I lived near the Forbidden City for ten years. Its architecture is a real book of Chinese culture; every detail is arranged according to nature’s laws as conceived by the Chinese classics. Moreover, as Cyrille Javary explains, “Dans la cité pourpre interdite ,” it depicts the emperor’s greatness. An excellent opportunity to revisit the character 中.
中, the center
We had seen that a character could be read at various levels. For example, 中 zhōng means center, middle, or pronounced in the 4th tone zhòng strike right. Its origin goes back to the first spellings showing an arrow in the middle of its target or a flag on a mast in the center of a circle. On another level, 中 character for China designates the Middle Kingdom and recalls a whole section of culture, which sought the Middle Way. Finally, a Taoist sage will remember that 中 evokes the spiritual center to be found in each of us.
Evolution of Jiaguwen spellings with a modern character, from left to right:
Reaching the target in the “middle” at the “right” time
Cyrille Javary deciphers the Forbidden City while describing the various parts. The Middle Palace or Palace of Harmonization centered 中和殿, like the two other neighboring palaces, is dedicated to the sovereign’s harmonizing function. And here this task is qualified by 中.
Let us follow the author in his explanation: “Of today’s controversial origin, this character has been explained for two thousand years as coming from the noble art of archery. It is said to represent, seen from above and from the edge, a target that an arrow pierces from side to side. Its most common meanings are “central middle” and “just, perfect” … In feudal antiquity, archery competitions involving feudal nobles were held at court every five years. The queen’s test was shooting to music. Not only did the target have to be hit in the “middle,” but it had to be hit at the “right” moment, i.e., at a precise moment of the melody marked by a gong shot. The accuracy of the shot was verified by the coincidence between the sound of the gong (in Chinese gongg’) and the sound of the arrow hitting the center of the target (which resembles djongg,’ precisely the way the ideogram “middle” is pronounced). The prince who had managed to shoot his arrow at the right place as well as at the right time thus showed his self-control and therefore his ability to govern; his feudal mandate was then renewed until the next contest” (page 94).
Therefore, one of the emperor’s tasks was to be at the center to connect Heaven and Earth, space, and time. In this palace of the Just Middle, he made this connection, with the help of rites.
中 brings an additional example on the richness of the reading levels of a Chinese character. Of course, much could be developed on this character because it can represent a gateway to Chinese civilization, so much 中 is at the center of many fundamental notions. But that’s another story. To be continued!
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Radical arrow 矢
1 October 2020