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Cultural Access Memory (CAM)

Kevin Lee

#linguistics

#chineseCharacters

#culturalHegemony


Introduction

It’s recently been put forward that the advent of language was a computing revolution - speech, and later writing, were the first forms of distributed computation, offloading individual processing and relying on peers and ancestors. Within this framework, if we consider language to be distributed computing, people themselves are the processing units. But what exactly are they processing? In some ways, they are Cultural Processing Users (CPUs), and specifically in the case of Chinese characters, their writing forms Cultural Access Memories (CAM).


The Recipe

Chinese characters are a vehicle of cultural conveyance; their various relationships and component pieces integrate to form a collective memory which performs a plethora of shared cultural beliefs, from familial values, gender roles, and various ideas of Us and Other. Yet, many native speakers of Chinese and Japanese (and in lesser quantities Korean, Vietnamese, and so forth) rarely are encouraged to interrogate and debug the long history of character creation. Few speakers, for example, understand the phonosemantic nature of Chinese characters, as they’re most alluringly understood as ideographic or pictographic, yet it’s estimated that 80% or more of characters are indeed phonosemantic - comprised of one semantic component and one phonetic component.

​​By critically unpacking character components, examining their etymologies, we can start to decentralize power over these characters and the simultaneously beautiful and insidious ways in which they influence Eastern thought.

For example, consider 妻 tsuma, the character for “wife” in Japanese. The upper component is a hand grabbing the hair of the lower component, a woman. It depicts either the control of a woman by the assumed male reader / writer, or marriage by capture, a reality of the era in China in which the character was probably first conceived.

Consider the character for the Confucian concept of filial piety, 孝 xiào, an ideogram of an elder above a child. The idea of filial piety is directly embedded in the construction of the character itself. The power relations embedded in characters are not just limited to sexism and Confucianism, but cultural hegemony, power, cultural supremacy, and colonialism in various ways as well. This recipe is a way both to explore these relationships and decenter the conversation in characters from power, control, and superiority towards new visions.

Ingredients

Steps

  1. Pick a number n from 1-10.
  2. Randomly choose that number of Kangxi radicals. For extra spice, include hiragana, katakana, hangul, and bopomofo. Not recommended for first time use since these character systems are not semantic.
  3. Randomly choose n-1 ideographic description characters (IDCs)
  4. (Optional) Think of a belief you hold. Any small or large will do, but ideally something rather Universal.
  5. Using the IDCs, combine your components into a character, taking in mind semantic meaning and attempt to represent your belief. Keep in mind the left, outer, and upper radicals are often used semantically. If a radical’s semantic meaning doesn’t match (or it’s a phonetic component like hiragana), use it to form your character’s sound. Challenge yourself to use as many components semantically as possible.
  6. Write your character’s history. What does its story say about the people who use it? What implications does it have for who they are?

Serving Suggestions

Now, Think of a simplified Chinese version

Why is it more or less beautiful?

Now, Think of a Japanese etymologist’s historical explanation

Contrast it with yours.

Now, Imagine your character as a sign, or as calligraphy

What aspects should be accentuated?


Further Readings

  1. Gender across languages: The linguistic representation of women and men (2003), C. Xie
  2. The Origin of the Word “She” and Female Subjectivity - A Review of “The Cultural History of the Word “She”, Xin Wei Bi.
  3. 汉字的性别歧视 (2014), 晶珍
  4. A Study of Japanese Loanwords in Chinese (2014), Chen, Haijing

Q&A

What is the context or background that inspired your recipe?

This recipe is based on a project I worked on, which suggested 祂 and 㐴 as new gender pronouns in Chinese. In many parts of the West, we’re modifying our languages to remove a gender binary, or to introduce alternatives to it: ze/zir, latinx/latine, fisherman to fisherfolk. But Chinese’s pronouns were essentially gender neutral until the introduction, during a period of Westernization, of the female pronoun 她. This new gender pronoun empowered women to exist in writing and laid the foundation for feminist thought in China.

Which community are you offering the recipe to?

Part of the reason this project came to life was the political and technical impossibility of deconstructing or modifying Chinese characters. Much like early 20th century China adding a female pronoun, Chinese people today ought to be able to change their language to reflect and to construct better realities. Instead, governmental control over the writing system has long been a form of soft power. I see constructing Chinese characters and embracing their inherent puzzle-piece-like playfulness as a way of reclaiming the power of language - the power to collectively speak into existence the societies and realities we want to live in.

How does your submission relate to intersectional feminism?

When I learned that Chinese lacked an explicit female pronoun until it was invented in the 20th century, I was stunned. Many Chinese characters already contain problematic representations of gender roles, but to think that prior to this, women could only be described or understood as female indirectly through inference boggled my mind. In a way the invention of the female pronoun in Chinese has a strange parallel with the introduction of neuter gender pronouns in English; both introduce a word in order to formulate an identity. By looking outside our own contexts we can see how different versions of the same problem affect all of us.

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