Under Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, who united China in 221 BC, a standardized written language was mandated for an empire that once resembled Europe with many countries and written languages, and this created a unique cultural identity from the rest of the world.
To understand this, I’m turning to a conversation thread from the Yuan-Xiao Festival. Alessandro, a European with a degree in East Asian studies, who lives in China with his Chinese wife, wrote a comment that helped me understand something I’d read years ago written by Lin Yutang.
Writing of the Chinese Mind on page 81 of the 1938 Holcyon House Edition of My Country and My People, Lin Yutang wrote, “The Chinese language and grammar … in its form, syntax and vocabulary, reveals an extreme simplicity of thinking, concreteness of imagery and economy of syntactical relationships.”
I didn’t clearly understand what Lin Yutan meant until Alessandro’s comment. “The Latin alphabet is a phonetic one,” Alessandro said, “and as such, it simply reproduces the sounds of the spoken language, making it more susceptible of changes whenever the spoken language changes. Chinese Hanzi, on the other hand, conveys almost no ‘phonetic’ information by itself … (and doesn’t change much in its meaning as time passes).”
Cultural Competence: Managing Your Prejudices
Alessandro went on to say, “Both Europe and China have had political upheavals and long periods in which they were divided, but (China) having a stable writing system that doesn’t change as much as an alphabetic one helped them not to lose an important element of cultural unity, therefore of ‘national’ identity…
“The Chinese concept of ‘nation’ has nothing to do with the ‘nation state’ concept common in Europe (and North America).
“European nation states are more or less based on ethnicity, while in China it was – and it still somewhat is – based on cultural elements.
“You were Chinese because you shared a common culture, because you acted as a Chinese and assumed Chinese customs.
“Europe never regained the unity that existed during the Roman Empire, while China always strove to regain unity after each period of division. The traditional saying 合久必分，分久必合 — means more or less ‘after unity comes division, after division comes unity’.”
While the West—North America and Europe—has many written languages, China has had one for more than two millennia and this has been the glue that creates a sense of unity and what it means to be Chinese. Westerns don’t have that sense or cultural identity or unity.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the lusty love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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