modern corrupted form is often confused with 豕 shĭ ‘pig’) as it has been replaced by 豭 jiā, ‘male pig’.

This is why referring to a single element as a “simple graph” is risky, and we need to be more precise with our terminology and analyses.

Oh, you!

Whenever I hear about the feasibility of romanizing Chinese characters, I always think of this story:

施氏食獅史

石室詩士施氏,嗜獅,誓食十獅。適施氏時時適市視獅。十時,適十獅適市。是時,適施氏適市。氏視是十獅,恃矢勢,使是十獅逝世。氏拾是十獅屍,適石室。石室濕,氏使侍拭石室。石室拭,氏始試食是十獅屍。食時,始識是十獅屍,實十石獅屍。試釋是事。

The characters, if translated into roman letters, would all come out to “shi” or variants thereof (taking into account your provision for changes of spelling with regards to tone). I find it an amusing footnote rather than concrete proof that it cannot be done, but the inherent difficulties it poses for articles written in Classical Chinese.

[quote=“Edaren”]Whenever I hear about the feasibility of romanizing Chinese characters, I always think of this story:

施氏食獅史

石室詩士施氏,嗜獅,誓食十獅。適施氏時時適市視獅。十時,適十獅適市。是時,適施氏適市。氏視是十獅,恃矢勢,使是十獅逝世。氏拾是十獅屍,適石室。石室濕,氏使侍拭石室。石室拭,氏始試食是十獅屍。食時,始識是十獅屍,實十石獅屍。試釋是事。

The characters, if translated into roman letters, would all come out to “shi” or variants thereof (taking into account your provision for changes of spelling with regards to tone). I find it an amusing footnote rather than concrete proof that it cannot be done, but the inherent difficulties it poses for articles written in Classical Chinese.[/quote]

Classical Chinese has no bearing in a discussion involving doing away with the characters as an orthography for Mandarin.

I fail to see the logic behind that assertion. Would you care to elaborate?

Excuse me, posted in error. Deleted.

I fail to see the logic behind that assertion. Would you care to elaborate?[/quote]

Classical Chinese had many more free morphemes. Almost all root morphemes could be words by themselves. In Mandarin, compounds – words spanning two syllables (morphemes) – have replaced monomorphemic words – words spanning one syllable (morpheme). The additional syllables can fully disambiguate words now. Consider:

Classical Chinese
知 ‘know’
枝 ‘branch’
脂 ‘grease’
織 ‘weave’

Modern Mandarin
知道 ‘know’
樹枝 branch’
脂肪 ‘grease’
紡織 ‘weave’

Observe this:
忠信 禮之本 也
忠 (loyalty) 信 (trust) 禮 (ritual) 之 (的)本(root) 也 (copula)。 ‘Loyalty and trust are the root of ritual.’

As you can see now, Classical Chinese is representing a language that is very different from Mandarin.

As a translator, I can attest that I have to deal, on a daily basis, with things like literary Chinese, abbreviations, puns, and other written forms which, because of homophony, would be rendered undecipherable in pure Pinyin. It might be a different story if the Chinese wrote like they spoke, but in general they don’t.

As a translator, I can attest that I have to deal, on a daily basis, with things like literary Chinese, abbreviations, puns, and other written forms which, because of homophony, would be rendered undecipherable in pure Pinyin. It might be a different story if the Chinese wrote like they spoke, but in general they don’t.[/quote]

Interesting perspective. Do you have any examples.

Contemporary alphabetic systems were not designed to replace the characters. It is impossible to design a system that will be unfailingly functional. However, once an alphabetic system is in the works, changes will be made as the system progresses. With time a more perfect system – that is, one that can handle vestiges of Classical Chinese and lexical elision – will naturally emerge. Additionally, many of the puns and abbreviations that you encounter may exists in the minds of native speakers as discrete units, and therefore their constituent morphemes do not need to be textually distinguished. Lastly, there is always the possibility that orthographic change will influence writing styles. They are both representations of humans’ capacity for language, which is realized through spoken and sign languages. Representations, such as writing, are conditioned by prescribed rules. Prescribed rules are directable.

For millions of people learning the characters is not that bad. It just takes time and proper study skills. However, both of those characteristics are luxuries that many native Chinese speakers do not have access to. Simplification* of the written language would clearly help empower the millions of illiterate peasants in China and Taiwan. There are other reasons as well. I recommend this document – Schriftfestschrift: Essays in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday (15 MB PDF) ( sino-platonic.org/complete/spp02 … rancis.pdf ). Many of the authors are Chinese. Some of the articles are written in pinyin. One of my favorite points presented is that the characters represent a relatively simple phonological system and thus limit the capacity of the Chinese language to expand in this regard. The author provides some intriguing examples.

*I don’t mean the mess that is known as simplified characters.

Oh, you![/quote]

made more sense when the thread title was still you don’t need a radical to write chinese…

Oh, you![/quote]

made more sense when the thread title was still you don’t need a radical to write chinese…[/quote]

Yeah, I wouldn’t have read it if it had had the current title. Is that good or bad?

Can I do the old ‘24’ layout so I can read the first two lines to find out what the post is about? That was a good feature.