Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book: Watching the Tree

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).

Mah’s words:

-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.


Luciana said...

Fascinating! You just sold me a book, Rebb. :-)

jiturajgor said...

Very informative post Rebb. I was not knowing anything of it except that,we discovered zero. Thanks for posting.

Rebb said...

Hi Lu! Nice to see your smiling face. That's great. Hope to hear how you like it.

Hi Jitu! It's nice to see you too and it looks like you're smiling. I love how you change your picture from time to time. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Mah was also a physician, but I was just refreshing my memory, and read that after her memoir called “Falling Leaves” did so well, she gave up her practice and began writing full time.

Thanks both for stopping by.

keiko amano said...


The book by Adeline Mah sounds interesting. I hope to check it out soon. About zero and other math concepts, I read a book by Tooyama Kei (1909-1979) not too long ago. I just checked it and found out that his good books seem unavailable in English. It is very good book. I recommend it to publishers to translate and publish it. Also I mentioned about Fujiwara Masahiko’s book before. He went to India and researched on Ramanujan, Indian mathematician (India produced many mathematicians). His story blew my mind. I did blog about him before in Red Room. Tooyama and Fujiwara are both Japanese mathematicians. I wish I read those books growing up.

About positional value, since I already have numbers in my head, if I see 百万、
I know it has six zeroes. 百100 万0000. So without that vision, I have no idea how ancient Chinese and Japanese calculated. Well I guess they exercised their belief in existence without actually seeing. Abacus is amazing. Some people can do quite advance math with only abacus except calculus as you mentioned.

I like your bullet pointing to the concise definition of Chinese language. Isn’t it amazing? I love Chinese language. I hope they don’t change anything although they already have. Luckily, Taiwanese haven’t changed their kanji characters to simplified version. The language is so economical, and interpretation is up to us. It’s so artistic. But the more freedom we have, the more self-discipline is required, I guess. It’s really tough to master Chinese writing system although that must obvious to anyone.

I was at Chinese Museum in downtown Los Angeles a few weeks ago. I was there when a tour conductor, probably a teacher, was saying to a group of children, “Many Chinese immigrants were illiterate when they first arrived because they were poor… Do you know what illiterate means?” She seemed an enthusiastic educator, but the word illiterate stung my heart, so I listened and thought about it.

The word “Illiterate” is not wrong but judgmental. It does not carry enough information. So I said,

“Chinese writing is very difficult to learn because there are so many characters they have to remember. In English, we can read words pretty much by following spellings, right? Yes, some spellings are crooked like Receive so we have to remember like ei instead of ie. But in Chinese, we can’t read like that. We have to study each character and memorize each.”

An assistant teacher-like person nodded her head. The students stared my face. The teacher said, “Thank you.” The group probably thought I was a Chinese.

Maybe I was nosy-- well I am, but I regretted later. Why didn’t I tell them more? Chinese have about 60,000 characters, and they need to know about 5,000 in order to read papers. And I wanted to go back and tell them that among all the poor immigrants, they became slaves, and Japanese were included. And Takahashi Korekiyo and his friends were among them. And Takahashi Korekiyo later became Prime Minister of Japan. That story also I blogged in Red Room last year.

keiko amano said...

"Falling Leaves!" I read it long ago after she was interviwed in a Dinah Shore's show. The book was good. Oh, how dreadful it was reading about her prisonment and all that during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Thank you for this information!!! Now I'm more connected.

Rebb said...

Keiko, Thanks for adding this information and the examples. The Abacus seems very intricate and complex. Hard for me to imagine.

I'm glad you spoke up, Keiko. The tour conductor, as you point out, by using the word "illiterate" didn't properly convey the whole story. The museum could use some insight from you to better inform the tour conductor's so that they don't give an imbalanced impression. I can imagine how you wished that you said more.

I haven't read "Fallen Leaves." I'll have to be ready for the dread that I can imagine. I do have her book that’s been sitting on my shelf for many years, "A Thousand Pieces of Gold: My Discovery of China’s Character in It’s Proverbs," but I never finished it. Now that I've read "Watching the Tree," I'm ready to come back to this book. I love that about books. They stay waiting for you when you are ready and one never knows when or where...

Vincent said...

Rebb! How are you? Missing your posts.

Rebb said...

Hi Vincent, It's very nice to see you here. I have mostly been posting at RedRoom, but I read your Amber blog this morning, and it made me think of a blog that I previously posted, but that is another expression of Amber—well in my mind. So I think that will be an appropriate one to post today. Thanks for visiting and checking in :)