Over at Poetry London there’s a feature “Did Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound get it wrong? Four poets discuss the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry” in which John Weston, W.N. Herbert, Polly Clark, and Yang Lian respond to the subject of “the complex beauty of Chinese characters” and the ways Western writers have tried to make use of it in their translations, most notably Ezra Pound, who used as a jumping-off point Ernest Fenollosa’s essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (online here with Pound’s annotations). Last year I posted about Sarah Maguire’s excellent analysis of Pound’s Cathay; I think she’s exactly right when she says “By the time Fenollosa’s notebooks fell into his hands, Pound was steeped in Chinese art and profoundly curious about the radically different world it represented. What Ming Xie and other Chinese commentators point out is that, even by the time of Cathay, Pound grasped ‘the paradigmatic frame of an entire culture’.” In other words, Pound was not simply looking at characters through Fenollosa’s overheated description and making stuff up, he was using Fenollosa’s idea as a lens through which to focus what he already knew about Chinese culture and poetry. This, sadly, has not generally been the case with subsequent poets who saw what Pound achieved and wanted to smoke some of what he was having.

The discussants at Poetry London are aware of the trap, but they don’t always avoid falling into it. This, by Herbert, particularly bothered me:

When Yang Lian discussed how, for him, each character seems to exist in its own self-sufficient universe, almost without any need for tense or grammar, it seemed to me that a Chinese reader looking at a character can be described as gazing into both pictorial and conceptual space. An English reader, on the other hand, is looking at a language which continually reveals its etymological roots. They are therefore gazing into time.

Further, a Chinese reader will find all their referents — everything that makes up pictograms, ideograms and phonograms — within Chinese. It is an autonomous field of reference. An English reader, however, is looking at hundreds of years of borrowing from foreign sources — Latin, Greek, French, German etc. The language presents itself as naturally gregarious, acquisitive, absorbent…

I loved Yang Lian’s description, for instance, of the way the character for ‘fresh’ is built out of the combination of the characters for ‘fish’ and ‘lamb’; or Zhou Zan’s use of the characters for ‘accident’ at the end of one line, and her neat reversal of the same two characters to produce the combination for ‘story’ at the end of the next. I understood we were only scratching the surface of a complex field of study, but felt that the excitement of that surface encounter was easily akin to the huge complex of information and emotions that overwhelmed me in visiting the Forbidden City for the first time.

Why is there this craving to see Chinese as some sort of weird Forbidden City? It’s just a language, much like any other; it happens to be written with a more complicated set of graphs than most, but it’s as full of borrowings (pace Herbert’s “autonomous field of reference”) and has just as much grammar as any other. Chinese readers are not “gazing into both pictorial and conceptual space,” they’re reading, just like anybody else. Yes, a Chinese writer can choose to foreground the pictorial element of a character, just as an English writer can choose to foreground a word’s roots, but there’s no inherent philosophical chasm—you play with the elements you find around you, and English poets can also play with the pictorial aspect of words. In general, I find the idea of the “exotic” one of the most unfortunate of our built-in preconceptions; it can lead to enjoyable works of art, but it makes it impossible to see what’s actually going on, which has deleterious consequences in real life as well as literature.

An interesting post at Varieties of Unreligious Experience inspired a comment by Gawain (whose blog Heaven Tree I highly recommend) that is relevant here:

Aged 20, I resolved to learn both Chinese and Japanese to a degree of fluency which would allow me to know what they felt like “from the inside”. In the course of this study I have spent huge swathes of time trying to figure out, par example, how the rather startlingly different Chinese terminology for the simple Indo-European verb “to take” (they actually DO have a number of different verbs for it, depending on the different ways of holding) might affect the way the Chinese conceptualize the world and interact with it. As my fluency with the language grew, these ideas began to wane for the simple reason that I began to realize that the Chinese world is not all that different from ours.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. Why is there this craving to see Chinese as some sort of weird Forbidden City?
    I think same might be said about walled-in gardens of Aden…

  2. I don’t think they’re some sort of weird Forbidden City. I just think they’re neat.

  3. If you must generalise, then yes – walled in or out, gardens or languages, up or down equator, we all feel comfortable and content within our borders; nothing weird inside the Forbidden City.
    But as the very idea of the *private* oasis makes it different from typical garden, so is Chinese mentality, including their languages, is weird to me.

  4. Fenellosa drew on indigenous Sino-Japanese traditions which found hidden meanings in various classic texts. (In other words, his work was not simply the orientalist projection of exoticism). By and large, these traditions have to be regarded as fanciful, but during certain periods they were influential or even orthodox, so that an invalid reading of the Tso Chuan or the I Ching would pass into the later literature and become a valid reading there.
    These traditions range from virtually-insane crankiness to a kind of sectarian orthodoxy to an amusing parlor game. They’re tremendous fun if not taken too seriously.
    Georffry Waters “Three Elegies of Ch’u” bases his interpretation on Friedrich Bischoff’s version of occult methodology. My Sinological resource uses the technical term “nutcase” to describe Bischoff.

  5. Not if that common citizen is Chinese, which is pretty common. Actually it the walled garden of Russian culture that is so strange. garden pretty much have to have a wall, or at least a fence, to be gardens in the first place. Here at least the Chinese are not so bizarre, putting a wall around the phonetic ‘yuan’ to write the word for garden or park.
    People in China do often explain the “real meaning” of a word by reference to the different compnents of the character, and that explanantion very rarely ahs anything to do with the actual etymology of the word, such as word family context or borrowing from some other language (perish the thought).

  6. xiaolongnu says

    Hat, I had a long response to this, but your comment spam filters are preventing me from posting it, and I can’t figure out what I’ve put in that causes the problem, so I’ll boil it down to this: John and Jim are right on the money, and it’s one of the big challenges of my professional life.
    Cheers, all.

  7. Interesting view at the world from this perspective. I guess the Chinese culture looks a bit bizarr to a common citizen.

  8. thanks for the plug
    the Chinese relationship with the Chinese characters is not “Chinese”.
    first, it is not unique to the Chinese — it is shared by (some) Koreans and Japanese. and some balding middle aged europeans, too.
    second, it isn’t “Chinese” — it is not shared by all Chinese, or even the majority. it is a trait of the educated elite, who spend millions of hours praciticing their hand. calligraphy is a highly regarded art form among them. of course it leads them to rumination.
    just as renaissance painting leads some of us pinko-grey people to rumination – we are apt to say silly things about Michelangelo’s role and meaning — or the Raphael virgins’ lessons in love.
    or as balinese dance drama leads its afficionados to rumination. (i am one, and ruminate on it all the time).
    to a Chinese calligraphy specialist the fact that the character “xiao” (“dawn”) is written with the radical for “sun” (what else?) suggests something about life and the world in the same manner in which the way Rama and Sita hold hands in a wayang orang suggests something about life and the world to a Balinese dance fan. (they barely hold each other’s fingertips: what could THAT mean?).
    afficionados of Balinese dance are rare even among the Balinese. afficionados of Chinese characters are likewise in China.

  9. Dammit, xiaolongnu, I’d rather dismantle my spam filters than forgo a nice long comment from you! If you’ll e-mail it to me, I’ll try to figure out what the problem is. (But in my experience when it bounces a comment it tells you what the problem is: below the message there should be a statement of the forbidden string.)

  10. Whenever I travel, I get people I meet excited about seeing their name written in Greek. Those letters, which aren’t too dissimilar to their latin counterparts, are enough to make people stare in wonder and often gets me a free beer.
    Now, if I could write people’s names with Chinese characters, I’m sure I’d be feted around strange towns.

  11. victoria says

    Your comment, Antonios, reminded me of an acquaintance who wanted to have the characters of my Chinese name tattooed on himself because his daughter and I share an English name. It took quite a bit of explaining to get across that my Chinese and English name have no relation, and that there isn’t actually a standard way of writing “Victoria” in Chinese. I still think he secretly considers me unhelpful, rather than having his best interests at heart!

  12. hello moto says

    Staring at “pictorial and conceptual” space? More like vague hints at pronunciation… ~90% of the time anyway. Lucky us!

  13. Yes, it’s not surprising really that when the missionaries brought these characters back to Europe in the 17th century, everyone from Bacon to Kircher saw in them the seeds of a magical universal language/character which would enable natural communication among all men. The eye marvels.

  14. Not that exotic or Forbidden. I remember a friend of mine who is fluent in Japanese deciphering menus and to a lesser extent trail markers and street signs for me in China because the kanji for chicken or white pine is the same even though the word is entirely different.
    Forgive me if I’m not communicating my point well. Allergies are clouding my head.

  15. xiaolongnu says

    All right, I’ll take another crack at it, a bit differently this time because more people have commented. Gawain makes a good point that the romanticizing view of culture is not limited to ideas about Chinese art/language/writing. People say uninformed and essentializing things about European art all the time, too. I am a professor of Chinese art history, but I have to take on the “Lascaux to last week” world art survey course once every three years, and I do get heaps of Da Vinci Code-esque silliness from students. But that’s a snark of a different color.
    John is right to point out that the games Pound and Fenollosa played with Chinese characters were not necessarily foreign to Chinese and Japanese intellectuals of their time. He’s also right to say that the intellectual games you can play with Chinese characters may have little to do with their actual history, meaning, or etymology, at least as a historian or linguist would understand them, and yet, as he also points out, they can be enormous fun. I like to play them myself.
    But I also spend a lot of energy in my teaching trying to show students how to disentangle the romanticizing rubbish from actual knowledge about the past. In my teaching, I am concerned with helping students understand the past on its own terms. I tell them every semester that, while their personal reaction to the artworks we study is not irrelevant, the truth is that they don’t need me to help them have that reaction. Where I can help them is in teaching them about the particular historical context that produced the artworks we’re studying, and sometimes, about the particular people involved.
    I wonder if the key to this isn’t the distinction between the poetic use of Chinese characters (as inspiration for poetry, I mean) and a historical or linguistic understanding of how they came to be and to mean. I mean, there may be no deep historical or cultural significance to the fact that the word for “accident” (事故) is the reverse of the word for “story” (故事); but if a poet were to use this symmetry in the architecture of a poem, I know I’d be impressed. I think that where these four modern poets are going wrong is their assumption that the symmetries, coincidences, resonances and symbolisms they find in Chinese characters are evidence for eternal, essential, and/or deep-historical meaning. Chinese words are like words in any other language; their meaning is determined by usage and changes with time. Why shouldn’t contemporary poets have unique and idiosyncratic understandings of the language which is their medium? Heck, these particular understandings aren’t even all that idiosyncratic, as John has pointed out.
    Many of my students in my art history classes are themselves studio artists, and sometimes one or the other of them will produce a work of art which is inspired by the materials we’ve studied in an art history class. I would never dream of telling them how they should do it, though I try to provide them with as much information as they want or need to understand the historical material they are invoking, and I personally find the artworks more compelling if their historical models are well understood. But if they’re not, I don’t think it’s my place to tell them to do it differently. The question of the effectiveness of the artwork is independent of the question of how accurately its historical allusions are managed. Think of Borges’ “Chinese encyclopedia,” with its fabulistic classifications of the world. As literature, it’s wonderful stuff; just don’t be tempted to think it has anything to do with China.
    The fact that Chinese art of the past can be appropriated or (re)used in this way by studio artists of the present day does not tell us much of anything about Chinese art of the past. It tells us something about contemporary artists and their ideas. Similarly, it strikes me that a contemporary poet should be able to appropriate the poetic language of the past in ways that might seem inappropriate to the historian or the linguist, if it is done in the service of the poet’s art. As John has pointed out, Chinese poets have been doing this for millennia. But that later poetry can’t then be used as evidence for studying the thing which is appropriated. That would be like making a study of African masks by looking at the works of Picasso and Modigliani.
    Whew! You wouldn’t know it’s summer vacation, would you?

  16. Hello xiaolongnu
    forgive the rambling nature of my comment: it was a rather long way to say that most Chinese speakers (and writers) dont spend anytime thinking about the fact that “pin3” (shipin de pin, meaning, i suppose, “item”) is written with three kou3 (“mouths”). when they happen to write it, they just do — because they are busy ordering something or explaining something or complaining or whatever.
    PS does your name really mean “small female dragon”?

  17. xiaolongnu says

    Hi Gawain,
    My name literally means “little dragon girl,” but it’s actually the name of a character in a book, the swordswoman heroine of Jin Yong’s martial arts novel “Shendiao xialu.” It’s not my given name, obviously, but a nickname that I got because my Chinese surname is Long, meaning dragon, so my schoolmates in China almost always called me “Xiao Long.” This is pretty normal, but then at a conference about 7 years ago somebody cracked a joke calling me “Xiaolongnu” and now that’s my nickname among a segment of my professional acquaintance in China (namely, everybody I know at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the staff of the Wenwu Press). I love it because it’s distinctive, and because I’m a huge Jin Yong fan; I use it here and elsewhere on the Internet because it allows me to comment freely without having to do so in my official capacity, so to speak, as Professor Xiaolongnu of Spam State University. As veils of anonymity go, it’s pretty thin, but it seems to work.
    All the best

  18. Ian Myles Slater says

    As a curious outsider (a one-time English major), I am finding this fascinating. Although it seems that my dabblings in Chinese studies have somehow avoided recent manifestations of most of these ideas, I doubt that they will ever complete disappear, at least as rhetorical tropes. At best, I fear, they will come to be more widely recognized as purely conventional, like head-burying ostriches.
    As Conrad points out, there is a history to be taken into account.
    Haun Saussy’s “Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Cultural China” finally made clear to me the intellectual contexts (European, Chinese, and Japanese) in which Fenellosa could receive and propound such ideas, and then have his applications of them taken very seriously.
    And not just Fenellosa’s “logograms.” Saussy’s explication of the idea that Chinese was a “language without grammar” made it clear why as distinguished a linguist as William Dwight Whitney could propound that idea, and why other scholars I would have supposed to know beter could take it quite seriously.

  19. Jimmy Ho says

    What Xiaolongnü said: it is necessary to be familiar with “hanzi fetishism” (without giving into it), because all too many literati are subject to it, and after all clever cezi 測字 riddles are amusing. However, it empoverishes Chinese culture to reduce it to those games. Illiterate Chinese tell stories and sing songs as well, and the originality of the writing system has not stopped that oral culture from existing; few things are as entertaining as the puzzled look of a scholar beign told that there is no assigned character for such or such Cantonese syllable (or looking at the empty square in the dictionary). I know: I’ve been that person.
    Talking about entertainment, Jin Yong’s name is a good example (though fairly common): the man’s name is Zha Liangyong 查良鏞 (English name: Louis Cha). Take the last character: radical Jin 金 + phonetic element Yong 庸, hence the Korean-looking nom de plume (to Xiao Long: Jin Yong over Gu Long 古龍, but for Tianlong 天龍… babu 八部).

  20. Jimmy Ho says

    To clarify: I do not mean that the existence and the value attributed to that writing system do not influence that oral culture. Someone who “doesn’t even know the character ding 丁” will still call a cross a “character ‘ten'” (shizi 十字). I am also not indulging into some kind of glorification of ignorance: only by getting rid of the empty sacrality of hanzi will we get more and more people to stop being intimidated by them, then learn them and use them.

  21. We do that sort of stuff in English, too– “You know what happens when you ‘assume,’ right? You make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.'” The difference is, when it’s English, people just think it’s cute or they groan. When it’s Chinese, people attach some mystical significance to it. It doesn’t surprise me that people like Pound did that stuff, but it always comes as something of a shock when Chinese people themselves do it. I recently ran across something by Yang Lian about Pound, and was really surprised to see stuff like “A character itself is a poem, a multi-layered space” or the following:
    “Strictly speaking, Chinese has no ‘grammar’ as defined in the West: describing a specific action or thing with meticulously defined person, tense, part of speech and number. One of the salient features of Chinese is that the form of the verb remains unchanged however the person and tense change. Here the Chinese language abandons particularity for abstractness. It implies that ‘now’ does not exist and there is only language. Once written down, ‘this’ person, ‘this’ action and ‘this’ moment become something universal. Writing is synthesis rather than analysis.”

  22. Jimmy Ho says

    I’ll say, it is too bad James Randi is not a sinologist.

  23. Jimmy Ho says

    By the way, do you know if Peng’s Fun With Chinese Characters (Youqu de hanzi 有趣的漢字) collection is still in circulation. It was very funny, but the “accurate” (i.e. following the Shuowen jiezi) etymologies were mixed with the author’s own graphic inventions. My first Chinese teacher firmly advised us not to take it too seriously.

  24. I find it intereting to read all the comments here. As a Chinese speaker who has been studying English for years, I have a few words to offer.
    First, when I was learning, not studying, the Chinese charaters, I had no ideas or imaginations about the pitorial or poetic aspects. I just took them something to remember and write so that I could be considered a boy of something educated.
    Second, a language itself is only a coded system for parts of all things around you. If there are people who are able to find something different or inspiring from the system, it’s not unusual, just as amida has put: “You make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.'” to assign a new meaning to the word ‘assume’.
    Third, when I began to study, not learn, English, my ‘innate’ behavior taught me to remember all new words in the same way I used to do in remembering Chinese characters, and many of the ‘methods’ are still popular in ESL classes. And, therefore, in a Chinese English-learner’ eye, the English word ‘wife’ MUST have something something to do with the word ‘life’, because MY wIFE gave lIFE to my son, and even gives life to the whole family.
    Finally, spending a bit of time studying the formation of particular Chinese characters does have some help, since they are indeed very differnt from the English words. Many parts consisting of Chinese characters do have their original or root meanings.
    PS: to Jimmy Ho
    ‘cezi’ doesn’t mean riddle for Chinese characters, but a superstitious practice of predicting one’s fate or future according to any character given. Riddles of Chinese characters are called ‘zimi'(字谜), similar to word puzzles in English.

  25. Jimmy Ho says

    Lao Weng,
    I do know the difference. “Riddles” was not meant to translate 測字 (usually known as “glyphomancy” in Western sinology), but to associate the “character dismembering” or “cracking” (拆字, 破字, etc.) technique shared by both practices, which differ mainly by their purpose: divination in one case and educated entertainment in the other.
    I had the opportunity to study examples of 相字 in old texts, and I read or “decipher” them the same way I do puzzles (字謎); this is what was relevant to my point. That being said, I can see how my shortway could be misleading, and I thank you for pointing it out.

  26. bathrobe says

    I was going to comment on this earlier but found an obstacle in my way: The Chinese government blocks Wikipedia.
    Anyway, the example I wanted to bring up is the English-language Wikipedia article on “Chinese law”. Since I can’t actually access the article, suffice it to say that it conflated the word ‘fa’ with the character 法 in explaining the origins of the concept of ‘law (fa)’ in Chinese. In particular, the presence of the water radical in the character was supposed to denote a meaning of “fair”. Writing under the name ‘bathrobe’, I rather boldly challenged this way of looking at things at the Talk Page for the article. The person who originally wrote the article, a Chinese student in Australia, responded by making a few changes to remove the most glaring absurdities of this approach, but still persisted in equating the character 法 and the word ‘fa’. (I think he said in defence of his approach that little is known about the meaning of the word ‘fa’ before it was written with the character 法). The equation of words (or morphemes) and the characters used to write them seems to be one of the more widespread fallacies among East Asian intellectuals. I find it rather sad that people are propagating this fallacy under the fond delusion that they are educating Westerners about Chinese civilisation.

  27. Jimmy Ho says

    Wikiblocking is for your own wikigood.
    Bathrobe, are there wikirules about consistency in the use of fanti and jianti (in the article, li (rites) is first 礼, then 禮, without any justification, 學 as 学, etc.; same thing on the talkpage with 術 written as 术, and 師 as 师, whereas yi is always 義 and not 义).

  28. Jimmy Ho says

    It is also a pity that he doesn’t mention that the binom quanli 權利 appears in Xunzi.

  29. bathrobe says

    I’m not sure about the rules on this. I think Wikipedia accepts either or both. Since people from both traditional and simplified character jurisdictions contribute to articles, you tend to get a mixture. However, you would have to wade through the various Wikipedia guidelines to find out what the policy is, and it’s very easy to get lost. Heated discussions can and do take place over what the guidelines are.
    In one article I wrote/translated (about Confucian temples, actually), I conscientiously put in both the simplified and traditional characters, separated by a slash. Someone then came along and deleted the traditional. The reason for doing so was not malicious. The problem is that Wikipedia articles tend to become extremely cluttered with Chinese characters. You will find some articles that give simplified and traditional characters, pinyin, Wade Giles, Post Office abbreviations, and sometimes even Cantonese readings straight after the headword, which can be quite heavy going for people who don’t read Chinese!

  30. Jimmy Ho says

    That is too bad.
    I sure hope that some kind of standard will be set at some moment (though I have no reason to be optimistic about Wikipedia).
    I don’t care if the article is written in fanti, jianti, or even “simplified” kanji (to be honest, I’ll sigh if it is not fanti, but I can accept it), as long as the unicity of the system is preserved throughout the entire article, or if the relevance of the switches is explained. I reject any arbitrary mixing of modern standards that takes place on anything else than a Tangdai scroll or a Ming printed book.
    Same thing for the transcriptions. Cantonese is necessary in a Yueju 粵劇 (Guangdong theatre)-related article (or anything about Hong Kong “entertainment world”).

  31. Chinese language is, indeed, the best language for poetry. There are two reasons for it.
    1. Chinese language is a conceptual language, that is, its words and sentence structure are not tired down in space and time. So, Chinese language does not have tense and parts of speech. There is “almost” no grammar although there is some commonly used rules. That is, Chinese sentence can go beyond space and time.
    2. Chinese word sytem is an open-ended root word system. Today, English has many new words as acronym (radar…) and foreign words (Kungfu …). Yet, 100% of Chinese words arise from a set of Chinese word roots (220 total). That is, the Chinese poets can create a new word for his insight and feeling.
    Please visit the website
    Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

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