Victor Mair has a fascinating post at the Log about the Chinese character 和 hé (“harmony, peace”). It starts from the relatively uninteresting fact that it has been chosen “The Most ‘Chinese’ Chinese Character,” as the title of Josh Chin’s Wall Street Journal story has it, but Mair goes on to point out that it is used to write at least five other words or morphemes beyond the one in question, and that the Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese by Yuen Ren Chao and Lien Sheng Yang and the Gwoyeu Tsyrdean (Guoyu Cidian) give different sets of six pronunciations:
It is interesting that, on the Mainland, the language authorities have declared that the pronunciation hàn (“with, and”) no longer exists, and we cannot find it in even such unabridged dictionaries of record as Hanyu Da Zidian… and Hanyu Da Cidian…. Thus, on the Mainland, people do not understand me when I say the name of one of my favorite series in Taiwan, Shū hàn Rén 書和人 (Books and People), a set of books that I avidly devoured in Taiwan four decades ago, and can still today buy new volumes under the same title and with the same pronunciation.
Then he goes on to discuss the history of the character:
Even its graphic form is complicated by the fact that 和 is actually an early (probably more than a couple of thousand years old) simplified character. The original form — going all the way back to the oracle bone inscriptions 3,200 years ago — was 龢, with 22 strokes. On the left is a musical instrument, now called yuè, which depicts a mouth blowing over a row of windpipes — this is the semantophore, which conveys the notion of “harmony” or, perhaps more accurately, something like “consonance” (not of the verbal sort, but of the musical type), or just “having to do with a pleasant sound.” On the right was the phonophore, hé 禾 (“cereal crop, millet”), which functioned as the sound-bearing element. Later, people surely must have grown weary of writing all those strokes for the row of musical pipes and their openings at the top, and decided to dispense with them, leaving just the mouth that blew into the openings of the pipes. This (the mouth), somewhat surprisingly, got shifted to the right side of the character, hence the character was transformed from the cumbersome 龢 to the streamlined, but less explicit, 和. I say that the move of the mouth from the left to the right is rather unexpected, because usually characters with mouth radicals — of which there are roughly two thousand — have the mouth on the left side, where it began (top left) in the old form of 龢.
And for lagniappe he has an alternative candidate for the most “Chinese” Chinese character:
Charlie Clingen wrote to tell me that he personally would vote for biáng (a type of wide, thick, and long noodle popular in the province of Shaanxi; full form of the word is biángbiángmiàn) as the most “Chinese” Chinese character. I’m inclined to agree with Charlie, though for somewhat different reasons. Whereas Charlie decided to vote for biáng because “Its numerous components certainly cast a wide net – one way to be ‘most Chinese’,” I like the character for biáng because its sound doesn’t even exist in MSM, because its construction is obviously whimsical (e.g., a horse flanked by two “long” characters near the middle) — as though it were a playful Taoist talisman (Google on the last two words for images), and because it (with 57 strokes) all has to fit within the same size square as a character consisting of 1, 2, 3…, 12, 13, 14… strokes. For me, biáng symbolizes the difficulty of accommodating the full fecundity of folk, popular, and local / regional cultures and languages within the bounds of the standard writing system, which enshrines the elite, high culture, and now also the bourgeois, urban, national culture. In other words, biáng is well-nigh bursting at the sides of the scriptal and phonetic boxes within which it is constrained.
If you click on the third panel along the right-hand side (about halfway down this page), you can see the character for biáng being written, all 57 strokes, one after the other.
Wonderful stuff, and of course I heartily second his preference for “the full fecundity of folk, popular, and local / regional cultures and languages.” (And the picture at that Wikipedia page makes me hungry.)