From Round to Square (and back)

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lectures (5)—Kanji of the Year

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Lectures à la Fleur
One year ago on Round and Square (13 May 2011)—Michelet's History of the French Revolution
[a] Encircled RF
Today is graduation day at Beloit College, so I have been thinking about coming full circle in various ways. Students begin their college educations and take four laps around the academic calendar, and sometimes a little bit more. Graduation is not so much a finish as a pause after one of life's significant macro-circuits—a short break for reflection before another kind of circle. This reminds me of one of my favorite folk songs from childhood (sung by the incomparable Canadian duo of Ian and Sylvia). In essence, life is a cluster of circles. This is as profound or shallow as you want to make it. Chinese cosmographers took it pretty darned seriously, and their language shaped the Tang dynasty script and literature that the Japanese would borrow wholesale in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries.

Flash forward 1300 years, and I am "tasked" with addressing a large audience of Japanese (host) parents, their American charges for the 2002-2003 academic year, and a serious cross-section of the Waseda University administration, faculty, and staff. It has been nine years, but it seemed like a good time to return to the ideas of semiotics and circularity in graduation, language learning, and life. Congratulations, class of 2012. I have five kanji (Chinese characters) for you. Just change the context slightly (Tokyo to Beloit, for example), and there is grist for the mnemonic mill here.
The Great Circle of Kanji
Gathering, Learning, Failing, Playing, and Returning
In the Lives of a Hundred Students and their Host Families
Waseda University Center for International Education
Closing Ceremony Remarks
28 June 2003
[b] Circles RF
Kanji of the Year
I agreed to give the closing remarks for resident directors at a meeting in the kokusaibu last September, and have been mulling it over all year long. “How does one sum up a whole year in just a few minutes?,” I thought (と思いました).  I have thought about it all year, and have listened carefully—in the office and in coffee shops around campus—to my students’ accounts of their years. Just a few days ago, though, while packing some papers for my trip home, I came across an article that I clipped from the Japan Times describing the “kanji of the year” in the “Sign of the Times” poll sponsored by the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Testing Foundation. Tens of thousands apparently vote each year on the single kanji that gives a “feel” for the year that has just passed. Recent winners include:

                                               2000 金 kin—“gold”
                                               2001  sen—“war”
                                               2002 帰 kae(ru)—“return”

As an academic, I can’t help but be intrigued. As a student of Chinese culture and history, not to mention philosophy, I am positively excited by the idea. From early times, the Chinese (and their Japanese admirers who went on to take some concepts to impressive new levels) used kanji to “sum up” complex entities. On a philosophical level, such a practice is fascinating, and I have spent this week thinking of what Aristotle or Kant might make of the practice  A single graph standing for a temporal or spatial whole—it is enough to make a semiotician smile. As just a quick test case, think to yourselves—what kanji would you use right now to stand for your…elementary school years? Think of one of your classmates. Pick a kanji that is capable of encompassing several of his or her traits. Once such a practice becomes embedded in social practice, strange things start to happen in language, culture, and history.

[c] Pre-linguistic RF
A Brief Kanji Narrative
I have decided to take things a step further and combine the “kanji of the year” idea with the early Chinese classificatory system of “five phases” (gogyō 五行). Of course, such a system was part of the intellectual life of Japanese, just as Greek thought is claimed as a heritage by intellectuals far beyond Greece itself. “Five phase” thinking is different from classification. It is meant to encompass an entire range of experience or part of the world in five items. Hence, we have the “five directions,” the “five musical notes,” the “five tastes,” and so on.

I have chosen five characters to stand for our year in Japan…in Tokyo…with host families…at Waseda University…with friends…and so forth. Choosing the characters was an interesting challenge, though. The late-nineteenth century philosopher Charles Peirce maintained that ideas in their rough form are “pre-linguistic.” I would have to agree, at least this week, for a kind of "rough practice" before thought seemed to grip me. I had five broad concepts in mind, but I had not consciously put them into language yet, not even into English. What I did was stand in front of the joyo kanji wall chart that hangs in my office, and let my eyes first skim, then scan (don’t confuse those words; they are not synonyms) the rows of kanji. For every idea there were several good characters. In the end, I resisted the temptation to be an obscurantist, and chose five—four of which almost everyone in this room knows.

Not everyone necessarily knows how versatile these kanji are, though, so I urge you to think about the ranges of meanings for each of them.  Above all, I would like you to think of your own experiences that fit the broad meanings of these characters, and to create your own sets to represent your own educations this year (and I mean "education" in the broadest living-meets-learning sense). I also want to give special thanks to my “Kanji Mastery” class students, who have helped me to think about these matters all year long.

[d] Gathered RF
会 (會)
Kai—to gather, to meet
This is more than just meetings. It has the sense from early texts of being a profound kind of social regeneration. Some scholars have noted that it even has a sense of cosmic or calendrical rhythm that goes far beyond a few people deciding to get together. In fact, the Chinese word for “society” (I hear that the Japanese one is "similar") originally means “gathering at the grain shrine” in spring and fall—a profound connection to agriculture and joint labor. We have experienced kai in the Opening Ceremony in September, of course, but also with every shout of tadaima upon returning home. Classes provide a gathering rhythm, and one of my students has even mentioned that she feels a kind of kai sensation on commuter trains—a particularly crowded kind of gathering.

[e] Pre-Meiji RF
学 (學)
Gaku, mana(bu)—to learn
No, it is not just “school” or study. As every pre-Meiji (1868-1912) school child could tell you, gaku goes beyond books. That same school child could also tell you that Confucius felt that he could learn from any two people at his side—learning from their positive and negative behavior. In fact, it goes further. Gaku, for early Chinese (and Japanese) philosophers was fundamentally performative. To paraphrase that great Japanese sage, Confucius, again, “if one knows the three-hundred Odes by heart, yet fails when given official responsibility, of what use is his knowledge?” We have learned, of course—in the international division administrative offices and in our classes, but also in wandering about and speaking with people all over Japan. One of my students mentioned another interesting way that she learned: “when you do things wrong at your host family’s house.” 

Saku—to mix, be disordered
I wanted a kanji for “mistake” that was more powerful than the verb chigau (違う). I wanted something that could combine with other kanji to mean such things as “error,” “illusion,” “intricacy,” and even “derangement” and “perversion.” Let’s stick with “error” for now, and think about mostly humorous errors that are bound to occur in the process of living and learning in Japan. I do hope that you haven’t stuck your chopsticks straight up in your rice bowl while you fumbled for something at the table…or brought your host mother funerary flowers from the wrong section of the flower stall. A few students have told me about mixing up eigo (English) and eiga (movie), which is harmless enough. One told me about confusing kodomo (child) and kudamono (fruit); she told her host family that back in Florida the kodomo trees were so plentiful that you could just reach right up and pluck them off. I can’t help but recall my embarrassing moment in Taiwan many years ago when I questioned a shirt seller (with many amused customers listening) about why Chinese shirts didn’t have trousers on the collars. I meant buttons, but mixed up the words kuzi and kouzi. “We have them in the U.S.,” I said, “and they are very convenient.” 

[e] Travel RF
Yū, aso(bu)—to play; to travel
I need to stress that this kanji has the sense of “travel” built into it, as you can see from the radical, and has been used in both Chinese and Japanese to discuss leisure trips, amusement, travel for study, and play. In both senses, though, you have been fully engaged in this kanji’s spirit. It is almost impossible, as a language learner, not to connect your travel and amusement experiences with gaku and saku. My students have mentioned the moonlight nagara, participation in circle activities, many nomikai, hitchhiking, and host family outings. As I taught in my own class on Memoirs and Travelogues this past autumn, travel and learning are of the same essence. 

[f] Return RF
Ki, kae(ru)—to return
That is why we are gathered (kai 会) here today. This character means to return to the place where one started, and usually that connotes “home,” whatever that may mean in your lives at the moment—hometown, college, new destinations. It is a character that evokes great happiness as well as profound sadness. Lyric writers have made powerful use of the images called forth by kaeru. For us, it represents new beginnings and also potential frustrations, as you will see when your friends and family are not quite ready to look at your 3,000 digital photographs from your Shikoku temple pilgrimage. We are dispersing, and going back to China and Korea and Holland and Estonia and Ghana and Canada and the United States. It seems like a very depressing place to end, so I have chosen a sixth character that helps us better represent the feeling that we should have today…

My fondest wish is that we will all, as the opportunities arise, return to see Tokyo, host families, professors, friends, and even more of Japan—to start, in short, the whole process of kai-gaku-saku-yū (会学差遊) and the next inevitable kae(ru) (帰) over again.

Bon voyage et ganbatte!

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. This day-old graduate appreciates your Kanji sharing