Sunday, 27 February 2011

Do Chinese Characters Lack Creativity?

I have often heard people suggest that the Chinese lack creativity and imagination.In a country with such an overwhelming population, it is often considered career success can only be achieved through early academic excellence and hard-work leading to good university and afterwards a good job. Operating within this rigid structure, it seems inevitable that time spent engaging a creative side is at the detriment for scholastic achievement. The controversial New York Times article " Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" ( outlines a ritualistic lifestyle devoid of fun, with high arts forced upon children in the form of piano and violin lessons.
In fact I feel that such an impression Mainlanders are lacking is severely mistaken; and I have seen sights of beauty in China which have taken my breath away. Over the recent Chinese New Year I have taken a couple of pictures which illustrate as much. In fact the timing of these pictures is crucial: Chinese New Year is a distinctly Chinese festival and this creativity is locally cultivated, as opposed to potentially being some kind of imitation of Western Culture.

However, one thing which I have noticed during my time spent in China is the rigidity of Chinese characters and the inability to modify them as an expression of creativity. Chinese characters are pictorially beautiful, and each character contains a story and history within it that can be fascinating. But this can be a massive draw back...
I think that there is a time in learning every language where you start to have a childish interest in learning swear words. For someone learning English this is easy enough, and vulgar language is isolated into a form where they can only mean as much. If someone uses the F-word then the insinuations are obvious and there is no confusion that they may in fact have wanted to be polite. But China does not have a 26 character alphabet which creates an almost limitless scope for new word creation; characters must be used for there is no alternative. And so it comes to be that the two Chinese equivalents for the F-word 干 and 操, aside from their vulgar meaning, can respectively also mean tree-trunk, to work, dry, empty and to grasp, to do, to speak, exercise.
There is simply zero potential for the creation of new characters. Every character in existence already has some meaning or another. Of course, an individual could create their own Chinese character, but unless they were very high profile they would be unable to make it catch on. Lets suppose I was a Western advertising man and wanted to launch a coconut chocolate bar. Well I could perform a word synergy and call the new brand CocoaNut. The consumer may never have seen the word before, but the meaning is evident. But this creativity is simply impossible in China. You could of course put the characters for cocoa (可可) and coconut (椰子)next to each other, which is what the Chinese advertiser would no doubt do. But the idea of creating a new character which in itself encapsulates the product, is out of the question. No-one would understand what your product was and your chocolate bar would bomb.
One final solution for this advertiser would be to use one of the lesser known Chinese characters. Somewhere in the 80,000 characters in existence, there will be another far rarer character for coconut with a slightly different meaning, lets say "sweet coconut". That advertiser could use that character and try and re-work it's meaning as "chocolate coconut". But he would encounter almost an identical problem to creating his own character: the average Chinese person only knows 2,500 characters, so mass incomprehension of this obscure character is likely. And hence the product may once again bomb.
And this is the reason why the more common Chinese characters may mean so many different things: because somewhere along the timeline of Chinese history each common character has been overlaid with one new meaning after another. If there are only 2,500 common units of expression, but life's thousands of concepts to convey, then the status quo is inevitable.
Of course, there are exceptions. If you are powerful enough then you can get across new characters. The most recent change was changing Traditional Characters to Simplified Characters so the average Chinese person could remember them more easily. That man was Mao Zedong. Not everyone has his kind of power for change...

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