The role of the Chinese writing system as vehicle of Chinese culture is widely acknowledged. Yet many learners who are used to an alphabetic writing system tend to shun the Chinese writing system. Many language schools cater to this fear and offer illiteracy-oriented language programs that ignore the writing system and teach oral skills only. The reason for this learned helplessness has been the widespread and pedagogically reinforced belief that it is an insurmountable task to learn a writing system that is typologically strange and that the amount of characters necessary for acquiring a reasonable degree of reading competence is forbidding. This paper makes an attempt to demystify the Chinese writing system by showing that Chinese characters are interrelated members of a non-arbitrary system of meaning that organizes human experience and that the cognitive mechanisms underlying the system are not Chinese specific but reflect the shared patterns of human conceptualization. The discovery of such common cognitive principles allows the demystification of the Chinese writing system, which will help combat the typology anxiety and the quantity anxiety described above. An important implication of the cognitive discussion is that a pedagogical practice that explicitly addresses the cognitive motivations underlying the linguistic knowledge, that is, the conceptual meta-knowledge, will help Western students improve their character acquisition and reading ability. The cultural barrier as presented by the writing system can be conquered ultimately.
1. A cognitive description of the Chinese writing system
The Chinese writing system represents the Chinese language primarily by coding the basic semantic unit, that is, the morpheme. Typically, each grapheme that represents a morpheme corresponds to one syllable as a phonological unit of the spoken language (see Zhang 1992, Schmidt 1990). The mechanisms adopted in morpheme-coding can be identified as three cognitive processes, namely imagery, metaphor and metonymy.
Imagery is understood in terms of the basic human capacity of storing the “nonaccidental” properties of what is being perceived and form images thereof in the absence of the external input (Kosslyn & Koenig 1992). It pertains to the cognitive ability to schematize basic physical experience by means of visual configuration of physical objects, actions and relations based on visual perception and physiognomic recognition (Church 1961). According to Kosslyn and Koenig, brain areas that are concerned with vision are also used in imagery and that mental imagery involves brain areas responsible for memory (1992: 132). These findings in cognitive neuroscience suggest that imagery is a basic and universal process of human cognition.
The Chinese writing system makes a culture-specific creative use of the universal cognitive ability called imagery. The employment of pictograms (象形字) most immediately embodies the mechanism of imagery. The meaning of the morpheme is represented in a scenic manner that emphasizes the salient visual/spatial properties of the object or event being referred to, e.g. 日, 月, 火, 灭, etc. provide the overall images of the referents. The images are not exact copies of the objects or events referred to, but rather skeletal, capturing the distinctive traits of the referents. These salient visual/spatial traits remain recognizable despite the fact that the pictograms have, in the course of thousands of years, undergone processes of modification intended to reduce the graphic complexity of the characters (cf. Zhang 1992: 3-4). The pictograms are the oldest characters and encode what may be called the “semantic primitives”, i.e. entities that refer to the basic components of the primordial cosmology that features the union of man and nature. Accordingly, these basic characters encode generic nouns such as nouns of human body parts, animals, crops, natural objects and matters such as water, rock, metal, wood, earth and fire that are of great immediacy and relevancy to the primitive human life. As such these signs constitute a small portion of the writing system while serving as the basic building blocks of more complicated characters. Because they represent man’s basic view of the universe, these characters acquired the higher-level function of categorization in semantic conceptualization as radicals within the framework of the Chinese writing system. This point will be addressed when we come to discuss the semantic properties of 形声字 in section 1.2. For now, it suffices to note that the motivating mechanism underlying the pictograms is the universal human cognitive ability to engage mental imagery. This suggests that the ability to comprehend and learn these written signs is available to all human beings with a normal cognitive apparatus.
Whilst the pictograms provide the skeletal images of objects or events in the physical world, simple ideograms (指事字) are one step further down the path toward symbolic abstraction. These characters construe meaning by providing the relational properties inherent in concepts. Typically, descriptive images of objects (pictograms) are integrated with abstract indicative signs to recall information, e.g. 本, 刃, 曰, etc. are integrations of imagic 木, 刀, 口 and nonimagic signs to encode the ideas of ‘base’, ‘blade’ and ‘speak’, respectively, that are related to the respective concrete objects ‘tree’, ‘knife’ and ‘mouth’. Similarly, two or more images can be combined according to certain spatial orders to form compound ideographs that encode more abstract meanings (会意字), e.g. 林, 众 for ‘woods’ and ‘multitude’, respectively. Clearly, imagery plays an important part in the conception of both the simple ideograms and the compound ideographs, as more abstract ideas are inevitably derived from concrete images of objects. DeFrancis (1984: 78) points out that the pictographic origin of Chinese characters “is not in the least distinctive” because nearly “all writing originated in the drawing of pictures”. The fact that most writing systems originated in picture drawing confirms the notion that imagery is a common human ability.
The pictograms, the simple ideograms and the compound ideographs, however, make up only a small part of the entire writing system. The overwhelming majority of Chinese characters are graphemes that recall information by way of encoding both the semantic and the phonological properties of the spoken sign. These are called 形声字, or the “semantic-phonetic compounds”, to use DeFrancis’ term. They make up more than 90% of modern Chinese characters (Zhang 1992: 13). In the following section, I shall demonstrate that the primary principle of semantic representation governing the formation of the semantic-phonetic compounds reflect the universal cognitive mechanism known as metaphor.
Traditionally metaphor is understood as a figure of speech, or, to put it plainly, a decorative device. People speak of metaphor when a linguistic sign literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them. However, metaphor is not just a matter of decoration in language use. Contemporary cognitive research has overturned the traditional view by recognizing the conceptual centrality of metaphor in the understanding of human mind in general and linguistic structures in particular. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and Lakoff (1987) reveal to us, metaphor is the fundamental cognitive process we live by. Essentially, human beings organize their experience by way of metaphorical conceptualization. That is, we access a less familiar domain, the “target domain” in Lakoff’s terms, through experience of a more familiar domain, or what Lakoff terms the “source domain”. For example, an important source of the more abstract domain of spatial orientation is the physical organization of human body-parts (Heine 1997), e.g. back in backyard and tou ‘head’ in shantou ‘mountain head, mountain top’. An important aspect about metaphor is that the mapping between the target domain and the source domain is not complete but partial, e.g. backyard and shantou ‘mountain top’ draw upon the spatial relations denoted by the body-part terms and ignore other semantic aspects. Thus it is obvious that relevancy and not total resemblance plays an important role in the mapping.
The mechanism of metaphorical conceptualization characterizes the formation of the semantic-phonetic compounds as the major part of the Chinese writing system. Specifically, the semantic representation by means of radicals of pictographic origin is enabled by metaphorical conceptualization. As we have pointed out in the discussion of imagery, the pictograms primarily encode generic nouns denoting the basic components of the primordial cosmos as perceived by the ancient Chinese. These pictograms have come to serve as radicals, or the semantic components, in the formation of semantic-phonetic compounds. The function of the radical is to semantically categorize the referent of the compound character. All compounds with the water radical belong in the same category insofar as they all refer to entities that are conceptualized in terms of their relevancy to water. Thus not only 河 ‘river’, 湖 ‘lake’, 海 ‘sea’, 汤 ‘soup’, 汁 ‘juice’, 油 ‘oil’, 泥 ‘mud’, but also 潸 ‘teary’, 滴 ‘drop’, 汗 ‘sweat’, 深 ‘deep’, 浅 ‘shallow’, 清 ‘clear’, and even 没 ‘submerge, disappear’ and 法 ‘law’ are subsumed under the basic category of water, although in some cases the mapping between the source and the target may seem obscure. The character for ‘law’, for instance, maps the evenness of water to the fairness and justness of the abstract entity of law. The mapping is partial and concerns a highly specific semantic aspect. Because of the semantic specificity, the motivation of this metaphorical transfer may remain largely inaccessible unless we uncover it by reconstructing the metaphorical link between the two domains. A hidden link, however, is not one that defies comprehension. In fact, the carrying over of properties from the source domain to the target domain assures that new and imaginative mappings can be understood instantly because the “image-schemas” in the source domain constitute the basic elements of human experience (see Cruse 2004: 203-207 for a detailed discussion). Therefore, for the learner who encounters the character 潸 for the first time in his life, to view a ‘teary’ state in terms of ‘water’ is not an alienating process but one that makes perfect sense, as soon as the mapping is revealed to him. The same process of metaphorical mapping can be observed in compounding involving the rest of the radicals derived from the basic pictograms, though the metaphorical entailments rely on semantic relevancy of varying degrees.
From the perspective of cultural cognition, metaphorical transfer as observed in the semantic-phonetic compounds often reveals certain cultural preoccupation of the Chinese. For example, the pictogram ne meaning ‘ill’ is used as radical not only for compound characters denoting ailments and diseases but also for non-pathological physical conditions such as 瘦 ‘thin’. Thus one can make the inference that at the historical point where the character came into being thinness was perceived in a negative way as if it were some kind of illness, which obviously contrasts today’s mainstream aesthetics not only in China, but in many other cultures.
So far, we have shown that the semantic representation operant in the formation of the semantic-phonetic compounds embodies the human cognitive ability to make metaphorical transfer in organizing experience. This knowledge enables us to discover the conceptual continuity from the simple and easily accessible pictograms to the more complicated and numerous compound characters. The establishment of such a link shall pave the way toward increased efficacy in character acquisition. In the following section, we shall proceed to demonstrate that the basic semantic categories marked by the pictographic radicals are not objective in nature but exhibit “interactional properties”. The identification of interactional properties will allow us to develop useful pedagogical tools to teaching characters more effectively.
1.3 The interactional properties of semantic categories
Pictographic radicals represent the basic semantic categories the in which the compound characters belong. The semantic representation is enabled by metaphorical mapping from the source domain (pictogram) to the target domain (compound). Now the question arises naturally: what constitutes the essence of a semantic category in which innumerable heterogeneous members are supposed to belong? Or: at which level of abstraction are we to describe the nature of such a semantic category?
These questions cannot be answered in terms of semantic categorization based on truth-condition. For example, all the members of the category 肉/月 flesh do not exactly have the same attributes that are supposed to define this category. We can claim that 肺 ‘lung’, 腎 ‘kidney’, 肝 ‘liver’, 膀胱 ‘bladder’, 肚 ‘bowel’, 腦 ‘brain’ 肌 ‘muscle’ are all made up of some kind of flesh, and that 腿 ‘leg’, 臂 ‘arm’, 臉 ‘face’, 胸 ‘chest’, 股 ‘thigh’ are all built with ‘flesh’, although biological knowledge tells us that organs and body parts are made of different tissues. So far we can still get away saying that all these things have certain properties in common. But when we look at the characters 肥 ‘fat’, 腫 ‘swollen’, 腻 ‘grease’, 膾 ‘minced meat’, 臊 ‘ashamed, bashful’, we are taken aback by the low degree of homogeneity of the collection. That is, all these concepts do not share any common properties that would motivate their categorization.
An interactional approach is required to describe the nature of the basic semantic categories marked by the radicals. On account of the empirical research undertaken by experimental psychologists such as Rosch (1973), Berlin (1968, 1976), Hunn (1975) etc. Lakoff (1987) argues that basic-level categories are not objective in nature. Rather they are constructed by humans based on the human bodily experience and imaginations to make sense of the world or to make sense of our human experience of the world. Thus the properties of such a category are interactional, reflecting the way humans interact with the physical world. Thus, following Lakoff, we can argue that each character displays one aspect a human being perceives of what is to him ‘flesh’. And associations are made between the source domain and the target domain by means of metaphor. First of all, the Chinese do not differentiate between flesh and meat. They are the same thing, the same word, as in German. The most immediately experienced flesh is the human body, it is thus the source from which the secondary meaning ‘meat’ is derived. Flesh or meat can be fatty, thus 肥 ‘fat’ has the radical月; fatty meat is greasy, and so 腻 ‘grease’ expresses that quality of meat; 膾 ‘minced meat’ is meat chopped into small pieces. A person feeling bashful is perceived as thin-skinned and thus something about her face, a piece of flesh, is at issue. The concept of 臊 ‘bashfulness’ in relation to flesh is a metaphorical entailment by mapping human physiological experience to emotional experience. Clearly, the notion of interaction offers us an adequate description of the semantic category marked by the radical月. Within this subjective category all the characters form a cluster of semantic properties the human viewer can associate with the physical entity flesh. These are thus interactional properties, not the pure, objective attributes of flesh. This example shows that semantic categorization as performed by the system of radicals is highly associative, opportunistic, and adaptive. These attributes reflect the way the human brain functions in general, as suggested by Kosslyn and Koenig (1992) and Lieberman (1998, 2000). If the conceptualization of the written signs is motivated by interaction, the same interactional process must be of benefit to the acquisition of these written signs, for the associative, opportunistic and adaptive nature of the human brain is our common heritage as a species, after all.
2. Pedagogical implications
The most obvious pedagogical implication of our discussion in the previous section is that making a conscious effort to teach the meta-knowledge concerning the conceptual base of the writing system is crucial to the learning process. The term meta-knowledge means “the knowledge about knowledge”. It refers to the overall understanding of the Chinese writing system as the conceptual organizer of human experience. As such it breaks down to active observations and conscious connections the learner makes in acquiring the linguistic knowledge of the Chinese writing system. Thus it is understood not in terms of a static set of rules governing the composition of characters and the morphological features of words. Rather, we regard meta-knowledge as a dynamic set of associative information about the underlying cognitive mechanisms of character formation, word formation and most importantly, meanings within the system of Chinese written signs.
Generally, three strategies suggest themselves for the teaching of meta-knowledge: (1) Teaching characters in the larger context of human conceptual patterns on the one hand and against the background of unique cultural experience on the other, (2) Teaching characters as integral members of semantic categories by contrasting characters sharing the same radicals e.g. 打 ‘hit’ vs. 揍 ‘whack’ vs. 拧 ‘wring’ vs. 掐 ‘pinch’ as well as phonologically related characters with contrastive radicals e.g. 错 ‘mistake’ vs. 措 ‘arrange’ and 忙 ‘busy’ vs. 忘 ‘forget’, and (3) Developing mnemonic associations for memory reinforcement.
The first strategy calls for our effort to help the learners to reconstruct the imagic origins of the pictograms and to reconstruct the metaphorical link between the compounds and the pictographic radicals. The act of reconstructing the relevant source will provide the learner with a conceptual rationale that explains to the learner that the relationship between the written sign and its meaning is not arbitrary. This is important for students who are used to an alphabetic writing system. Unlike the Chinese system, a phoneme-oriented alphabetic writing system documents only the sound of a word which is arbitrarily linked to the meaning of that word’s referent. Thus establishing the students’ awareness of an explicable link will greatly benefit their learning.
The second strategy engages associative learning and draws on contextual cues such that individual characters are not learned in isolation but always in contrast to related signs within the same semantic category or across semantic categories.
The third strategy primarily draws on the interactional properties of the semantic categories marked by the radicals. The creation of mnemonic information is a process of forming subjective and interactional connections to the entity to be learned. It requires the individual learners’ unique personal experience with images and meanings. For example, when presented with the sign 鲸 ‘wale’ for the very first time, one of my German students made the following association: 京is the “Hauptstadt” (chief town, i.e. capital) just as 鲸 is the “Hauptfisch” (chief fish), thus the wale. In fact, this association makes use of the semantic properties of both the radical 鱼and the phonetic component 京. Such an association may seem to lack “scientific rigor”, but exactly the keen creativity inherent in this kind of interaction based imagination gives rise to long-term memory. I still remember the clever mnemonics my second grade teacher produced when teaching the character 臭: “自大一点就臭了” (‘Even a bit of self-glorification, or megalomania, stinks’), she said in a warning and disapproving tone. This character together with its meaning has since stayed with me, always accompanied by the menacing tone in which the moral lesson was delivered. Clearly, scientific rigor is not necessarily relevant to our goal of learning characters. The way we interact with the entities to be learned plays a much bigger role in how well we remember them and how successfully the memory is reinforced.
In this paper, we addressed imagery, metaphorical conceptualization and the interactional properties of basic semantic categories as the cognitive foundations of the Chinese writing system. In so doing, we have, hopefully, demystified the Chinese writing system and thus accomplished the first step toward a pedagogy that rejects learned helplessness. The analysis yielded some important pedagogical ideas that shall benefit character acquisition by Western students. Essentially, it is the teacher’s task to bring meta-linguistic awareness into the learning process and to encourage learning strategies that are in accordance with the cognitive principles. Naturally, the acquisition of a new writing system is a bumpy road and requires as much determination as diligence. But we hope that our discussion may serve as the “spoonful of sugar” that “helps the medicine go down” in the process of learning the writing system.
 The verbs we encounter in the oldest documents such as the oracle bone inscriptions and the bronze inscriptions are very few and they are not simple images of things, but rather “image schemas” of action.
 Pictograms make up 4% of all entries in the Han dynasty dictionary 说文解字.
3 See DeFrancis (1984: 84) for a statistics of the changing percentage of each character type over the history of the Chinese writing system.
4 Strictly speaking, the character is not formed according to the semantic-phonetic principle but rather on purely semantic bases (See Wang 2000: 648). However given that the way the water radical is adopted here complies with the basic principle of semantic categorization characterizing the semantic-phonetic compounding, we include it in the current discussion.
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