For the Day of Poetry

言 yān, “Word”. Calligraphy by Yan Gongda

In Chinese “poetry” and “poem” are written with the same character: 詩 shī. This is also the title of the very first Chinese book of poetry, the 詩經 Shī Jīng, Book of Songs. This character is composed of two parts, the character for “word” 言 yán and the character for “temple” 寺 sì. The first etymological dictionary of Chinese characters, the 1st-century Shuowen Jiezi explains the composition like this: 志也從言寺聲, a song sounding in the temple – or out of the temple.

The pictogram of “word” 言 yán is an open mouth 口 with a tongue stick out and with one single stroke hovering above it, the word itself. This is how the Shuowen says it: 日語從口, clear speaking from the mouth.

The character for “temple” 寺 is composite in itself. If one wants to interpret it on the basis of the modern characters, then the lower part is 寸 cùn “inch”, a pictogram of the stretched  thumb and middle finger, with a small stroke indicating the distance measured; and in a general sense, measure, canon, law. The upper part resembles the character 土 “earth” which is a pictogram for the potter’s wheel.

月是故鄉明 Yuè shì gùxiāng míng, “Brighter is the moon on the native land”. Calligraphy of a verse
of Du Fu (712-770). The characters beginning and closing the verse both contain the moon
in the form of a modern character and of an ancient pictogram,  respectively.
See the opening illustration of this post.

However, the earliest forms of “temple” 寺 do not display the character for the earth, but rather a three-leaved small plant that has just sprouted from the earth. This is 之 zhī, “germ”, in a figurative sense “development, progress, continuity”, only used in modern Chinese as a conjunction word. In Wieger’s influential etymological dictionary Chinese Characters (1915) that summarized the Chinese etymological tradition of two thousand years, 寺 “temple” is thus “the place where the law or the rule 寸 are applied in a constant 之 manner”. And Karlgren’s Analytic Dictionary of Chinese (1923) which also included the oracle bones, the earliest written documents that were being excavated in thousands since the beginning of the century, says that this character represents a hand offering a tender plant and stands for the offerings given of the new crop to the temple.

A beautiful feature of the Chinese etymological tradition – just like that of the Latin etymological tradition of Saint Isidore of Seville – is that the various interpretations do not exclude each other, but rather enrich together the secondary meanings the character suggests to the reader.

The place of transcendence and measure; germination and fulfilment; an offering given with the mouth and with the hand; word and song; a voice sung and a voice heard being sung:

5 comentarios:

Julia dijo...

¡Otro post precioso!
El último párrafo es tan elocuente, cálido, inspirador... perfecto!

Paul Frank dijo...

La erudición de los autores de este blog es impresionante. Nunca dejan de sorprenderme.

Studiolum dijo...

Muchísimas gracias y vuelve a visitarnos. Trataremos de hacer lo que podemos, si no para sorprender, por lo menos para deleitar.

Gracias, Julia. Es todo el mérito de la cultura china que nos permite de ver tan mucho en un solo carácter.

Μαριανα dijo...

You are incredible my friend...
Regards from Greece, I'm an admirer of your written ideas.

Studiolum dijo...

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