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16.1 Picture Writing

In the four preceding chapters (XII to XV) we have sketched in broad outline the development of the chief human communities from the primitive beginnings of the heliolithic culture to the great historical kingdoms and empires in the sixth century B.C. We must now study a little more closely the general process of social change, the growth of human ideas, and the elaboration of human relationships that was going on during these ages between 10,000 B.C. and 500 B.C. What we have done so far is to draw the map and name the chief kings and empires, to define the relations in time and space of Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, Phoenicia, Cnossos, and the like; we come now to the real business of history, which is to get down below these outer forms to the thoughts and lives of individual men.

Figure 171

Figure 171: American Indian Picture-Writing

No. 1, painted on a rock on the shore of Lake Superior, records an expedition across the lake, in which five canoes took part. The upright strokes in each indicate the number of the crew, and the bird represents a chief, “The Kingfisher”. The three circles (suns) under the arch (of heaven) indicate that the voyage lasted three days, and the tortoise, a symbol of land, denotes a safe arrival. No. 2 is a petition sent to the United States Congress by a group of Indian tribes, asking for fishing rights in certain small lakes. The tribes are represented by their totems, martens, bear, man and catfish, led by the crane. Lines running from the heart and eye of each animal to the heart and eye of the crane denote that they are all of one mind; and a line runs from the eye of the crane to the lakes, shown in the crude little “map” in the lower left-hand corner.

By far the most important thing that was going on during those fifty or sixty centuries of social development was the invention of writing and its gradual progress to importance in human affairs. It was a now instrument for the human mind, an enormous enlargement of its range of action, a new means of continuity. We have seen how in later Paleolithic and early Neolithic times the elaboration of articulate speech gave men a mental handhold for consecutive thought, and a vast enlargement of their powers of co-operation. For a time this now acquirement seems to have overshadowed their earlier achievement of drawing, and possibly it checked the use of gesture. But drawing presently reappeared again, for record, for signs, for the joy of drawing. Before real writing came picture writing, such as is still practiced by the Amerindians, the Bushmen, and savage and barbaric people in all parts of the world. It is essentially a drawing of things and acts, helped out by heraldic indications of proper Dames, and by strokes and dots to represent days and distances and such-like quantitative ideas.

Quite kindred to such picture-writing is the pictograph that one finds still in use today in international railway timetables upon the continent of Europe, where a little black sign of a cup indicates a stand-up buffet for light refreshments; a crossed knife and fork, a restaurant; a little steamboat, a transfer to a steamboat; and a postilion’s born, a diligence. Similar signs are used in the well-known Michelin guides for automobilists in Europe, to show a post office (envelope) or a telephone (telephone receiver). The quality of hotels is shown by an inn with one, two, three, or four gables, and so forth. Similarly, the roads of Europe are marked with wayside signs representing a gate, to indicate a level crossing ahead, a sinuous bend for a dangerous curve, and the like. From such pictographic signs to the first elements of Chinese writing is not a very long stretch.

In Chinese writing there are still traceable a number of pictographs. Most are now difficult to recognize. A mouth was originally written as a mouth- shaped hole, and is now, for convenience of brushwork, squared; a child, originally a recognizable little mannikin, is now a hasty wriggle and a cross; the sun, originally a large circle with a dot in the centre, has been converted, for the sake of convenience of combination, into a crossed oblong, which is easier to make with a brush. By combining these pictographs, a second order of ideas is expressed. For example, the pictograph for mouth combined with pictograph for vapour expressed “words”.[1]

From such combinations one passes to what are called ideograms: the sign for “words” and the sign for “tongue” combine to make “speech”; the sign for “roof” and the sign for “Pig” make “home” for in the early domestic economy of China the pig was as important as it used to be in Ireland. But, as we have already noted earlier, the Chinese language consists of a comparatively few elementary monosyllabic sounds, which are all used in a great variety of meanings, and the Chinese soon discovered that a number of these pictographs and ideographs could be used also to express other ideas, not so conveniently pictured, but having the same sound.

Characters so used are called phonograms. For example, the sound fang meant not only “boat”, but “a place”, “spinning”, “fragrant”, “inquire”, and several other meanings according to the context. But while a boat is easy to draw, most of the other meanings are undrawable. How can one draw “fragrant” or “inquire”? The Chinese, therefore, took the same sign for all these meanings of “fang”, but added to each of them another distinctive sign, the determinative, to show what sort of fang was intended. A “place” was indicated by the same sign as for “boat” (fang) and the determinative sign for “earth”; “spinning” by the sign for fang and the sign for “silk”; “inquire” by the sign for fang, and the sign for “words”, and so on.

One may perhaps make this development of pictographs, ideograms, and phonograms a little clearer by taking an analogous case in English. Suppose we were making up a sort of picture writing in English, then it would be very natural to use a square with a slanting line to suggest a lid, for the word and thing box. That would be a pictograph. But now suppose we had a round sign for money, and suppose we put this sign inside the box sign, that would do for “cash-box” or “treasury”. That would be an ideogram. But the word “box” is used for other things than boxes. There is the box shrub which gives us boxwood. It would be hard to draw a recognizable box-tree distinct from other trees, but it is quite easy to put our sign “box”, and add our sign for shrub as a determinative to determine that it is that sort of box and not a common box that we want to express. And then there is “box”, the verb, meaning to fight with fists. Here, again, we need a determinative; we might add the two crossed swords, a sign which is used very often upon maps to denote a battle. A box at a theatre needs yet another determinative, and so we go on, through a long series of phonograms.

Now it is manifest that here in the Chinese writing is a very peculiar and complex system of sign-writing. A very great number of characters have to be learnt and the mind habituated to their use. The power it possesses to carry ideas and discussion is still ungauged by western standards, but we may doubt whether with this instrument it will ever be possible to establish such a wide, common mentality as the simpler and swifter alphabets of the western civilizations permit. In China it created a special reading-class, the mandarins, who were also the ruling and official class. Their necessary concentration upon words and classical forms rather than upon ideas and realities seems, in spite of her comparative peacefulness and the very high individual intellectual quality of her people, to have greatly hampered the social and economic development of China. Probably it is the complexity of her speech and writing, more than any other imaginable cause, that has made China today politically, socially, and individually a vast pool of backward people rather than the foremost power in the whole world.[2]

[1]See the Encyclopaedia Brit., Article China, p. 218.
[2]The writer’s friend, Mr. L. Y. Chen, thinks that this is only partially true. He thinks that the emperors insisted upon a minute and rigorous study of the set classics in order to check intellectual innovation. This was especially the case with the Ming emperors, the first of whom, when reorganizing the examination system on a narrower basis, said definitely, “This will bring all the intellectuals of the world into my trap.” The Five Classics and the Four Books have imprisoned the mind of China.

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