Colloquial. - In treating of Chinese, it will be found convenient to distinguish, broadly, the spoken from the written language and to deal with each separately. This is a distinction which would be out of place if we had to do with any European, or indeed most Oriental languages. Writing, in its origin, is merely a symbolic representation of speech. But in Chinese, as we shall see, for reasons connected with the peculiar nature ot the script, the two soon began to move along independent and largely divergent lines. This division, moreover, will enable us to employ different methods of inquiry more suited to each. With regard to the colloquial, it is hardly possible to do more than consider it in the form or forms in which it exists at the present day throughout the empire of China. Although Chinese, like other living languages, must have undergone gradual changes in the past, so little can be stated with certainty about these changes that an accurate survey of its evolution is quite out of the question. Obviously a different method is required when we come to the written characters. The familiar line, "Litera scripta manet, volat irrevocabile verbum," is truer perhaps of Chinese than of any other tongue. We have hardly any clue as to how Chinese was spoken or pronounced in any given district 2000 years ago, although there are written remains dating from long before that time; and in order to gain an insight into the structure of the characters now existing, it is necessary to trace their origin and development.
Beginning with the colloquial, then, and taking a linguistic survey of China, we find not one spoken language but a number of dialects, all clearly of a common stock, yet differing from one another as widely as the various Romance languages in southern Europe - say, French, Italian and Spanish. Most of these dialects are found fringing the coast-line of China, and penetrating but a comparatively short way into the interior. Starting from the province of Kwang-tung in the south, where the Cantonese and farther inland the Hakka dialects are spoken, and proceeding northwards, we pass in succession the following dialects: Swatow, Amoy - these two may almost be regarded as one - Foochow, Wenchow and Ningpo. Farther north we come into the range of the great dialect popularly known as Mandarin (Kuan hua or "official language"), which sweeps round behind the narrow strip of coast occupied by the various dialects above-mentioned, and dominates a hinterland constituting nearly four-fifths of China proper. Mandarin, of which the dialect of Peking, the capital since 1421, is now the standard form, comprises a considerable number of sub-dialects, some of them so closely allied that the speakers of one are wholly intelligible to the speakers of another, while others (e.g. the vernaculars of Yangchow, Hankow or Mid-China and Ssu-ch'uan) may almost be considered as separate dialects. Among all these, Cantonese is supposed to approximate most nearly to the primitive language of antiquity, whereas Pekingese perhaps has receded farthest from it. But although philologically and historically speaking Cantonese and certain other dialects may be of greater interest, for all practical purposes Mandarin, in the widest sense of the term, is by far the most important. Not only can it claim to be the native speech of the majority of Chinamen, but it is the recognized vehicle of oral communication between all Chinese officials, even in cases where they come from the same part of the country and speak the same patois. For these reasons, all examples of phraseology in this article will be given in Pekingese.
So far, stress has been laid chiefly on the dissimilarity of the dialects. On the other hand, it must be remembered that they proceed from the same parent stem, are spoken by members of the same race, and are united by the bond of writing which is the common possession of all, and cannot be regarded as derived from one more than from another. They also share alike in the two most salient features of Chinese as a whole: (1) they are all monosyllabic, that is, each individual word consists of only one syllable; and (2) they are strikingly poor in vocables, or separate sounds for the conveyance of speech. The number of these vocables varies from between 800 and 900 in Cantonese to no more than 420 in the vernacular of Peking. This scanty number, however, is eked out by interposing an aspirate between certain initial consonants and the vowel, so that for instance p'u is distinguished from pu. The latter is pronounced with little or no emission of breath, the "p" approximating the farther north one goes (e.g. at Niuchwang) more closely to a "b." The aspirated p'u is pronounced more like our interjection "Pooh!" To the Chinese ear, the difference between the two is very marked. It will be found, as a rule, that an Englishman imparts a slight aspirate to his p's, t's, k's and ch's, and therefore has greater difficulty with the unaspirated words in Chinese. The aspirates are better learned by the ear than by the eye, but in one way or another it is essential that they be mastered by any one who wishes to make himself intelligible to the native.
The influence of the Mongolian population, assisted by the progress of time, has slowly but surely diminished the number of vocables in Pekingese. Thus the initials ts and k, when followed by the vowel i (with its continental value) have gradually become softer and more assimilated to each other, and are now all pronounced ch. Again, all consonantal endings in t and k, such as survive in Cantonese and other dialects, have entirely disappeared from Pekingese, and n and ng are the only final consonants remaining. Vowel sounds, on the other hand, have been proportionately developed, such compounds as ao, ia, iao, iu, ie, ua occurring with especial frequency. (It must be understood, of course, that the above are only equivalents, not in all cases very exact, for the sounds of a non-alphabetic language.)
An immediate consequence of this paucity of vocables is that one and the same sound has to do duty for different words. Reckoning the number of words that an educated man would want to use in conversation at something over four thousand, it is obvious that there will be an average of ten meanings to each sound employed. Some sounds may have fewer meanings attached to them, but others will have many more. Thus the following represent only a fraction of the total number of words pronounced shih (something like the "shi" in shirt): "history," "to employ," "a corpse," "a market," "an army," "a lion," "to rely on," "to wait on," "poetry," "time," "to know," "to bestow," "to be," "solid," "to lose," "to proclaim," "to look at," "ten," "to pick up," "stone," "generation," "to eat," "a house," "a clan," "beginning," "to let go," "to test," "affair," "power," "officer," "to swear," "to pass away," "to happen." It would be manifestly impossible to speak without ambiguity, or indeed to make oneself intelligible at all, unless there were some means of supplementing this deficiency of sounds. As a matter of fact, several devices are employed through the combination of which confusion is avoided. One of these devices is the coupling of words in pairs in order to express a single idea. There is a word ko which means "elder brother." But in speaking, the sound ko alone would not always be easily understood in this sense. One must either reduplicate it and say ko-ko, or prefix (ta, "great") and say ta-ko. Simple reduplication is mostly confined to family appellations and such adverbial phrases as man-man, "slowly." But there is a much larger class of pairs, in which each of the two components has the same meaning. Examples are: k'ung-p'a, "to be afraid," kao-su, "to tell," shu-mu, "tree," p'i-fu, "skin," man-ying, "full," ku-tu, "solitary." Sometimes the two parts are not exactly synonymous, but together make up the sense required. Thus in i-shang, "clothes," i denotes more particularly clothes worn on the upper part of the body, and shang those on the lower part. fOøΩng-huang is the name of a fabulous bird, fOøΩng being the male, and kuang the female. In another very large class of expressions, the first word serves to limit and determine the special meaning of the second: "milk-skin," "cream"; "fire-leg," "ham"; "lamp-cage," "lantern"; "sea-waist," "strait." There are, besides, a number of phrases which are harder to classify. Thus, hu means "tiger." But in any case where ambiguity might arise, lao-hu, "old tiger," is used instead of the monosyllable. (another hu) is "fox," and li, an animal belonging to the smaller cat tribe. Together, hu-li, they form the usual term for fox. chih tao is literally "to know the way," but has come to be used simply for the verb "to know." These pairs or two-word phrases are of such frequent occurrence, that the Chinese spoken language might almost be described as bi-syllabic. Something similar is seen in the extensive use of suffixes or enclitics, attached to many of the commonest nouns. nOøΩ is the word for "girl," but in speech nOøΩ-tzu or nOøΩ-'rh is the form used. and both mean child, and must originally have been diminutives. A fairly close parallel is afforded by the German suffix chen, as in MOøΩdchen. The suffix , it may be remarked, belongs especially to the Peking vernacular. Then, the use of so-called numeratives will often give some sort of clue as to the class of objects in which a substantive may be found. When in pidgin English we speak of "one piecee man" or "three piecee dollar," the word piecee is simply a Chinese numerative in English dress. Even in ordinary English, people do not say "four cattle" but "four head of cattle." But in Chinese the use of numeratives is quite a distinctive feature of the language. The commonest of them, ko, can be used indifferently in connexion with almost any class of things, animal, vegetable or mineral. But there are other numeratives - at least 20 or 30 in everyday use - which are strictly reserved for limited classes of things with specific attributes. mei, for instance, is the numerative of circular objects such as coins and rings; k'o of small globular objects - pearls, grains of rice, etc.; k'ou classifies things which have a mouth - bags, boxes and so forth; chien is used of all kinds of affairs; chang of chairs and sheets of paper; chih (literally half a pair) is the numerative for various animals, parts of the body, articles of clothing and ships; pa for things which are grasped by a handle, such as fans and knives.
This by no means exhausts the list of devices by which the difficulties of a monosyllabic language are successfully overcome. Mention need only be made, however, of the system of "tones," which, as the most curious and important of all, has been kept for the last.
The tones may be defined as regular modulations of the voice by means of which different inflections can be imparted to the same sound. They may be compared with the half-involuntary modulations which express emotional feeling in our words. To the foreign ear, a Chinese sentence spoken slowly with the tones clearly brought out has a certain sing-song effect. If we speak of the tones as a "device" adopted in order to increase the number of vocables, this must be understood rather as a convenient way of explaining their practical function than as a scientific account of their origin. It is absurd to suppose the tones were deliberately invented in order to fit each written character with a separate sound. A tone may be said to be as much an integral part of the word to which it belongs as the sound itself; like the sound, too, it is not fixed once and for all, but is in a constant, though very gradual, state of evolution. This fact is proved by the great differences of intonation in the dialects. Theoretically, four tones have been distinguished - the even, the rising, the sinking and the entering - each of which falls again into an upper and a lower series. But only the Cantonese dialect possesses all these eight varieties of tone (to which a ninth has been added), while Pekingese, with which we are especially concerned here, has no more than four: the even upper, the even lower, the rising and the sinking. The history of the tones has yet to be written, but it appears that down to the 3rd century B.C. the only tones distinguished were the "even," "rising" and "entering." Between that date and the 4th century A.D. the sinking tone was developed. In the 11th century the even tone was divided into upper and lower, and a little later the entering tone finally disappeared from Pekingese. The following monosyllabic dialogue gives a very fair idea of the quality of the four Pekingese tones - 1st tone: Dead (spoken in a raised monotone, with slightly plaintive inflection); 2nd tone: Dead? (simple query); 3rd tone: Dead? (an incredulous query long drawn out); 4th tone: Dead! (a sharp and decisive answer). The native learns the tones unconsciously and by ear alone. For centuries their existence was unsuspected, the first systematic classification of them being associated with the name of ShOøΩn Yo, a scholar who lived A.D. 441-513. The Emperor Wu Ti was inclined to be sceptical, and one day said to him: "Come, tell me, what are these famous four tones?" "They are whatever your Majesty pleases to make them," replied ShOøΩn Yo, skilfully selecting for his answer four words which illustrated, and in the usual order, the four tones in question. Although no native is ever taught the tones separately, they are none the less present in the words he utters, and must be acquired consciously or unconsciously by any European who wishes to be understood. It is a mistake, however, to imagine that every single word in a sentence must necessarily be given its full tonic force. Quite a number of words, such as the enclitics mentioned above, are not intonated at all. In others the degree of emphasis depends partly on the tone itself, partly on its position in the sentence. In Pekingese the 3rd tone (which is really the second in the ordinary series, the 1st being subdivided into upper and lower) is particularly important, and next to it in this respect comes the 2nd (that is, the lower even, or 2nd division of the 1st). It may be said, roughly, that any speaker whose second and third tones are correct will at any rate be understood, even if the 1st and 4th are slurred over.
It is chiefly, however, on its marvellous script and the rich treasures of its literature that the Chinese language depends for its unique fascination and charm. If we take a page of printed Chinese or carefully written manuscript and compare it with a page, say, of Arabic or Sanskrit, the Chinese is seen at once to possess a marked characteristic of its own. It consists of a number of wholly independent units, each of which would fit into a small square, and is called a character. These characters are arranged in columns, beginning on the right-hand side of the page and running from top to bottom. They are words, inasmuch as they stand for articulate sounds expressing root-ideas, but they are unlike our words in that they are not composed of alphabetical elements or letters. Clearly, if each character were a distinct and arbitrarily constructed symbol, only those gifted with exceptional powers of memory could ever hope to read or write with fluency. This, however, is far from being the case. If we go to work synthetically and first see how the language is built up, it will soon appear that most Chinese characters are susceptible of some kind of analysis. We may accept as substantially true the account of native writers who tell us that means of communication other than oral began with the use of knotted cords, similar to the quippus of ancient Mexico and Peru, and that these were displaced later on by the practice of notching or scoring rude marks on wood, bamboo and stone. It is beyond question that the first four numerals, as written with simple horizontal strokes, date from this early period. Notching, however, carries us but a little way on the road to a system of writing, which in China, as elsewhere, must have sprung originally from pictures. In Chinese writing, especially, the indications of such an origin are unmistakable, a few characters, indeed, even in their present form, being perfectly recognizable as pictures of objects pure and simple. Thus, for "sun" the ancient Chinese drew a circle with a dot in it: , now modified into ; for "moon" , now ; for "God" they drew the anthropomorphic figure , which in its modern form appears as ; for "mountains" , now ; for "child" , now ; for "fish" , now ; for "mouth" a round hole, now ; for "hand" , now ; for "well" , now written without the dot. Hence we see that while the origin of all writing is pictographic, in Chinese alone of living languages certain pictures have survived, and still denote what they had denoted in the beginning. In the script of other countries they were gradually transformed into hieroglyphic symbols, after which they either disappeared altogether or became further conventionalized into the letters of an alphabet. These picture-characters, then, accumulated little by little, until they comprised all the common objects which could be easily and rapidly delineated - Sun, Moon, stars, various animals, certain parts of the body, tree, grass and so forth, to the number of two or three hundred. The next step was to a few compound pictograms which would naturally suggest themselves to primitive man: the Sun just above the horizon = "dawn"; trees side by side = "a forest"; a mouth with something solid coming out of it = "the tongue"; a mouth with vapor or breath coming out of it = "words."
But a purely pictographic script has its limitations. The more complex natural objects hardly come within its scope; still less the whole body of abstract ideas. While writing was still in its infancy, it must have occurred to the Chinese to join together two or more pictorial characters in order that their association might suggest to the mind some third thing or idea. "Sun" and "moon" combined in this way make the character , which means "bright"; woman and child make "good"; "fields" and "strength" (that is, labour in the fields) produce the character "male"; two "men" on "earth" signifies "to sit" - before chairs were known; the "sun" seen through "trees" designates the east; has been explained as (1) a "pig" under a "roof," the Chinese idea, common to the Irish peasant, of home, and also (2) as "several persons" under "a roof," in the same sense; a "woman" under a "roof" makes the character "peace"; "words" and "tongue" naturally suggest "speech"; two hands (Gr., in the old form ) indicate friendship; "woman" and "birth" = "born of a woman," means "clan-name," showing that the ancient Chinese traced through the mother and not through the father. Interesting and ingenious as many of these combinations are, it is clear that their number, too, must in any practical system of writing be severely limited. Hence it is not surprising that this class of characters, correctly called ideograms, as representing ideas and not objects, should be a comparatively small one. Up to this point there seemed to be but little chance of the written language reaching a free field for expansion. It had run so far on lines sharply distinct from those of ordinary speech. There was nothing in the character per se which gave the slightest clue to the sound of the word it represented. Each character, therefore, had to be learned and recognized by a separate effort of memory. The first step in a new, and, as it ultimately proved, the right direction, was the borrowing of a character already in use to represent another word identical in sound, though different in meaning. Owing to the scarcity of vocables noted above, there might be as many as ten different words in common use, each pronounced fang. Out of those ten only one, we will suppose, had a character assigned to it - namely "square" (originally said to be a picture of two boats joined together). But among the other nine was fang, meaning "street" or "locality," in such common use that it became necessary to have some means of writing it. Instead of inventing an altogether new character, as they might have done, the Chinese took "square" and used it also in the sense of "locality." This was a simple expedient, no doubt, but one that, applied on a large scale, could not but lead to confusion. The corresponding difficulty which presented itself in speech was overcome, as we saw, by many devices, one of which consisted in prefixing to the word in question another which served to determine its special meaning. A native does not say fang simply when he wishes to speak of a place, but li-fang "earth-place." Exactly the same device was now adopted in writing the character. To fang "square" was added another part meaning "earth," in order to show that the fang in question had to do with location on the earth's surface. The whole character thus appeared as . Once this phonetic principle had been introduced, all was smooth sailing, and writing progressed by leaps and bounds. Nothing was easier now than to provide signs for the other words pronounced fang. "A room" was door-fang; "to spin" was silk-fang; "fragrant" was herbs-fang; "to inquire" was words-fang; "an embankment," and hence "to guard against," was mound-fang; "to hinder" was woman-fang. This last example may seem a little strange until we remember that man must have played the principal part in the development of writing, and that from the masculine point of view there is something essentially obstructive and unmanageable in woman's nature. It may be remarked, by the way, that the element "woman" is often the determinative in characters that stand for unamiable qualities, e.g. "jealous," "treacherous," "false" and "uncanny." This class of characters, which constitutes at least nine-tenths of the language, has received the convenient name of phonograms. It must be added that the formation of the phonogram or phonetic compound did not always proceed along such simple lines as in the examples given above, where both parts are pictorial characters, one the "phonetic," representing the sound, and the other, commonly known as the "radical," giving a clue to the sense. In the first place, most of the phonetics now existing are not simple pictograms, but themselves more or less complex characters made up in a variety of ways. On analysing, for instance, the word hsOøΩn, "to withdraw," we find it is composed of the phonetic combined with the radical , an abbreviated form of "to walk." But sun means "grandson," and is itself a suggestive compound made up of the two characters "a son" and "connect." The former character is a simple pictogram, but the latter is again resolvable into the two elements "a down stroke to the left" and "a strand of silk," which is here understood to be the radical and appears in its ancient form as , a picture of cocoons spun by the silkworm. Again, the sound is in most cases given by no means exactly by the so-called phonetic, a fact chiefly due to the pronunciation having undergone changes which the written character was incapable of recording. Thus, we have just seen that the phonetic of is not hsOøΩn but sun. There are extreme cases in which a phonetic provides hardly any clue at all as to the sound of its derivatives. The character , for example, which by itself is pronounced ch'ien, appears in combination as the modern phonetic of k'an, juan, yin and ch'ui; though in the last instance it was not originally the phonetic but the radical of a character which was analysed as ch'ien, "to emit breath" from "the mouth," the whole character being a suggestive compound rather than an illustration of radical and phonetic combined. In general, however, it may be said that the "final" or rhyme is pretty accurately indicated, while in not a few cases the phonetic does give the exact sound for all its derivatives. Thus, the characters in which the element enters are pronounced chien, ch'ien, hsien and lien; but and its derivatives are all i. A considerable number of phonetics are nearly or entirely obsolete as separate characters, although their family of derivatives may be a very large one. , for instance, is never seen by itself, yet , and are among the most important characters in the language. Objections have been raised in some quarters to this account of the phonetic development of Chinese. It is argued that the primitives and sub-primitives, whereby is meant any character which is capable of entering into combination with another, have really had some influence on the meaning, and do not merely possess a phonetic value. But insufficient evidence has hitherto been advanced in support of this view.
The whole body of Chinese characters, then, may conveniently be divided up, for philological purposes, into pictograms, ideograms and phonograms. The first are pictures of objects, the second are composite symbols standing for abstract ideas, the third are compound characters of which the more important element simply represents a spoken sound. Of course, in a strict sense, even the first two classes do not directly represent either objects or ideas, but rather stand for sounds by which these objects and ideas have previously been expressed. It may, in fact, be said that Chinese characters are "nothing but a number of more or less ingenious devices for suggesting spoken words to a reader." This definition exposes the inaccuracy of the popular notion that Chinese is a language of ideographs, a mistake which even the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary have not avoided. Considering that all the earliest characters are pictorial, and that the vast majority of the remainder are constructed on phonetic principles, it is absurd to speak of Chinese characters as "symbolizing the idea of a thing, without expressing the name of it."
The "Six Scripts."
The Chinese themselves have always been diligent students of their written language, and at a very early date (probably many centuries B.C.) evolved a sixfold classification of characters, the so-called liu shu, very inaccurately translated by the Six Scripts, which may be briefly noticed: -
1. chih shih, indicative or self-explanatory characters. This is a very small class, including only the simplest numerals and a few others such as "above" and "below."
2. hsiang hsing, pictographic characters.
3. hsing shOøΩng or hsieh shOøΩng, phonetic compounds.
4. hui i, suggestive compounds based on a natural association of ideas. To this class alone can the term "ideographs" be properly applied.
5. chuan chu. The meaning of the name has been much disputed, some saying that it means "turned round"; e.g. mu "eye" is now written . Others understand it as comprising a few groups of characters nearly related in sense, each character consisting of an element common to the group, together with a specific and detachable part; e.g. , and , all of which have the meaning "old." This class may be ignored altogether, seeing that it is concerned not with the origin of characters but only with peculiarities in their use.
6. chia chieh, borrowed characters, as explained above, that is, characters adopted for different words simply because of the identity of sound.
The order of this native classification is not to be taken as in any sense chronological. Roughly, it may be said that the development of writing followed the course previously traced - that is, beginning with indicative signs, and going on with pictograms and ideograms, until finally the discovery of the phonetic principle did away with all necessity for other devices in enlarging the written language. But we have no direct evidence that this was so. There can be little doubt that phonetic compounds made their appearance at a very early date, probably prior to the invention of a large number of suggestive compounds, and perhaps even before the whole existing stock of pictograms had been fashioned. It is significant that numerous words of daily occurrence, which must have had a place in the earliest stages of human thought, are expressed by phonetic characters. We can be fairly certain, at any rate, that the period of "borrowed characters" did not last very long, though it is thought that traces of it are to be seen in the habit of writing several characters, especially those for certain plants and animals, indifferently with or without their radicals. Thus "a tadpole" is frequently written , without the part meaning "insect" or "reptile."
In the very earliest inscriptions that have come down to us, the so-called ku-wOøΩn or "ancient figures," all the above-mentioned forms occur. None are wholly pictorial, with one or two unimportant exceptions. These early inscriptions are found on bronzes dating from the half-legendary period extending from the beginning of the Shang dynasty in the 18th century B.C., or possibly earlier, down to a point in the reign of King HsOøΩan of the Chou dynasty, generally fixed at 827 B.C. They have been carefully reproduced and for the most part deciphered by painstaking Chinese archaeologists, and form the subject of many voluminous works. The following may be taken as a specimen, in which it will be noticed that only the last character is unmistakably pictorial: This is read: - "ShOøΩn made [this] precious ting." These ancient bronzes, which mainly take the shape of bells, cauldrons and sacrificial utensils, were until within the last decade our sole source of information concerning the origin and early history of Chinese writing. But recently a large number of inscribed bone fragments have been excavated in the north of China, providing new and unexpected matter for investigation. The inscriptions on these bones have already furnished a list of nearly 2500 separate characters, of which not more than about 600 have been so far identified. They appear to be responses given by professional soothsayers to private individuals who came to them seeking the aid of divination in the affairs of their daily life. It is difficult to fix their date with much exactitude. The script, though less archaic than that of the earlier bronzes, is nevertheless of an exceedingly free and irregular type. Judging by the style of the inscriptions alone, one would be inclined to assign them to the early years of the Chou dynasty, say 1100 B.C. But Mr L.C. Hopkins thinks that they represent a mode of writing already obsolete at the time of their production, and retained of set purpose by the diviners from obscurantist motives, much as the ancient hieroglyphics were employed by the Egyptian priesthood. He would therefore date them about 500 years later, or only half a century before the birth of Confucius. If that is so, they are merely late specimens of the "ancient figures" appearing long after the latter had made way for a new and more conventionalized form of writing. This new writing is called in Chinese chuan, which is commonly rendered by the word Seal, for the somewhat unscientific reason that many ages afterwards it was generally adopted for use on seals. Under the Chou dynasty, however, as well as the two succeeding it, the meaning of the word was not "seal," but "sinuous curves," as made in writing. It has accordingly been suggested that this epoch marks the first introduction into China of the brush in place of the bamboo or wooden pencil with frayed end which was used with some kind of colouring matter or varnish. There are many arguments both for and against this view; but it is unquestionable, at any rate, that the introduction of a supple implement like the brush at the very time when the forms of characters were fast becoming crystallized and fixed, would be sufficient to account for a great revolution in the style of writing. Authentic specimens of the ta chuan, older or Greater Seal writing, are exceedingly rare. But it is generally believed that the inscriptions on the famous stone drums, now at Peking, date from the reign of King HsOøΩan, and they may therefore with practical certainty be cited as examples of the Greater Seal in its original form. These "drums" are really ten roughly chiselled mountain boulders, which were discovered in the early part of the 7th century, lying half buried in the ground near FOøΩng-hsiang Fu in the province of Shensi. On them are engraved ten odes, a complete ode being cut on each drum, celebrating an Imperial hunting and fishing expedition in that part of the country. A facsimile of one of these, taken from an old rubbing and reproduced in Dr Bushell's Handbook of Chinese Art, shows that great strides had been made in this writing towards symmetry, compactness and conventionalism. The vogue of the Greater Seal appears to have lasted until the reign of the First Emperor, 221-210 B.C. (see History), when a further modification took place. For many centuries China had been split up into a number of practically independent states, and this circumstance seems to have led to considerable variations in the styles of writing. Having succeeded in unifying the empire, the First Emperor proceeded, on the advice of his minister Li Ssu, to standardize its script by ordaining that only the style in use in his own state of Ch'in should henceforward be employed throughout China. It is clear, then, that this new style of writing was nothing more than the Greater Seal characters in the form they had assumed after several centuries of evolution, with numerous abbreviations and modifications. It was afterwards known as the hsiao chuan, or Lesser Seal, and is familiar to us from the Shuo Wen dictionary (see Literature). Though a decided improvement on what had gone before, the Lesser Seal was destined to have but a short career of undisputed supremacy. Reform was in the air; and something less cumbrous was soon felt to be necessary by the clerks who had to supply the immense quantity of written reports demanded by the First Emperor. Thus it came about that a yet simpler and certainly more artistic form of writing was already in use, though not universally so, not long after the decree abolishing the Greater Seal. This li shu, or "official script," as it is called, shows a great advance on the Seal character; so much so that one cannot help suspecting the traditional account of its invention. It is perhaps more likely to have been directly evolved from the Greater Seal. If the Lesser Seal was the script of the semi-barbarous state of Ch'in, we should certainly expect to find a more highly developed system of writing in some of the other states. Unlike the Seal, the li shu is perfectly legible to one acquainted only with the modern character, from which indeed it differs but in minor details. How long the Lesser Seal continued to exist side by side with the li shu is a question which cannot be answered with certainty. It was evidently quite obsolete, however, at the time of the compilation of the Shuo Wen, about a hundred years after the Christian era. As for the Greater Seal and still earlier forms of writing, they were not merely obsolete but had fallen into utter oblivion before the Han Dynasty was fifty years old. When a number of classical texts were discovered bricked up in old houses about 150 B.C., the style of writing was considered so singular by the literati of the period that they refused to believe it was the ordinary ancient character at all, and nicknamed it k'o-t'ou shu, "tadpole character," from some fancied resemblance in shape. The theory that these tadpole characters were not Chinese but a species of cuneiform script, in which the wedges might possibly suggest tadpoles, must be dismissed as too wildly improbable for serious consideration; but we may advert for a moment to a famous inscription in which the real tadpole characters of antiquity are said to appear. This is on a stone tablet alleged to have been erected on Mount HOøΩng in the modern Hupeh by the legendary Emperor YOøΩ, as a record of his labours in draining away the great flood which submerged part of China in the 23rd century B.C. After more than one fruitless search, the actual monument is said to have been discovered on a peak of the mountain in A.D. 1212, and a transcription was made, which may be seen reproduced as a curiosity in Legge's Classics, vol. iii. For several reasons, however, the whole affair must be regarded as a gross imposture.
Out of the "official script" two other forms were soon developed, namely the ts'ao shu, or "grass character," which so curtails the usual strokes as to be comparable to a species of shorthand, requiring special study, and the hsing shu or running hand, used in ordinary correspondence. Some form of grass character is mentioned as in use as early as 200 B.C. or thereabouts, though how nearly it approximated to the modern grass hand it is hard to say; the running hand seems to have come several centuries later. The final standardization of Chinese writing was due to the great calligraphist Wang Hsi-chih of the 4th century, who gave currency to the graceful style of character known as k'ai shu, sometimes referred to as the "clerkly hand." When block-printing was invented some centuries later, the characters were cut on this model, which still survives at the present day. It is no doubt owing to the early introduction of printing that the script of China has remained practically unchanged ever since. The manuscript rolls of the T'ang and preceding dynasties, recently discovered by Dr Stein in Turkestan, furnish direct evidence of this fact, showing as they do a style of writing not only clear and legible but remarkably modern in appearance.
The whole history of Chinese writing, then, is characterized by a slow progressive development which precludes the idea of sharply-marked divisions between one period and another. The Chinese themselves, however, have canonized quite a series of alleged inventors, starting from Fu Hsi, a mythical emperor of the third millennium B.C., who is said to have developed a complete system of written characters from the markings on the back of a dragon-horse; hence, by the way, the origin of the dragon as an Imperial emblem. As a rule, the credit of the invention of the art of writing is given to Ts'ang Chieh, a being with fabulous attributes, who conceived the idea of a written language from the markings of birds' claws upon the sand. The diffusion of the Greater Seal script is traced to a work in fifteen chapters published by Shih Chou, historiographer in the reign of King HsOøΩan. The Lesser Seal, again, is often ascribed to Li Ssu himself, whereas the utmost he can have done in the matter was to urge its introduction into common use. Likewise, Ch'OøΩng Mo, of the 3rd century B.C., is supposed to have invented the li shu while in prison, and one account attributes the Lesser Seal to him as well; but the fact is that the whole history of writing, as it stands in Chinese authors, is in hopeless confusion.
Grammar. - When about to embark on the study of a foreign language, the student's first thought is to provide himself with two indispensable aids - a dictionary and a grammar. The Chinese have found no difficulty in producing the former (see Literature). Now what as to the grammar? He might reasonably expect a people so industrious in the cultivation of their language to have evolved some system of grammar which to a certain degree would help to smooth his path. And yet the contrary is the case. No set of rules governing the mutual relations of words has ever been formulated by the Chinese, apparently because the need of such rules has never been felt. The most that native writers have done is to draw a distinction between and "full" and "empty words," respectively, the former being subdivided into "living words" or verbs, and "dead words" or noun-substantives. By "empty words" particles are meant, though sometimes the expression is loosely applied to abstract terms, including verbs. The above meagre classification is their nearest approach to a conception of grammar in our sense. This in itself does not prove that a Chinese grammar is impossible, nor that, if constructed, it might not be helpful to the student. As a matter of fact, several attempts have been made by foreigners to deduce a grammatical system which should prove as rigid and binding as those of Western languages, though it cannot be said that any as yet has stood the test of time or criticism. Other writers have gone to the other extreme, and maintained that Chinese has no grammar at all. In this dictum, exaggerated as it sounds, there is a very substantial amount of truth. Every Chinese character is an indivisible unit, representing a sound and standing for a root-idea. Being free from inflection or agglutination of any kind, it is incapable of indicating in itself either gender, number or case, voice, mood, tense or person. Of European languages, English stands nearest to Chinese in this respect, whence it follows that the construction of a hybrid jargon like pidgin English presents fewer difficulties than would be the case, for instance, with pidgin German. For pidgin English simply consists in taking English words and treating them like Chinese characters, that is, divesting them of all troublesome inflections and reducing them to a set of root-ideas arranged in logical sequence. "You wantchee my no wantchee" is nothing more nor less than literally rendered Chinese: "Do you want me or not?" But we may go further, and say that no Chinese character can be definitely regarded as being any particular part of speech or possessing any particular function absolutely, apart from the general tenor of its context. Thus, taken singly, the character conveys only the general idea "above" as opposed to "below." According to its place in the sentence and the requirements of common sense, it may be a noun meaning "upper person" (that is, a ruler); an adjective meaning "upper," "topmost" or "best"; an adverb meaning "above"; a preposition meaning "upon"; and finally a verb meaning "to mount upon," or "to go to." is a character that may usually be translated "to enter" as in "to enter a door"; yet in the locution "enter wood," the verb becomes causative, and the meaning is "to put into a coffin." It would puzzle grammarians to determine the precise grammatical function of any of the words in the following sentence, with the exception of (an interrogative, by the way, which here happens to mean "why" but in other contexts is equivalent to "how," "which" or "what"): "Affair why must ancient," or in more idiomatic English, "Why necessarily stick to the ways of the ancients in such matters?" Or take a proverbial saying like , which may be correctly rendered "The less a man has seen, the more he has to wonder at." It is one thing, however, to translate it correctly, and another to explain how this translation can be inferred from the individual words, of which the bald equivalents might be given as: "Few what see, many what Strange." To say that "strange" is the literal equivalent of does not mean that can be definitely classed as an adjective. On the other hand, it would be dangerous even to assert that the word here plays the part of an active verb, because it would be equally permissible to translate the above "Many things are strange to one who has seen but little."
Chinese grammar, then, so far as it deals with the classification of separate words, may well be given up as a bad job. But there still remains the art of syntax, the due arrangement of words to form sentences according to certain established rules. Here, at any rate, we are on somewhat firmer ground; and for many years the dictum that "the whole of Chinese grammar depends upon position" was regarded as a golden key to the written language of China. It is perfectly true that there are certain positions and collocations of words which tend to recur, but when one sits down to formulate a set of hard-and-fast rules governing these positions, it is soon found to be a thankless task, for the number of qualifications and exceptions which will have to be added is so great as to render the rule itself valueless. means "on a horse," "to get on a horse." But it will not do to say that a preposition becomes a verb when placed before the substantive, as many other prepositions come before and not after the words they govern. If we meet such a phrase as , literally "warn rebels," we must not mentally label as a verb and as a substantive, and say to ourselves that in Chinese the verb is followed immediately by its object. Otherwise, we might be tempted to translate, "to warn the rebels," whereas a little reflection would show us that the conjunction of "warning" and "rebels" naturally leads to the meaning "to warn (the populace or whoever it may be) against the rebels." After all our adventurous incursions into the domain of syntax, we are soon brought back to the starting-point and are obliged to confess that each particular passage is best interpreted on its own merits, by the logic of the context and the application of common sense. There is no reason why Chinese sentences should not be dissected, by those who take pleasure in such operations, into subject, copula and predicate, but it should be early impressed upon the beginner that the profit likely to accrue to him therefrom is infinitesimal. As for fixed rules of grammatical construction, so far from being a help, he will find them a positive hindrance. It should rather be his aim to free his mind from such trammels, and to accustom himself to look upon each character as a root-idea, not a definite part of speech.
The Book Language. - Turning now to some of the more salient characteristics of the book language, with the object of explaining how it came to be so widely separated from common speech, we might reasonably suppose that in primitive times the two stood in much closer relation to each other than now. But it is certainly a striking fact that the earliest literary remains of any magnitude that have come down to us should exhibit a style very far removed from any possible colloquial idiom. The speeches of the Book of History (see Literature) are more manifestly fictitious, by many degrees, than the elaborate orations in Thucydides and Livy. If we cannot believe that Socrates actually spoke the words attributed to him in the dialogues of Plato, much less can we expect to find the ipsissima verba of Confucius in any of his recorded sayings. In the beginning, all characters doubtless represented spoken words, but it must very soon have dawned on the practical Chinese mind that there was no need to reproduce in writing the bisyllabic compounds of common speech. Chien "to see," in its written form , could not possibly be confused with any other chien, and it was therefore unnecessary to go to the trouble of writing k'an-chien "look-see," as in colloquial. There was a wonderful outburst of literary activity in the Confucian era, when it would seem that the older and more cumbrous form of Seal character was still in vogue. If the mere manual labour of writing was so great, we cannot wonder that all superfluous particles or other words that could be dispensed with were ruthlessly cut away. So it came about that all the old classical works were composed in the tersest of language, as remote as can be imagined from the speech of the people. The passion for brevity and conciseness was pushed to an extreme, and resulted more often than not in such obscurity that detailed commentaries on the classics were found to be necessary, and have always constituted an important branch of Chinese literature. After the introduction of the improved style of script, and when the mechanical means of writing had been simplified, it may be supposed that literary diction also became freer and more expansive. This did happen to some extent, but the classics were held in such veneration as to exercise the profoundest influence over all succeeding schools of writers, and the divorce between literature and pooular speech became permanent and irreconcilable. The book language absorbed all the interest and energy of scholars, and it was inevitable that this elevation of the written should be accompanied by a corresponding degradation of the spoken word. This must largely account for the somewhat remarkable fact that the art of oratory and public speaking has never been deemed worthy of cultivation in China, while the comparatively low position occupied by the drama may also be referred to the same cause. At the same time, the term "book language," in its widest sense, covers a multitude of styles, some of which differ from each other nearly as much as from ordinary speech. The department of fiction (see Literature), which the lettered Chinaman affects to despise and will not readily admit within the charmed circle of "literature," really constitutes a bridge spanning the gulf between the severer classical style and the colloquial; while an elegant terseness characterises the higher-class novel, there are others in which the style is loose and shambling. Still, it remains true that no book of any first-rate literary pretensions would be easily intelligible to any class of Chinamen, educated or otherwise, if read aloud exactly as printed. The public reader of stories is obliged to translate, so to speak, into the colloquial of his audience as he goes along. There is no inherent reason why the conversation of everyday life should not be rendered into characters, as is done in foreign handbooks for teaching elementary Chinese; one can only say that the Chinese do not think it worth while. There are a few words, indeed, which, though common enough in the mouths of genteel and vulgar alike, have positively no characters to represent them. On the other hand, there is a vast store of purely book words which would never be used or understood in conversation.
The book language is not only nice in its choice of words, it also has to obey special rules of construction. Of these, perhaps the most apparent is the carefully marked antithesis between characters in different clauses of a sentence, which results in a kind of parallelism or rhythmic balance. This parallelism is a noticeable feature in ordinary poetical composition, and may be well illustrated by the following four-line stanza:
" The bright Sun completes its course behind the mountains; The yellow river flows away into the sea. Would you command a prospect of a thousand li? Climb yet one storey higher." In the first line of this piece, every single character is balanced by a corresponding one in the second: white by yellow, Sun by river, and so on. In the 3rd and 4th lines, where more laxity is generally allowed, every word again has its counterpart, with the sole exception of "wish" and "further."
The question is often asked: What sort of instrument is Chinese for the expression of thought? As a medium for the conveyance of historical facts, subtle emotions or abstruse philosophical conceptions, can it compare with the languages of the Western world? The answers given to this question have varied considerably. But it is noteworthy that those who most depreciate the qualities of Chinese are, generally speaking, theorists rather than persons possessing a profound first-hand knowledge of the language itself. Such writers argue that want of inflection in the characters must tend to make Chinese hard and inelastic, and therefore incapable of bringing out the finer shades of thought and emotion. Answering one a priori argument with another, one might fairly retort that, if anything, flexibility is the precise quality to be predicated of a language in which any character may, according to the requirements of the context, be interpreted either as noun, verb or adjective. But all such reasoning is somewhat futile. It will scarcely be contended that German, being highly inflected, is therefore superior in range and power to English, from which inflections have largely disappeared. Some of the early Jesuit missionaries, men of great natural ability who steeped themselves in Oriental learning, have left very different opinions on record. Chinese appeared to them as admirable for the superabundant richness of its vocabulary as for the conciseness of its literary style. And among modern scholars there is a decided tendency to accept this view as embodying a great deal more truth than the other.
Another question, much debated years ago, which time itself is now satisfactorily answering, was whether the Chinese language would be able to assimilate the vast stock of new terminology which closer contact with the West would necessarily carry with it. Two possible courses, it seemed, were open: either fresh characters would be formed on the radical-phonetic principle, or the new idea might be expressed by the conjunction of two or more characters already existing. The former expedient had been tried on a limited scale in Japan, where in the course of time new characters were formed on the same principle as of old, which were yet purely Japanese and find no place in a Chinese dictionary. But although the field for such additions was boundless, the Chinese have all along been chary of extending the language in this way, probably because these modern terms had no Chinese sound which might have suggested some particular phonetic. They have preferred to adopt the other method, of which (rise-descend-machine) for "lift," and (discuss-govern-country-assembly) for "parliament" are examples. Even a metaphysical abstraction like The Absolute has been tentatively expressed by (exclude-opposite); but in this case an equivalent was already existing in the Chinese language.
A very drastic measure, strongly advocated in some quarters, is the entire abolition of all characters, to be replaced by their equivalent sounds in letters of the alphabet. Under this scheme would figure as jOøΩn or ren, as ma, and so on. But the proposal has fallen extremely flat. The vocables, as we have seen, are so few in number that only the colloquial, if even that, could possibly be transcribed in this manner. Any attempt to transliterate classical Chinese would result in a mere jumble of sounds, utterly unintelligible, even with the addition of tone-marks. There is another aspect of the case. The characters are a potent bond of union between the different parts of the Empire with their various dialects. If they should ever fall into disuse, China will have taken a first and most fatal step towards internal disruption. Even the Japanese, whose language is not only free from dialects, but polysyllabic and therefore more suitable for romanization, have utterly refused to abandon the Chinese script, which in spite of certain disadvantages has hitherto triumphantly adapted itself to the needs of civilized intercourse.
See P. Premare, Notitiae Linguae Sinicae (1831); Ma Kien-chung, Ma shih wOøΩn t'ung (1899); L.C. Hopkins, The Six Scripts (1881) and The Development of Chinese Writing (1910); H.A. Giles, A Chinese-English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1910).
(H. A. GI.; L. GI.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)