From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (29)—Hand Signals

[a] Gateway RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote.
[b] Approach RF

The information about the "historical" use of characters is generally solid, but I would not characterize it with quite the same glibness today ("nobody cares"). I just wish I had spent more time on the palm-writing idea. This is a good example of what some anthropologists call "headnotes." The simple fact of noting it in any form—even embedded in a little corner of an otherwise didactic and somewhat officious paragraph—is enough to call to mind whole areas of interpretation that might work their ways into ethnographic analysis. This is one of those places. 

In this particular note, I failed to mention tones. There are 420 sounds (guang, ji, se, and so forth), but the vast majority of these employ all four tonal variations. There is still extraordinary potential for rhyme in Chinese (all dialects), but the tonal variation makes for key distinctions.

Back in 1986, I almost always referred to the Mandarin dialect as "Chinese." It took a little more experience (which started in Taiwan with Taiwanese) to realize how complicated it all is.

4 January 1986
 Chinese has only four hundred and twenty sounds to base its spoken language on. If you consider that Chinese has well over four thousand commonly-used characters (actually there are over eighty thousand, but the vast majority are historical, and of no interest to anyone, not even historians, except for the government which reigned then), that makes an average of ten common characters—with totally different meanings—per sound. Actually, it is even more extreme, because certain sounds, like ji (it sounds very similar to “gee”) have maybe one hundred different characters. 

[c] Interpretive RF
In reading and writing it is no problem, of course, because you can see the character. But when people speak it can be confusing. (“Now did she mean `Your chicken meat is tender’ or `Your muscles are flexible’?”)  When Chinese people are not sure of someone’s meaning, they ask “Is that the ji of “chicken meat” or the ji of ‘muscles” or “tendons?” Someone might also draw the character on her palm so the other person can verify whether he was understood or not. A friend of mine who doesn’t study Chinese thinks the habit of drawing characters on your palm is funny, and I have been told me that it looks like I am trying to wipe something off the tip of my finger. 

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