how a rabbit may have run off with the sun

I had become increasingly curious about the Chinese language, but everything I read about it contradicted everything else. So at last I took the plunge and I am now in the 2nd term of a course in Chinese. I am less interested in learning to speak it than I am in learning to read and write it – at least a little bit. Fundamentally, what I am after is an insight into China and its people: I believe that a language is the soul of the culture that speaks it. (Incidentally, for this very reason – I am also considering studying Ancient Greek, but that’s another story…)

Anyway, I don’t imagine that I’m the only one who is curious about Chinese and so I’ve been thinking that I might like to share some of my more interesting experiences and ‘discoveries’ with you.

I will write more about my initial experiences, but, for now, I just want to share with you what I’ve understood about just one character: wǎn (spoken with a falling/rising tone – the 3rd of 4) and that means night, evening or even late (words in Chinese, even ones with exactly the same sound, can have many meanings – sometimes more than 50!?!?)

Reading top to bottom (and putting up with my dodgy calligraphy), the first character is the one we’re discussing:  wǎn = night. The element on the left is shown 2nd and is a pictograph representing the sun. The other element of our character is shown 3rd and means escape.

Now here’s the fun bit – if you look at the 4th character you will see it is identical to the 3rd, except for a dot in its ‘tail’… Now this 4th character is a pictograph for rabbit.

So what we end up with is that escape is written as a rabbit that has escaped – this being indicated by the missing dot – and that, when this is combined with sun, becomes our 1st character, that for night. Now, I don’t know if this means the ‘sun has escaped’ or that the ‘rabbit has escaped with the sun’ – nevertheless, I feel it does hint at the delights hidden in written Chinese.

7 thoughts on “how a rabbit may have run off with the sun

  1. Ooh, that’s very interesting. I know that in Japan they have a rabbit living on the moon instead of a man, perhaps that’s related.

    I’m always very interested in other languages and their writing systems (I’m learning Japanese at the moment basically because I picked up a book, saw the writing and decided I needed to know how to decode this new challenge) so I’ll be following your posts on this topic with interest!

    But first I’m going to read that chapter sneak peek you linked to earlier, because… er… *addict* >_>

  2. The comforting thing about Chinese is that it can entertain for a lifetime. Those who are fluent in it (spoken & written) can spend forever acquainting themselves with the various forms of classical. Depending on the script, the same word can be written in durastically different ways. Words can be transcribed incorrectly, interchangable, or have different meanings. It’s nice to have a language still alive and well that’s using characters, since the Mayans and Egyptians kind of got knocked out a while ago. 🙁

    Having said all that, the oral part is crucial too, since monosyllabic words creates so many homonymns and great word puns; alternately, the same word (like the one you’ve shown) can be pronounced differently to have different meanings. If you ever wanted to get into it, the tones actually help trace migration patterns throughout China. Cantonese, for example, preserves some of the pronounciations from the Tang dynasty. After having said all that, I don’t know Chinese very well and it’s my lowest mark in university. 😛

    Would love to keep hearing updates on how you’re doing with it!

    1. I am beginning to get an inkling about just how deep this Chinese writing malarkey might go… I read somewhere that, apparently, a large part of Chinese culture is carried in the characters. I wonder if this may have something to do with how few of, for example, the monuments of Ancient China actually surivive – compare this to just how much survives in Europe from, say, the Roman period. Perhaps the reason for this difference lies in the habit so many incoming dynasties in China seem to have had of attempting to eradicate all evidence that their predecessors had ever existed. This habit seems to have originated with the First Emperor (of terracotta warrior fame) who even tried to burn all books – keeping only a single copy of each for his own use. This was only one of the earliest of many such attempts to set the date back to Year Zero – the Cultural Revolution being only the most recent. In such circumstances is it surprising that people should attempt to hide what they could in the virtual realm of language…?

      Anyway, such musings aside, it’s great to have a native speaker getting involved in my extremely amateur exploration – perhaps, Athena, you might be so kind as to keep an eye on my speculations – just to make sure that I’m not going off the deep end…

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