In the last few months, I have been digging into Chinese characters’ furrow to understand their logic and history. The journey is exciting. I go from old classical texts to modern essays or courses from Taiwan or China. Sometimes, I realize that the characters’ reality, what they tell us and show us, does not correspond to what I could learn during my first Chinese years. When I have the time, I skip through the manuals of foreign missionaries who were the first to write about Chinese characters in French. Léon Wieger S.J. was published in 1916, which I had consulted extensively in the 1980s.
First, I researched what Chinese tradition and modern Taiwanese, and Chinese authors said about the character 相, xiāng, examine, see with your own eyes, each other, face.
Chinese tradition and 相
木 tree + 目 eye = 相. Men examined nature to find out what plants could be food, medicine, poison, and how some could be used to make furniture, hence examining the meaning. It was also necessary to compare going from one plant to another, hence the idea of one to the other and by mutual extension.
Kyril Ryjik in the “L’ Idiot chinois” follows this line by quoting two scholars, Dai Tong (13th century) and Xu Shen (2nd century), author of the inevitable Shuowenjiezi 说文解字: “It is this need to look carefully to evaluate the material of the wood that is underlined by the quotation that Xu Shen attributes to the Yijing: [The qualities of] what we can observe on the ground, we cannot observe on the tree [= we cannot see what wood is]. The suitability of the material being examined [xiang] for the purpose of the craftsman’s work induces the sense of reciprocity [xiang]. “( Volume 2, page 469, 2014 edition).
Jesuit Wieger and 相
Let us return to Wieger, to his etymological lessons, the eye part (page 323 of the 1962 edition). With 相, he shares his conclusions, far from the previous remarks: “The primitive idea must have been, 目 to spy from behind a 木 tree; or, to open one’s eye under 木 wood, so as not to be surprised by an enemy or a beast; 从木。从目。会意字. The abstract sense of reciprocity, which gives this character such an extensive use, would come from a kind of pun, the two elements 木 and 目 both being pronounced soft. »
One does not have to believe in Wieger’s etymological interpretation. At least he gives a mnemonic device to remember the construction of 相.
Wieger sometimes nurtured quite personal or very Catholic interpretations of Chinese thought and culture; nevertheless, I read him to understand his influence and the Jesuits. His book on typefaces can be consulted and downloaded from the BNF website here.
Continue your journey in the characters:
5 September 2020