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Annotating Acupuncture (Part 1): The Chinese Writing System

Dr. GuangMing Li is a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, as well as a musicologist, conductor, recording artist, and the director of the Bright Institute of Music (@BrightMusicInst on Twitter).

Dr. Li brings extensive knowledge of the history and etymology of Chinese words. In our series Annotating Acupuncture, Dr. Li sits down with Dr. Thalia L. Micah to excavate the meaning behind the names of six acupuncture points.

This first episode of the speaker series introduces features related to the Chinese writing system. We hope you enjoy learning!


Thalia Micah 0:01

Hello, my name is Thalia Micah. Welcome to the Institute of Integrative Health Specialists. Today we have a special guest for you, Dr. Guangming Li. We are having a conversation about annotations of acupuncture sites. Thank you for joining us.

Guangming Li 0:15

Thank you for having me.

I think it would be helpful for you to get familiar with some aspects of the Chinese language, especially the writing system. Because the Chinese language – although all languages or many languages that we are familiar with in the West and other countries all have writing systems – the Chinese writing system is somewhat different. And what makes the Chinese writing system different is not just because the visual representations are different, but also the relationship between the phonetic (the sound), the visual representation, and the meaning. The relationship between these three.

Because the Chinese language is a syllabic language and writing system – meaning one character, one syllable. And the Chinese language consists of a lot of homophonic words, meaning words where syllables have different meanings but they sound the same. Because of that, the visual representation is very important for identifying or determining the actual meaning of the utterance. The writing is very, very important. Yes, for anyone to understand the meaning of an utterance, often, of course, there's other contextual factors that may define the meaning. But even with that, it would be very helpful to know the characters, so one can be specific about what they mean, you know, what you're trying to say and what the other party is trying to say.

Thalia Micah 2:43

In school, we had a professor, he would, you know, try to explain what the characters mean. And I always remember the word "bai" [sic] which means eight, right? "B-a-i" but it could also mean "white" depending on how you say it: "bai–"

Guangming Li 2:59

Oh, you mean the tone. Yes. The tonal aspect is important. But, again, there's words. Their sounds are exactly the same in terms of a syllable and tonal contour. This is one kind of situation. At same time, there are different words, of different sounds, but they use the same character. That makes the whole thing more complex.

So really the point is to make sure you know about the meaning of an utterance, right. Especially when, let's say, you utter a monosyllabic word in Chinese. Actually the monosyllabic words are the ancient, let's say, morphological Chinese language. Nowadays, most the Chinese words are disyllabic words. But the ancient Chinese words mostly, except probably one or two or something like that, as far as I know, that are disyllabic words, most of them are monosyllabic words. So to to be sure, okay, let's say 'Wang.' Right. Or let's say a common last name in terms of sound: 'Zhang.' When you go to an elementary school and the teacher asks you, "Hey, What's your last name?" "It's oh, my name is Zhang. Yes, Zhang." Yeah, there's commonly two. Okay, they ask you "which one?," right. Yeah. "Gong chang zhang?" "Li zao zhang?" You have to specify, then they know okay. If you say 'Zhang' – it's like wow, there's so many 'Zhang.' So that's the thing that makes the writing important in terms of communication.

So basically, commonly people say there's six ways or six categories of making Chinese characters. But actually, I've seen this other theory, but actually, I agree. Actually, there's five, you know, and the sixth one is actually kind of about the usage of the characters. So the five, let's say, that are easily understandable or intelligible, are: 'xiàng xíng zì', 'zhǐ shì zì', 'huì yì zì', 'xíng shēng zì', and 'jiǎ jiè zì'. Translated into English the 'xiàng xíng zì' is pictographic meaning a sketch, an image. Right. And the 'zhǐ shì' is sort of indicative, in my understanding, an abstract. A more abstract picture. And then 'huì yì' means 'associative compound characters' meaning the character consists of individual independent characters. Put them together, meaning something different from the original but related. 'Xíng shēng zì' – there's different translations. Some translate it as 'phonetic graphic.' I would prefer that to 'ideographic' because really the part of that expression – not actually the picture commonly, especially today, I mean, in modern Chinese – it's a concept. And then there's a part that's ideophonetic. Phonetic refers to the the part that contributes to the sound. And then 'jiǎ jiè zì' meaning...So as you already understand there's a lot of homophonic words right? So sometimes when we utter something where we express some new ideas, we we utter it but we don't necessarily have the character. But we have characters for other words with the same sound. Then people may borrow the characters of other words to represent the new word.

Thalia Micah 7:48

Is that what kind of like what pīnyīn is?

Guangming Li 7:54

No, pīnyīn is a composite of different alphabets. But this is the character. Okay. Yeah.

Thalia Micah 8:04

So there's no character in pīnyīn.

Guangming Li 8:07

Well, no pīnyīn is an alphabet. This is the pīnyīn [points to paper].

Lan Li 8:12

Ah, yes. In order to explain the meanings of these characters he's just trying to explain what kinds of characters there are. Sometimes we think maybe pictographic, sometimes they might be meaning,

Thalia Micah 8:22

Oh, okay.

Lan Li 8:23

So you can't just take the character for granted, like "this means a lamp."

Thalia Micah 8:28

Okay. Because that's usually how it's presented to us. Like "you see this house, it means this," I'm like, well, I don't know, what if I see another house somewhere else, does it mean the same thing?

Guangming Li 8:41

Yeah. So, because of this nature of the Chinese language, creating a visual representation of a word is not something – what do you call it? – random. Or you know, to a certain extent, maybe, but for the most part, it is an outcome of – what do you call it? – an intellectual effort. You have to think, what is the actual meaning that the sound, the uttered sound, is to represent, or convey. And since there's so many words that sound the same, to specify, to indicate, the meaning of certain, you know, a verbal sound in certain as a linguistic context, then you have to figure out a way to define that. To enable people to identify it, to be sure, right?

As the example that I gave to you, yeah, the two students, their last name is the same. 'Zhang' in sound, but you cannot just say, oh, oh, Mr. Zhang, or Ms. Zhang. They're all 'Zhang,' but which one, right? Yeah. So, yeah, things like that.

So in that case, if you want to understand, let's say, in Chinese medicine, acupuncture practice, when you read those names of acupuncture points. Because myself, I'm not an expert in that regard. I guess I'm not going to analyze all those acupuncture points against the actual meaning of those points. But in principle, if you understand the meaning of those characters of those names, it might help you understand the functionality of that point, maybe the cultural or history and so on and so forth.

Thalia Micah 11:05

I agree.

Guangming Li 11:05

Yeah. Because when they name, write that word down, they think. How to convey or define the meaning, right? They don't just borrow any words or characters, alright. And also because these, you know, what to call it, the characteristic of the writing system, when you read the Chinese names of those points, you should be aware of these categories of creating Chinese characters, because sometimes if the word is borrowed, the character is borrowed, it may not represent what really the sound means. You will see very clearly you know, you will understand, because I truly – I tell you this because I found it's very interesting, and–

Thalia Micah 11:05

I am in awe. We didn't learn it that way, you know, and we didn't even learn the pīnyīn we only learned numbers. Yeah.

Guangming Li 12:15

I understand that. Actually, without asking you whether that's what you want, that's what I thought. I thought that would be interesting to you. And would be helpful.

Thalia Micah 12:27

Yes. Yes. Do you see my face I'm like, yes. Tell me more.

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