The Chinas [Chinese] have no fixed letters in their writing, for all that they write is by characters, and they compose words of these, whereby they have a great multitude of characters, signifying each thing by a character in such sort that one only character signifies "Heaven," another "earth," and another "man," and so forth with everything else. [Boxer 1953:161-162]
they are composed of symbols and images, and that these symbols and images, not having any sound, can be read in all languages, and form a sort of intellectual painting, a metaphysical and ideal algebra, which conveys thoughts by analogy, by relation, by convention, and so on. [Mémoires 1776:24]
images and symbols which speak to the mind through the eyes -- images for palpable things, symbols for mental ones. Images and symbols which are not tied to any sound and can be read in all languages. ... I would be quite inclined to define Chinese characters as the pictorial algebra of the sciences and the arts. In truth, a well-turned sentence is as much stripped of all intermediaries as is the most rigorously bare algebraic demonstration. [Mémoires 1776:282-285]
That Chinese writing was pictographic in origin does not admit of question. On the other hand, Chinese is not, and was not three thousand years ago, a pictographic language in the sense that it consisted of writing by means of pictures all or most of which would be readily understood by the uninstructed. ... The Chinese early abandoned the method of writing by means of readily recognizable pictures and diagrams. ... It was in part because the Chinese gave up pictoral [sic] writing that they were able to develop a practicable pictographic and ideographic script, with comparatively little help from the phonetic principle. To draw elaborate pictures of whole animals, for instance (as is done on some of the Shang bones), is too slow a process. The course taken in many parts of the world was to conventionalize the picture, reduce it to a simple and easily executed form, and then use it to represent homophonous words or parts of words. The course the Chinese have chosen has also been to conventionalize and reduce, but they then use the evolved element for the most part not phonetically, but to stand for the original object or to enter with other such elements into combinations of ideographic rather than phonetic value. This parting of the ways is of the most profound importance.
|Semantic Versus Phonetic Aspects of Cuneiform Symbols|
Most students in the field have chosen to concentrate their efforts on the exotically fascinating questions of "graphic semantics" and the study of the living tissues of the word has almost completely been neglected in favor of the graphic integument encasing it. ... The term "ideograph" is, we believe, responsible for most of the misunderstanding of the writing. The sooner it is abandoned the better. We would suggest the revival of the old term "logograph." Signs used in writing, however ambiguous, stylized, or symbolic, represent words.
is an ocular method of communicating ideas, entirely independent of speech, and which, without the intervention of words, conveys ideas through the sense of vision directly to the mind. Hence it is called ideographic, in contradistinction from the phonographic or alphabetical system of writing. This is the idea which is entertained of it in China, and may justly be ascribed to the vanity of the Chinese literati. The Catholic at first, and afterwards the Protestant missionaries, have received it from them without much examination; and the love of wonder, natural to our species, has not a little contributed to propagate that opinion, which has taken such possession of the public mind, that it has become one of those axioms which no one will venture to contradict.
If the works of the illustrious Champollion had not already proved conclusively that the Egyptian hieroglyphics, previously regarded as symbolic signs, are, for the most part, nothing but phonetic signs, that is to say, signs destined to represent the different sounds of the language, I would perhaps not dare to raise my feeble voice to say before the scholarly world that the Chinese characters are also, for the most part, nothing but phonetic characters intimately tied to the sounds of the language, and not symbolic or ideographic signs, as has generally been believed up to now; however, since the barrier of prejudice has been overcome, and in almost all the sciences the eminently rational procedure of observation has been adopted, I am hazarding to put under the eyes of the public the result of my researches on the phonetic system of Chinese writing.