Character networks abound in Chinese. One can build cartography, for example, from 巳, in which an ancient graph represented a fetus. The interpretations of the first scripts vary according to the experts, but let us retain this architecture. For more details on the origin of the characters in the table below, you can consult the articles in the category 巳 and that of 子, the child.
It is adventurous to have peremptory judgments on certain characters’ origin as the shadowy areas remain over the first centuries of their history. The multiple graphs, several hundred very different for some character, like the horse, are confusing. Besides, periods of political instability led to instability in writing.
The first graphs from the fourteenth century before the Christian era
The disappearance of the bone script’s intellectual horizon during more than twenty centuries and its progressive rediscovery since 1899 do not yet allow us to have a clear and sure vision of the origin of all Chinese characters. Also, recent discoveries of archaeological sites on the Chinese territory bring more knowledge, but they suggest that many keys are not yet up to date. It should thus impose caution on a good part of the scripts in our possession. In addition, each diviner who interpreted fractures on bones or shells could have his writing style, and the same character presents different spellings at the same time.
The Warring States
The most confusing period for Chinese characters is a very turbulent era in history, The Warring States. From the 5th century BC BC to -221 BC, the territory was divided into rival kingdoms waging war against each other, and each had its own system of writing. 李学勤 Li Xueqin in “战国题铭概述, Overview of the Inscriptions of the Fighting Kingdoms” distinguishes five dominant writing systems of five kingdoms, Qi 齊, Yan 燕, Jin 晉, Chu, 楚, and Qin秦 (from left to right in the table below).
On the second line, we can see the writing of mǎ 马/馬, horse, in the five territories and on the last zhōng, 中, center, middle. Most of them have significant differences. Note that the script in the last column, the State of Qin’s script, is closer to the current characters, the traditional 馬 and 中.
Qin increased its influence over the centuries and annexed all its rivals to found the Chinese Empire in -221 BC. Subsequently, the first emperor of China, Qinshihuang, instructed his minister Li Si to put in order the characters by unifying the writing, at least a part, nearly 3,000 characters (The other part of the characters remained unclear for a few decades). He took as a model the writings of the State of Qin for 馬 and 中 and many others.
兴/興(traditional) is a character we learn very early. 兴 is found in 高兴, gāo xìng, happy, pleased. One can be quickly distraught because 兴 is in words related to construction, development, prosperity. Where do these meanings come from? Knowledge of its origin allows us to understand its ramifications and to better remember all these future associations.
The first scripts evoked four hands on each side of a brick mould. Four hands together make bricks to build a house.
The first sense was to make bricks. By extension, at the time, three senses came: building, prosperous and happy. All three are in germ in these graphs: building with bricks; building refers to a certain prosperity, the four hands working together evoke enthusiasm. They have left traces in the associations of character.
One can compose three categories per theme; a small sample:
To progress effectively in vocabulary and acquire a very good level, understanding and assimilation of the network of characters makes learning more effective. Without emphasis, I would say that this is crucial. We can go much faster. In addition, this graphic below could be completed with at least thirty additional words.
A small mention for 复兴. fù xīng, which is the term used to talk about the rebirth of the Chinese nation, 复 means again. There is even talk of a great renaissance 大复兴. The traditional character 興 has kept a structure close to the ancient spellings while the simplified 兴 has moved away.
兴/興 has two pronunciations, in the first and fourth tones. The modern meanings have remained in the same semantic field: 兴/興 xīng, to rise, to begin, to blossom 兴/興 xìng, joyful, inspiration, interest
An additional example that shows how knowledge of the origin of a character can help to understand all its uses in the language. 兴 is combined with nearly fifty other characters.
Learning, understanding and retaining a character is the first phase. The Chinese language, in its beginnings, had an immense majority of monosyllabic words, but pollysyllabization began as early as the Eastern Zhou (770-256 BC). Various statistics show this phenomenon. In the Analects of Confucius (5th century BC), 1126 words are monosyllabic and 378 pollysyllabic, 74.9% versus 25.1%. Later, in the language of the 16th-19th centuries, more than half of the vocabulary is composed of polyssyllables, as it is today in contemporary Chinese, 54.5% in Water Margin (16th century) and 50.7% in Dream of the Red Chamber (18th century). It is necessary to get into the habit of looking at the associations with the characters already known. In this way, one can easily enrich one’s vocabulary. From the very first months of Chinese, I liked to make a map of the networks of the senses. Let’s take a simple example with 看, kàn, see.
Good + see = 好看 hǎo kàn nice to see / nice / interesting See + book = 看书 kàn shū read a book / study (with a book) See + disease = 看病 kàn bìng consult a doctor / see a patient / (get) checked See + just = 看中 kàn zhòng have a preference to / find to his taste / set his choice on / set his heart on See + understand = 看懂 kàn dǒng read / be able to read / understand / see and understand Invite + watch = 请看 qǐng kàn please watch/see Difficult + see = 难看 nán kàn ugly / scandalous Don’t + see = 别看 bié kàn Don’t look
Visualize allows us to better record and make connections between characters inside our brain :
1. It is essential to know their origin, their evolution and to understand the network of characters. Let’s take a simple example with 目, mù. The first graph evoked an eye:
The first sense was of course: eye.
2. 目 is found in many characters, which remain in the same semantic field. Understanding their association allows to better retain the composition. For example : 看 kàn: see. A hand (who was protecting himself from the sun?) at the top and the eye at the bottom:
眉 méi: eyebrows. Eyebrows and an eye :
媚 mèi, flatter, = 女+眉 woman + eyebrow Originally 媚, meant “raising eyebrows for a woman”. By extension, it gave “to please, to flatter someone”. 盲 máng, blind= 亡, wáng, die + 目, eye.
3. Visualize the network. In order to better “print” the character map, you can draw your own map as you learn:
Note: 目 has kept the meaning of eye for more than a millennium. From the end of the Han era, 眼 took its place as eye, then the trend to pollysyllabic words over the centuries gave two syllables for eye: 眼睛 yǎn jing.
What relation between the character 难/難, difficult, and a succulent dish, the Beggar’s Chicken?
Yellow earth + bird
In ancient China, a cooking technique for birds became widespread. The bird was coated with yellow clay. When the bird was roasted, the blackened feathers were removed and the meat could be eaten. This operation was difficult to accomplish; hence, by extension, the difficult meaning of the character. Some ancient spelling have three components huáng, yellow, , 土 tǔ, earth and a bird。 In other characters, earth gives way to fire, , huǒ. 難 as well as has its history. Another explanation: the dominant theory – rather lazy – sees in 難 a bird’s name, which by borrowing, gave the meaning of difficult. It is not very convincing, but it survives.
Hand + bird
The simplified character 难 has not kept the old structure. The part on the left, which designates the hand, associated with the bird, can be used as a mnemonic trick: a bird is difficult to catch.
Friday likes this chicken
This cooking took the name of 叫化鸡, and gave a popular dish of the same name: 叫化鸡,Poulet du mendiant (Beggar’s Chicken). The technique does not seem to be exclusive to China, since Michel Tournier in Vendredi ou la Vie sauvage mentions it: “The ideal for Vendredi was certainly to eat as well as possible, but anywhere, anytime, and especially without the need for a kitchen and utensils. The explosion had destroyed the dishes and pots and pans on the island. For example most of the birds they ate, Friday prepared them with clay. This is the simplest and funniest way to cook a chicken or any other bird: Vendredi would empty it and put salt, pepper, and as much herbs or even a little stuffing in its belly as he liked, but it was not necessary. He would leave all his feathers in his belly. Then he prepared wet clay – not too wet, but enough so that it was easy to shape and knead – and made a flat cake out of it. Then he would roll this cake around the bird, he would enclose it well in the dough, he would make around it like a ball of clay that looked like a big egg or a rugby ball, depending on its size. The layer of clay should be one to three centimeters thick. He would make a fire in a hole with wood that was quite full, because he needed many embers. When the fire was well established, he would put the ball of clay in the hole in the middle of the embers. Then he kept the fire going for an hour or two. The clay dried and hardened like pottery. When the ball had become hard, he would take it out of the hole and break it. The feathers remained stuck to the clay, and the bird was baked like in the oven, soft and tasty. » You can read the article on the Sinogastronomie website about this dish, where I discovered Tournier’s text.
Another version of the origin of the 中 character comes from an umpteenth type of ancient spelling evoking a circle with a flag on each side. The flags indicate the neighboring countries and in the center, the country in the middle, later called China or the Middle Kingdom.
The country’s second-largest real estate developer, China Evergrande of Shenzhen, is facing a debt, which could lead him to default. He had warned the government of Guangdong province as early as the end of August of the need to restructure his debt. Beyond an unsurprising event in China, what lessons can be drawn from this episode?
123 billion dollars of debt
At the end of June, the group had outstanding debt of 835.5 billion yuan ($123 billion). 130 is due for repayment at the end of January, equivalent to nearly all of its cash. The information came out at the end of September, causing the group’s shares to plunge, before rebounding by more than 45% since September 25, thanks to the support of its investors and the State.
靠山, Rely on a mountain
When a company is heavily indebted, investors are less concerned about the debt than about the company’s support at the political level. In Chinese, the expression leaning on the mountain is used, 靠山. If the company has the right support, debt is not a big problem. In other words, one wonders who the real investors are, whether they are influential “red” investors or red princes. If they are among the largest interest groups close to the central government, the party can go on. A group without support is nothing. On the other hand, you have to get the right “mountain.” Some companies could develop further if they had the proper support.
When we look at Evergrande’s prominent investors, we see the right color, like almost public companies, such as 山东高速集团, Shandong High Speed Group or a private company, 苏宁Suning, a Chinese Darty, with a lot of funds close to the State.
The debt machine
Each time a hanging occurs, a few measures are enacted to contain the debt frenzy better and, at the same time, occupy the gallery. Last month, the authorities delineated three red lines in terms of indebtedness. China has been able to develop with the help of the debt machine. A Chinese economics professor explained the growth model to me in simple words: “To invest, if you use your own money, you walk. You borrow, you drive. You make mortgages, you fly. “It must be recognized that in recent years the authorities have avoided the slippage that was apparent at the beginning of the last decade and the situation has improved. The real estate sector benefits from better credit from financial institutions than, for example, the manufacturing industry. Developers can pledge property as collateral, use a variety of leverage, and borrow more. Of the 50 largest players in the market, half of them have a more than 80% debt load than the leaders in most economic sectors.
Evergrande is also protected for its importance
Sales of the 100 largest developers fell slightly in the first half of the year, down 1.45%. Creativity, with online sales, helped limit the damage. Above all, it was the promotions with attractive prices that brought in money. Evergrande shows rising figures, but profitability declined and affected cash flow. The Vice-Minister, economist Liu He, about Evergrande, mentioned the famous stability factor. Indeed, the group employs 140,000 people, cooperates with 8400 companies in 229 cities on 7792 projects. Its bankruptcy could affect nearly three million employees. Beijing has, of course, every interest to support the Shenzhen company.
Laundry in progress
No one is fooled! Evergrand is only the tip of the iceberg. The economy has not been doing so well in recent years; the epidemic has only accentuated the difficulties. Part of the debts will not be honored. The sector is in front of a big clean-up. Huang Qifan, who serves as government spokesman on economic matters, had already warned at a conference in the summer of 2019 that two-thirds of the 97,000 companies in the real estate sector should disappear in the next ten years. There are far too many small companies, the market is too complicated. 15% control 85%, which means that more than 80,000 companies (85%) share 15% of the market. In times of declining government revenues, small and medium-sized companies cannot expect too much local governments’ help. Huang’s prediction shows that the government is well aware of the market’s stakes and prefers to leave the small ones for a bottled sector’s clean-up.
Do politics make the economy?
Colossal debts plague China. This is nothing new! At the governmental level, a company’s debt is not a problematic factor if the right support is present. Economics does not make politics; politics makes economics? The most interesting for the government – at various levels – will survive while the economic logic should let the others perish?
The first spelling of 北 showed two people back-to- back. 北 originally meant back. It took the meaning of North. Why 北 became North? A thesis explains that when large houses were built, the large reception hall had to allow the owner to stand facing south and back to North, 坐北朝南. Evolution of the spelling of 北 from left to right:
To avoid confusion of meaning, the meat key 月 has been added, which is found in many characters related to the body and limbs. Thus, 背 bèi was born, and it .
The name China, adopted by Westerners, derives from the first unifying emperor Qinshihuang 秦始皇 and the name of his dynasty Qin 秦, 221 to 206 BC. Many neighboring countries spoke of the land of Qin from the beginning of the Christian era. Thus came the word China adapted to each local language. Other interpretations bring together the words gold, 金 jin, and China or the word tartare for silk, serique, and China. Russia adopted Kitai, from the name of a Mongolian people, the Kitans.
And the Middle Kingdom?
中国 zhōng guó in Chinese refers to the country but has no relation to the term China or the first dynasty. It is composed of two characters 中 center and 国 country. The translation will give Middle Country or Middle Kingdom. But has China always called itself that?
The term had many meanings. The research is blurred by local political aspects that want to demonstrate the whole Chinese territory’s historical continuity. Nevertheless, the documents show that the main meanings of 中国 corresponded initially to the Shang dynasty’s territories, then to the states located in the center of China.
Names of the country
The country has had several appellations—华夏 huá xià de 华 splendor and 夏 first dynasty half legendary. A great Chinese bank, the Huaxia 华夏银行 took this name. People of Chinese origin living abroad with this 华 are called: 华人. Taiwan has taken back 华 in its name 中华民国, wrongly translated the Republic of China, but that’s another story. The People’s Republic of China has done the same with 中华人民共和国. Dynasties preferred to call the country by mentioning the name of the dynasty as the Ming (1368-1644), Grand Ming, 大明. Under the Qing, China was called the Great Land of Qing 大清国.
Are we Chinese?
Historian Shi Aidong reports the findings of a Portuguese merchant who experienced Chinese jails in the 16th century. He found it curious that “the Chinese (Zhongguoren) do not know that they are Chinese (Zhongguoren). He said: “We are used to calling this country China and its inhabitants the Chinese, but when a Chinese person is asked why they are so named, they say: ‘We don’t have that name, we never had that name. Very intrigued, Pereira insists: “What is the name of your country as a whole? When someone from elsewhere asks you about your country of origin, what is your answer? “For the Chinese, this question is very strange, but they end up answering: “In ancient times, there were many kingdoms. Now there is one man who rules them. But each state still uses its old name. These states are the provinces of today (sheng 省). The state as a whole is called the Great Ming (大明), and its inhabitants are the people of the Great Ming (大明人). “( Passage from the text of Dirlik)
Looking for a name
The official adoption of 中国 by the Chinese authorities is still quite recent; it appeared in contact with foreign countries. The term appeared for the first time in the Treaties of Nerchinsk with Russia in 1689. Chinese reformer Liang Qichao :
Some intellectuals of the Qing period, such as Zhang Deyi, initially complained that Westerners now use the term 中国 when the name was Da Qingguo. As the sinologist Arif Dirlik explains, thinkers such as the reformer Liang Qichao (1873-1929) did not want the term to be just a geographical name as Japanese imperialism would later claim. Liang played a pioneering role in constructing modern Chinese nationalism while providing the basis for the “concept” 中国. He lamented that his country did not have a name and that it had changed over time. One school sees in the term 中国, the appearance of a new idea to unite the Chinese under a banner (see Arif Dirlik’s text). This is another political story…