By Bob Litton
Any of my regular readers who ever bothered to read my “About” page might recall how I related briefly therein the fact that I studied Mandarin Chinese at Yale University’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages (IFEL) for eight months. Well, that was fifty-six years ago, and my grasp of the language has loosened. I doubt that I would starve in China or lose my way, but that is about the most I can say for my fluency. Just ask the lady over at our local Oriental Express restaurant, if you want some verification.
I still have most of the books that were distributed to me and to the other students during that fascinating period at IFEL. Over the succeeding years I have taken them up a few of times with the intention of reviving at least the basic level of fluency that I once boasted. I especially wanted to learn more of the calligraphic characters, most of which bear, for me, much aesthetic and even mystical qualities.
A more mundane purpose in resuming that study was that I wanted to read a small book — written in only 300 characters (with a few new characters translated in footnotes) — which was given to us: a book which I had never read all the way through. The story, titled “Hwar-shang-de / Mei-ren” (”The Lady in the Painting”), relates an old Chinese folk tale about a middle-aged farmer who falls in love with the image of a woman a friend has painted and given him to alleviate his loneliness.
Resuming again my study of Chinese, I also reflected with minor irritation on the Chinese name with which I had been dubbed by one of our native Chinese instructors. She already knew my surname, so she asked me if I had any brothers. I told her I had two older brothers. Somehow we had a miscommunication there: for the first part of my new given name she wrote 仲 (“Middle Son”). I did not question her about that at the time; don’t know why. On rare occasions subsequently, when the whimsy directed me, I made brief attempts to find the character for “Third Son” in my huge Chinese dictionary.
Just recently, however, an oddly serendipitous event led me to the character I needed. Here was the situation: I had not written my Chinese name in years and held some doubt as to the proper strokes for the surname character. Should there be a slanting stroke across its top or not? I looked it up in my dictionary, and there was no slanting stroke. Aha!!! Then I noticed a brief message beneath the character which warned the reader not to confuse the character with another one on a certain page; I checked that other one and, lo and behold, all the strokes were like the first…except for a slanting stroke at the top!! But more importantly, the character — pronounced “Ji” — meant “youngest son”. Eureka!! Or, as Confucius might exclaim, Jen hau!! Not the “Third Son” I had hoped to find, but even better, since the original choice might have allowed for a “Fourth Son” and even a “Fifth Son””; this closed the door on that notion. For my readers’ possible amusement, I have printed the two versions of my Chinese name below. These characters are printed in what is the “newspaper” style, not as aesthetically pleasing as the “brush” style, but it was the only mode I could reproduce from my source on the web. Pay particular attention to the similarity in the characters for “Li” and “Ji’. In order to assure better visibility, I had to enlarge the font size:
李 Li Li(tton)
仲 Jung Middle Son
權 Chywan Power; Authority
季 Ji Youngest Son
I realize that this subject probably will not be of interest to many readers who venture onto this blog site, at least not as interesting as it is to me. However, above and beyond the relatively superficial interest in mastering a difficult language is the aesthetic enjoyment I receive in studying and writing the characters. I will not bother my readers with any lengthy detailed account of what is involved in Chinese calligraphy…or any other calligraphy, for that matter. I will just point out that, besides communicating terse thoughts in figurative form, many Chinese characters are aesthetically beautiful. Not all of them strike me that way; some even turn me off; but the majority of them are fun to contemplate and to write. Part of what makes the beauty apparent is observing the stroke order; for, yes, each character has a prescribed order by which it is to be written, similar, I suppose, to our spelling rules. Once the writer exercises these strokes, he or she will begin to note the rhythm in his/her hand movement; it is comparable to the movement of an orchestra or choral conductor’s baton waving.* Then, of course, there is the additional advantage of mental exercise as a way to ward off senility…at least for a while. There are other elements involved in calligraphic study, elements too technical for this essay’s purpose. Come to think of it, I do not know what this essay’s purpose is!! I guess it is to share my little hobby with anybody who might be curious. Also, it gives me a chance to relate the delightful moment I enjoyed in the serendipitous event above.
*For those readers who would like to watch the brush stroke order in action, I am including here the URL to a Chinese instruction website where they can click on any of many characters and watch it being written in the beautiful manner I mentioned above:
Once there, click on the sub-topic “Learn 4000 traditional Chinese characters“, and rows of characters will pop up. Then click on any character you wish and a larger image of it, along with the word’s pronunciation and definition(s), will appear. In a couple of seconds the faint image will be followed over with the proper sequence of animated brush strokes. And in another few seconds, the strokes will be repeated. Great site!