I recently finished a little book by Adeline Yen Mah called Watching the Tree: A Chinese Daughter Reflects on Happiness, Tradition, and Spiritual Wisdom. I enjoyed this book of reflections very much. The chapters are separated into digestible chunks, eleven in all. What I really appreciate about this book is that Mah provides a glimpse into the Chinese culture from a personal perspective and weaves in insights that allow me to see into her world.
The chapter that I am going to share parts from is titled, “Hidden Logic Within the Shape of Words.”
Since Keiko has heightened my awareness of language, I have become more tuned, more fascinated. I’ve always had an interest in language and culture, but now with Keiko’s help, I am able to find new ways to learn about it that work for my learning style. I lose interest with books that are too dry and that’s why, although this little chapter is not about language from the point of pure linguistics, that this is Mah’s language, what she shares teaches me so much—provides another layer. There is much to be absorbed from this wonderful little book of reflections on Chinese wisdom.
One thing I found extremely fascinating was when Mah tells about how when her grandfather was a boy in the 1880s, numbers were still being written in Chinese characters with a brush. She says, “Besides being cumbersome and time-consuming, the traditional Chinese method of recording numbers lacked two vital components: positional value and the symbol zero” (p. 176). She also discusses the use of the abacus and how zero and positional value were taken into account. She refers to zero as a hero and shares a story about her son and a song he used to recite about zero when he was learning numbers. She reminds and reaffirms: “The symbol zero, invented in India in the ninth century and adopted as part of the Hindu-Arabic number system, is indeed very much a hero” (p. 177).
Mah attributes the lack of zero and positional value to the sluggishness that China demonstrated in keeping up and excelling in math and science. She says, “But like the Roman numerals, the three words yi qian yi possess neither place value nor the symbol for zero. This meant that Chinese mathematicians were unable to transpose numbers on to paper quickly and easily for accurate calculation. Mathematical thought lacked an adequate alphabet for expression, progression or development. As a result, calculus was never invented, the development of science was hindered and China fell behind the West in technology” (p. 183). I have never been very “math” minded, but Mah makes me not only appreciate the numbers that I use every day and take for granted, but how cultures adapt and get by and then need to find and adopt new ways from other cultures.
In the next section of the chapter, Mah talks about the Chinese language. I am only going to bullet point certain statements she makes that I found quite fascinating (there are so many).
-There are said to be over 50,000 Chinese characters (compared to over 600,000 English words).
-Most Chinese words cannot be classified as nouns, adjectives, verbs or adverbs. The majority are “root words” and can move from one category to another with the greatest flexibility.
-Chinese is a non-inflectional language and its grammar is unique for its lack of rules. There are no tenses, plurals, genders or forms, cases or endings. There are also no prefixes or suffixes in Chinese.
-The Chinese language relies almost entirely on word order (the position of a word in a sentence) and the use of auxiliary words to convey meaning.
-Word inflection in English categorizes each word in a sentence into singular or plural noun; past, present or future verb; quality of a thing or an action. But in Chinese words are uninflected and their meaning cannot be deduced except in relation to other words.
-Chinese sentences do not need to have a verb. “Big house” is a complete sentence in Chinese. In western thought, subject and attribute are separate. But a sentence such as “To be or not to be” is impossible to say in Chinese (I have seen it translated as “Let me live or let me die”).
-In the west, existence is thought of as an independent attribute that can be added to or subtracted from a separate form. The Chinese language does not separate the two. A simple English sentence such as “There is a dog” would be translated into Chinese as “Has dog.”
There is so much more of interest in this insightful chapter on language and culture, and this is only a portion of this compact book. Each time I would pick the book up, I felt as though I was entering a quiet meditative space, taking in the book, slowly, like sipping warm tea. I have to return the book to the library; I’ve exceeded my renewal limit. But I think that I’ll eventually buy a copy to write in because I enjoyed the way Mah weaved her own story with that of her ancestors, bringing it to the surface in a way that I could understand and appreciate.