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The Chinese Writing System, Thought and Knowledge

Writing Systems and Thought

This essay continues my investigation into the relationship between writing systems and thought as conducted in a previous research listed in my home page. The hypothesis for this study is also same, that is, the ideographic Chinese script discourages abstract thinking, while alphabetic writing motivates it. A table appearing in the previous research is taken as starting point of this one:

Table I: Chinese Sounds,
Ideographic and Phonetic Writing
Sound Ideographic Writing Phonetic Writing
se1 no writing se1
se2 no writing se2
se3 no writing se3
se4 se4

You can move the cursor of computer to any of the ideographic Chinese characters in last row of above table for English translation. Chinese is a tonal language. There are four different tones. In above table, the four tonal syllables listed on the leftmost column, that is, se1, se2, se3, se4, are all possible sounds in the Chinese language, but only one of them, se4, has several ideographic written forms, whereas the other three don't. If the language were written in an alphabetical script, all the four legitimate sounds would have written forms, which are their letter spellings listed in the rightmost column of the table. Information in above table can also be presented with following diagram:

The key difference between the left and right parts in above diagram is that on the ideographic side is a solid small circle, while on the phonetic side is a broken one. I contend that this difference accounts for the lack of abstraction in the Chinese thought, and abundant existence of it in the Western counterpart. The phonetic script represents the sounds of language, which makes it a natural process to approach possible sounds from those current in the language by the means of logical reasoning. On the side of phonetic writing in above diagram, deduction from the sound, as represented by its spelling in the small circle, to those outside of it, is of logical reasoning in nature. Furthermore, the process of approaching the unknown from the known facts, is also that of human beings acquiring knowledge of science and technology.

In contrast, such logical reasoning does not take place when ideographic script is employed. On the left side of above diagram, the possible sounds outside of the small circle have no ideographic written forms. The ideographic script, which is located inside the small circle in Diagram I, provides no clue to their existence, either. Orthographically, the possibility of language and reality of it are exactly the same thing in the ideographic writing. All possibilities are also the reality, or there is no possibility that is not real. It would make no sense to probe into possibility from reality.

By the structural principles of Chinese characters, each sign graphically represents a concept, such as sun, moon, wood, love, etc. Some characters do not look explicitly graphically associated with the concepts they are representing, because the representation is actually achieved by graphic contrast among the ideographs. For instance, the ideograph '色' in above table represents the concept of 'color'. There might be some etymological interpretation on the connection between the graph and concept. But most native speakers of Chinese are not aware of nor care about it. It suffices for them to know that this unique graph is for that particular concept.

Another obvious difference between the two parts of Diagram I is that in the left small circle are some ideographic Chinese characters, while in the right small circle is an alphabetic spelling. As pointed out above, ideographic Chinese characters represent concepts directly by graphic contrast. When a written symbol is associated with both a concept graphically and a sound in the meantime, it is its graphic association with the concept that is primary, and its association with the sound is secondary, to the reader. She or he will obtain the meaning from the graph first, then from the sound, because light travels faster than sound. It is analogical to that when it thunders, we standing on the earth see the flash of lightning first, then hear a loud noise from the sky.

Therefore, users of ideographic script rely more on the writing for communication. Again, as the meaningless sounds between the small and large circles have no written forms, users of ideographic script won't take them as integral in the language.

II. Writing Systems and Knowledge

For the convenience of discussion in this section, Diagram I is simplified to become Diagram II as follows:

There are two outstanding differences between Diagram I and Diagram II. The first one is that the sounds without written form in the ideographic script are removed from the picture. This is a more explicit presentation than that in preceding section. As some legitimate and possible sounds in the language have no written forms, they are thus are not perceived as part of the language.

The second difference is that the large circle on the ideographic part is also removed. According to Saussure (pp. 18-20), language is different from speech. Language is a collective phenomenon, takes a totality of imprints in everyone's brain, and independent of what people actually say. It is afeeling about language in the human mind. In such a sense, language is a system or structure.

On the other hand, speech is sum of what people say, the manifestations of individual speakers' acts. On the side of phonetic writing in Diagram II, relationship between language and speech is presented. The large circle is language, while the small circle is speech. But the circle of language on the ideographic side is missing. There is only the small circle, or speech. The dichotomy of two linguistic domains, that is, language and speech, is not present. Or the ideographic Chinese script does not demonstrate linguistic system or structure of the language.

In the Western culture, knowledge is treated as different systems, or different branches of knowledge, such as biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, economics, etc. These branches have existed thousands of years, since the time of ancient Greek philosophy, with new names continuously added to the list. There were not such branches in the traditional Chinese knowledge. Following is Chad Hansen's remark on the Chinese intellectualness:

[A]n observation common among historians and philosophers who study China -- namely that the concern with abstraction and absolutes that characterizes the Platonic tradition and that contributed to the development of Western science is almost totally absent from the Chinese philosophical tradition. Nowhere in the entire corpus of Chinese philosophical works are there systematic treatment of the problems of meaning, truth and falsity, concepts and ideas, or any of the concerns of Western philosophy. And despite the fact that China, through most of its long history, held a clear superiority over the West in fields like astronomy, mathematics, and agriculture, it never went on to develop anything like a rational scientific that included a systematic accumulation of knowledge for its own sake (Moser, p. 59).

It's necessary to point out that system and category are entirely two different concepts. Ideographic Chinese characters are divided into six categories according to their graphic shapes. Natural materials are believed to be related to one of five elements in traditional Chinese science, which are metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Category deals with superficial connections, while system concerns inherent or intrinsic relationship.

III. On Alfred Bloom's Study

In his book, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought (1981), Alfred Bloom suggests that because there are no grammatical markers, or verb inflections, for subjunctive mood in the Chinese language as there are in the Western languages, it is more difficult for native speakers of Chinese to conduct counterfactual reasoning in mind. For example, it is said in English:

1. She didn't go there yesterday, so didn't see the event.
2. If she had gone, she (then) would have seen it.

In sentence #2, the verbs in green bold are in the subjunctive mood for a counterfactual situation. And the if . . . then comprise a sentence structure for this type of discourse. They can be left out sometimes. So above #2 can be: 'Had she gone, she would have seen it.'

Counterparts of these two sentences in Chinese are:

1. She don't go there yesterday, so don't see the event.
2. ru2guo3 (If) she go, she jiu4 (then) see it.

In the Chinese language, verbs don't inflect for tense, person, voice and mood. A verb takes the same form in all circumstances. Chinese language relies on relational words such as ru2guo3 (if) . . .jiu4 (then), and context to indicate difference in time, voice and mood. Bloom thus proposes that it is easier for speakers of Western languages to deviate from reality and enter the realm of counterfactual reasoning than speakers of Chinese. Bloom subsequently conducted questionnaire surveys among native speakers of Chinese, with control groups of native speakers of English. The results proved his hypothesis.

Terry Kit-fong Au doubted Bloom's conclusion, and designed and conducted her own investigation. Her results, entirely opposite to Bloom's, show that difference in representing subjunctive mood does not affect counterfactual reasoning by speakers of different languages. She also points out that Bloom's results be not accurate due to the unidiomatic translation of the questions from English to Chinese in his questionnaires. I will not examine the debate between the two sides in detail, but concentrate upon Bloom's study, as he also talks about Chinese thought in general:

Neither formal logic, nor religious philosophy, nor moral philosophy, nor political philosophy, nor economics, nor sociology, nor psychology as theoretical systems independent of each other bearing their own internal systemic constraints and entailments, divorced from the factual content they seek to explain, emerged in China other than as a consequence of importation from the West (Bloom, p.56).

Bloom's intuition conforms to the intellectual traditions of China. Now the question is: how is this phenomenon accounted for? There must be a reason for it, linguistic or otherwise. Bloom attempted to find answer to it in the grammar of Chinese language. In his interviews of native speakers of Chinese, he asked the subjects questions such as 'If the government were to pass a law requiring that all citizens born outside of Hong Kong make weekly reports of their activities to police, how would you react?'; or 'If the Hong Kong government had passed such a law, how would you have reacted?'

To his surprise, one subject after another answered: 'The government won't,' 'It can't,' or 'It hasn't.' When Bloom pressed them a bit by asking them to make a contrary-to-fact supposition, they got frustrated and said that they didn't think that way, or the question was un-Chinese (Bloom, p.13). Following I will present an analysis of the issue from the perspective of different writing systems with the aid of Diagrams I and II.

When Bloom's subjects reacted with 'the government won't', etc., they actually denied the possibility of counterfactual conditionals. This is because the language doesn't give any clue to the possibility. In Diagram I, the elements in the small circle are reality, and those outside of it are non-reality, or counterfactuals. Counterfactual reasoning requires that an element outside of the small circle be assumed, to establish the counterfactual conditional, thus a conclusion can be deduced. In a more explicit and clear way, the relationship between factuals and conterfacturals is that of Diagram II, that is, the speaker cannot feel the elements outside of the small circle.

On the side of phonetic writing, elements both in and out of the small circle have written forms, which are related to one another by spelling rules. The elements in the small circle represent the factual, while those out of it represent the counterfactual. And the path is through for assuming an element in the area of counterfactuals to be a factual. A counterfactual hypothesis is thus established, and subsequent reasoning can occur. In conclusion, the orthographic shaping of thought is proposed in this section.

IV. Discussion

As Joseph Needham has pointed out, they saw the world as a flux of concrete phenomena worth careful observation and chronological listing, but they did not make much use of analytic categories. Logical system building was not their forte.

Another problem with classical Chinese was that there was little way to generalize or express abstractions -- for example, to express the idea of being or existence as a nontemporal and nonactive abstraction. There was little use of theoretical hypothesis or conditions contrary to fact, nor of inductive and deductive logical reasoning. All this made it difficult to take novel foreign ideas into the writing system. In the end, this may have made it hard to develop the theoretical aspects of science.

Marshall McLuhan profoundly points out: 'the medium is the content' (p.23). Robert K. Logan interprets this adage as that a medium of communication is not merely a passive conduit for the transmission of information, but rather an active force independent of its content or message. The medium has its own intrinsic effects on our perception which is its unique message (pp.7-8).

Thesis of this essay corresponds to their points. The two diagrams represent not only the relationship between language and writing systems, but also the world as human beings perceive it by the script users. Possible sounds, which have no written forms, are not perceived as elements of the language. The language is confined to the small circle of ideographic script, with each sound contextually associated with an existent concept. When people look at and think about the world, their perception of it will be affected by their impression of the language, because language is the form that the world exists in the mind.

The 'bake', 'cake', 'lake', 'shake' are English words, but 'gake', 'vake', 'chake' are not. They are possible but this far meanless sounds in the language. They have written forms which are their spellings. Now assume that English language had never been written in the alphabetic script, but in ideographic Chinese characters. The situation can be presented in Table II as follows:

Table II: English Words in Ideographic Chinese Writing
Sound bake cake lake shake gake vake chake
Writing no writing no writing no writing

Note that ideographs are isolatedly associated with individual sounds, but does not represent the inherent relationships of segmentary sounds, as does the alphabetic writing. And there no written forms for the possible but meaningless sounds.


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