After his controversial involvement with the Tarim mummy excavations in Western Xinjiang, Victor Mair might just be the closest thing Sinology has to Indiana Jones, assuming the fictional Spielberg character was a renowned linguist, translator and popular blogger in addition to his standing as a historian/archeologist. So it can be no surprise that we're delighted to be joined by Victor today for a discussion that delves from the origins of well-known Buddhist texts to digressions on ancient migration patterns, and even a bit of myth-clearing on Chinese romanization.

In addition to Victor Mair, joining Sinica hosts Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn for one of the most wide-ranging shows we've done to date is David Moser, a close Sinica friend and Director of the CET immersion program in Beijing. Everyone is very much on their game, and this is a great show for anyone with an interest in Chinese history. So be sure to check out today's show, and please feel welcome to leave your comments in the discussion section below.

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 said on
May 25, 2012
Ah, Sinica with the intellectualism cranked up to eleven. Is nice. That said, I'd love an explanation of Victor's claim that 80% of a Chinese character is pictophonetic (and that many are the students who fail to grasp this). I seriously worry I am one of those who have remained ignorant for too long. Can anyone offer an explanation?
 said on
May 25, 2012
Or perhaps he said that 80% of characters are pictophonetic? Yes, I think this probably makes more sense....reason I ask, I learnt this character today - 遮 (zhe1), as in 遮挡 - and wondered if there was any phonetic element to hang onto? Perhaps 遮 is in that tricky 20% of non-pictophonetic characters.
 said on
May 25, 2012
You guys topped yourselves! Podcast was fascinating beginning to end, wish it was twice as long.
 said on
May 26, 2012
Thanks so much for the nice words @grahambond and @coyote9990. We had an absolutely wonderful time recording with Dr. Mair, who tops our list of all-time favorite guests. And a formidable list that is. To Graham's question on pictophonetic characters, the second post gets it right: 85% or so of the Chinese characters out there have at least some hint as to pronunciation. 遮 just happens to be one of those that gives no clue, at least not that I can see.

Links to things mentioned in the podcast should be coming soon. Thanks for your patience! - Kaiser
 said on
May 26, 2012
庶 is phonetic in 遮, or at least it used to be. (Or at least Xu Shen thought it was when he was compiling the 说文解字, which gives the definition as 遮: 遏也從辵庶聲.) The problem with the sound-hints is that a lot of them don't really work very well in Mandarin.
 said on
May 28, 2012

State TV Host Offers Advice on How to Throw Out 'Foreign Trash', by Josh Chin for China Realtime Report/Wall Street Journal

Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, by William Hannas

Mark Swofford's


Jeremy Goldkorn:

Language Log blog

David Moser:

Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing, by Judith Farquhar and Qicheng Zhang

Victor Mair:

Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, by John DeFrancis

Kaiser Kuo:

Leader's Fall in China Puts Allies in Peril, by Ed Wong and Jonathan Ansfield for The New York Times

 said on
June 6, 2012
In Mandarin, the phonetic value of 遮 (zhē) is, of course, not exactly the same as that of 庶 (shù). But they aren't all *that* far apart -- "zh" and "sh" are both on the retroflex row in the table of initials (zh-ch-sh-r) [Ref. "Mandarin Primer" - Y.R. Chao, p.19]. In other words, the position of the tongue is the same for both "zh" and "sh"; it's only the *manner* of sound production that differs ("zh" is an aspirated stop, and "sh" is a fricative).

So much for the initials of 遮 and 庶.

As for the *finals* -- well, "e" is not so far from "u". Certainly much closer than, say, "e" and "uang".

So it's not hard to believe that, as suggested by Brendan's quote from "Shuowen", the phonetic values of 遮 and 庶 were the same or very similar 2000 years ago, in the world of Xu Shen.

Japanese derived its pronunciation of the Chinese characters it borrowed centuries ago, based on the Chinese pronunciation of the time. In Japanese, the phonetic values of 遮 and 庶 are very similar to each other: "sha" and "sho" respectively.

And, if you want a mnemonic for the *meaning* of 遮 in terms of its components (庶 and 辶), I suggest you think of "making your way" (辶) through "crowds of common people" (庶) -- hence the meaning "block; impede" -- and from "block", it's not far to "conceal".
 said on
June 8, 2012
Regarding the suggestion (in the podcast) that people already write to each other (e.g. when they text each other) using pinyin (converted to hanzi) so "Why couldn't they simply communicate directly in pinyin?":

Well, of course it's not really proper pinyin if the tone marks are not there, and I imagine it would be hard to read without the tone marks (unlike Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR), the system which Prof. Mair initially favored, which uses no tone marks). And I should think people would find it a bit of a drag to have to type the tone numbers as well as the letters. If GR had prevailed it would be easier to type than pinyin, since you don't need to *think* in terms of numbers, and your *fingers* only need to type letters.

Of course, Chinese people effortlessly produce the right tones in speech, but I wonder whether they find it so easy to think in terms of "What *number* is the tone on that character?" as would be necessary to type in proper pinyin. I don't know -- I guess it would come naturally soon enough, if they did that habitually. But in the beginning it might be a hurdle, and I think people would balk at that.

That's all from the sender's point of view.

And of course, from the receiver's point of view, until people are accustomed to reading in pinyin rather than hanzi, it's much easier to read text written in hanzi.

Mark Lesson Studied