Monday, 15 November 2021

"Out of the 50,000 Chinese characters, why don't any have circles?"

Shu Fa “calligraphy". Top to bottom, L to R: Seal (Zhuang) Script;
Clerical (Li); Grass (Cao); Running (Xing); Standard (Kai)
"Out of the 50,000 Chinese characters, why don't any have circles?”

Asks someone on Quora, and Alex answers with some interesting observations. If I’d been asked, I’d tend to say that it has something to do with the writing instruments after the development the Greater and Lesser Seal scripts which used hard tipped writing tools. After around the Han dynasty (200BCE) calligraphers began using flexible brushes. This led to standardisation of the strokes and stroke order (summarised in the character yong, 永, “forever” which has all nine). A side effect is it’s hard to write 0 with a brush -- try it and see how unnatural it feels.

Alex makes some interesting points, so copy his answer to the question below, from here:

You have made a fascinating observation that I think does give a lot of insight into Chinese culture.

Please do keep in mind that these are no more than my own very casual reflections:

Chinese script originated in Jiaguwen or oracle bone script, with characters carved onto turtle shells. It would have been somewhat difficult to carve a circle onto a turtle shell, I would imagine: you would need to carve it segment by segment while turning it. (Yet, as some in the comments as well as one of my friends have pointed out to me, it was actually a common element present in these oracle bones. Nonetheless, I would conjecture that it was still slightly more difficult, though the importance of which might be minimal.) Over time, what once were limited by technical difficulties might have become what was normal and what was natural.

The square box, on the other hand, is ubiquitous to Chinese script, and, from a solely graphical point of view, conveys an idea of stability, which is also valued as a virtue in Confucian or modern Chinese societies. When you see characters surrounded by the square box, it is also difficult not to suddenly observe their resemblance to the old fortified Chinese cities (all of which, as far as I know, were rectangular, unlike the round-shaped and star-shaped European ones, which, untroubled by the need to represent some higher cosmological order, were a lot more practical in defense): when a square box encloses another grapheme, it literally walls it in, like the simplified 国 or the traditional 國, stabilizing it (or neutralizing it). Chinese characters also resemble themselves squares, such as the 田格纸 (tian-ge-zhi “field square paper” or paper of squares or composition paper) on which students would draft their compositions, which are basically sheets of squares. Figuratively speaking, the square is not only a grapheme element in Chinese script, it’s part of the syntax.

No doubt, with the adoption of the circle in other scripts, whose countries had belonged to, and are still seen by certain people to still properly belong to, the Sinosphere, the circle would be seen as extra foreign and wrong to Chinese script.

A circle would indeed look very out of place in Chinese script: I have trouble writing one and really convincing myself that it is Chinese that I am writing: written Chinese characters are all about simple successive strokes building on and communicating with each other. A circle must be completed in toto and resists being broken down and partitioned into separate strokes.

It is remarkable that despite the big fuss some make about this grand Oriental understanding of life or the world as a circle, I’m thinking specifically about the taoist symbol, the circle remains altogether alien to Chinese script as we know it today.