The Writing of One-Fifth the World

 Kanji (or Hanzi) are the written symbols of Chinese and Japanese languages, and the principles behind their formation (the visual, the semantic, and the phonetic) are an interest and a puzzle to many.

 Yuki's Kanji Speaker began as my discovery project for how to teach a baseline familiarity of all of the symbols of the complex ("difficult") Chinese-Japanese writing system, and I then turned to how the rich structures and formation principles of kanji characters might provide insight toward analyzing other complex symbolic systems — in particular, the Holy Bible.
 In my short story (link below), I present you with a challenge: Turn toward Life and study it!

 I became interested in finding out the general strategy a person may take to handle and overcome problems which distract, prevent, or discourage them from learning and growing. From my experience, a person benefits from foundational insight into how a given structure is designed, so that they know they're correctly identifying and fitting the contents of it together. While boiling down the content into mnemonics may not help to unlock personal guiding insight, using mnemonics to map out the structure well may. As for a system or structure that's complex and self-referential, how can we best teach it? We must honor that the mind of the learner herself is also a complex, self-referential system, whose powers of self-regulation can be called up and brought out.

 I organized a story message called Kanji Speaker, to commit to you a 3-Phase Strategy for understanding:

 "Incident, Rollback, Commit": Push thinking out from Incidental, to Reflective, to Constructive (i.e. proactive).

 Relating this to a matter of study: "Revelation, Comprehension, Memorization" …
 Brothers & sisters who struggle to overcome emotional confusion, and the related hopelessness about work or study:
 Maybe, you believe you don’t have a future. Though what is "a future"? Could a future be even just 1 year? Isn't 1 day or
 1/10th of a day a generous time to enjoy the earth? But trust that we have 7 days, and that we shall see the
7th Day.

Kanji as a structural-analysis tool for Bible Study

 Kanji reveal themselves to have a multilayered internal complexity, and could potentially have greater use than an alphabet for indexing a large self-referencing corpus of symbols, like the Bible. There is a continuous interplay of the component elements, beginning from the grossest division, i.e. the 27 "Letters" (purely visual forms, corresponding roughly to the 5x5 book-sections of the Bible), which then order the 360 Radical forms (corresponds with multi-chapter story arcs?), which generate the 1,260 Kanji Roots (corresponding to the 1189+ Bible chapters), which cross with Radicals again to make all 4,400 Kanji (average of 1 kanji per one 7-verse Bible paragraph), which conclude in making vocabulary words numbering in the tens of thousands (corresponding to Bible verses).

 For any one kanji symbol, its meanings could seem to vary greatly, but by examining the compound words it takes part in, a singular common-sense Core Meaning for the kanji can be found. Repeat that process to get the Core Meanings of each root symbol (while performing a lookback to ascertain the other kanji involved), and again for the radical symbols. In my project, this is what I have done. I have assigned singular and sensible English meanings to not only each character but also to each kanji component (whereas, within academia, each are assigned manifold different interpretations). I've also found and organized some rules behind the combination of radicals which generate the roots and kanji.

 [Diagram of composition of symbols into kanji.]

 Now to an extent, this assignment of suitable names (meanings) is a statistical game, depending on the particular range of kanji that one chooses to handle. Too large of a range, and the resulting interpretations become too spread out or nebulous to be useful; too small, and the result is too focused on one-off usages and lacks power of extension (the problem described above). Taking in one hand the 3,080 Standard Chinese hanzi of the CUV Bible, and combining them with, in the other hand, the set of all 2,730 Standard Japanese kanji, the total of unique kanji is 3,720 (2,100 are held in common). We then add another 625 high-frequency Chinese hanzi to the sample, for a grand total of 4,345, excluding variants.

 My goal has been to dismantle a perceived difficult obstacle (and in doing so, to also make an example out of it), so that a person can get on with turning toward and studying other things important to them, whether that's learning or teaching a language which uses the Chinese characters, or any thing they see fit to do next.

Why use Japanese to learn Chinese Characters?

 Standard Chinese and Japanese are the 2 major languages which use kanji, and in both cases, their realizations of kanji are somewhat "distorted." For example, when the old Middle Chinese language was adapted into Japanese, many phonetic features were dropped, which resulted in many more homophones than found in Middle Chinese, by an order of magnitude. Incredibly, you encounter the exact same issue if you start with Standard Chinese instead: Mandarin has lost about as many phonetic features as Japanese had discarded (though, each language retains different sub-sets of the original features). This creates some monotony when learning kanji in either of these 2 languages. And more crucially, the distinctions withheld make it infeasible to transfer your kanji knowledge from one of these languages to another.

 [Diagram of the features present in Japanese overlapping the features present in Mandarin. All the elements in the diagram are present in Middle Chinese.]

 Now, to get a well rounded foundation in the kanji, one could study Middle Chinese itself, or go ahead and seek out another Chinese language that preserved more of the features, in either case forgoing any study of Japanese or Mandarin for a time. But I contend that one could effectually perform a primer study of BOTH Mandarin and Japanese together, assembling a common ground of their similarities, and leaving the differences and details to be handled during the "serious language-learning" to follow later. To this end I've developed a "Pseudo- Middle Chinese", which is a Japanese romaji with features of Mandarin Chinese "superimposed" (via extra diacritic marks, or varied spellings of the same sounds). With this, your beginning knowledge of kanji might then be elastic enough to be more "globally-extendable."

 By the way, nearly all the sounds of Japanese resemble the sounds of Latin or Spanish. In contrast to varieties of Chinese, Japanese uses a simple scheme of voiced/non-voiced consonants (k/g, s/z, t/d, p/b, l) and five unchanging vowels (ah, ee, oo, eh, oh). English speakers may find Japanese a bit easier than Chinese to initially study kanji with.

What are Kanji really, and what is their legacy?

 Kan-ji refers to the Chinese or "Han" written characters, which are also called Sino-graphs. It is a logographic system of writing which resembles Shinar/Sumer cuneiform, and to some degree the Egyptian hieroglyphs, in both form and function. Those were both systems developed by Ham-itic peoples, and coincidentally the Chinese system is named after the Han people. It's interesting to note that there may be a direct connection, and not only in the visual form of the language but in the actual spoken language (Chinese and Sumerian, Charles Ball 1913). It is possible for logographs to convey information independent of any spoken language, but nonetheless, each kanji character is vested with one distinct 1-syllable sound, which is its original, ancient Chinese sound. Furthermore, every possible 1-syllable sound can and does have a 1-character representation, and non-Chinese syllable sounds too are each officially given a 1-character approximation.

 The Classical Age of China (480BC ~ 220AD) saw a fully unified Chinese literary tradition. In the periods that followed, that classical written language, called Literary Chinese, remained rather constant, by virtue of its use in official documents. As the spoken dialects of the North and South began to diverge, then a centralized pronunciation system was developed in response, as a compromise for the reading (and rhyming) of Classical period texts, and it was named "Middle" Chinese (i.e. "the meeting of North and South"). Middle Chinese was an intentional codified system which happens to preserve the original Chinese language.

 The first dictionary of Middle Chinese was published at the end of the 6th century. During this time, Classical Chinese literature had great influence in neighboring countries. That literature, comprised of a clear set of vocabulary and curated system of pronunciation, was imported in full by Japan. Now, 1400 years later, 20% of regular Japanese speech is Sino-Japanese vocabulary, rooted in Middle Chinese (termed, the "phonetic" or 音 "ōn" readings of kanji). This may be compared with the French (Norman) influence on modern English, wherein a given Latin-based English word (e.g. "feline") simultaneously calls to mind a synonym in native English (and that would be, "cat").

 In China, Literary Chinese was finally supplanted by Standard Chinese as the official written standard in 1919. In that year, the first complete Chinese translation of the Holy Bible was published as a pair of translations: the Literary CUV (Chinese Union Version) and the Standard CUV. This Bible translation is valuable for a study of the phonetics of kanji, because the Bible contains a great collection of Western names which are already familiar to us, transliterated using Chinese-Japanese characters purely for their Middle Chinese sound. We can read out those Greco-Roman- and Semitic- based names from the Bible, and hear how the Chinese of 2,000 years ago may (indeed) have spoken them.

2010–2022 Sean Tyler

Bellingham, WA

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