Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Still Waters Run Deep
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(This is an expansion of yesterday's Facebook post.)

Yesterday I was texting with my friend Wencui, and I learned that the Chinese word for "level" consists of two characters: The character "shui" (水 ), meaning "water," and "ping" (平), meaning "peace." I was immediately charmed, as I always am when I learn a Chinese word like this (which means practically all of them, really).

It's hard to beat the word for sheer poeticality. "Peaceful water" is a wonderful way to describe something that's level; the phrase immediately conjures up images like Lake Michigan at dawn on a June morning, seen from a campsite on the shore of the U.P. about a mile from the Mackinac Bridge. I can practically feel the damp, clean morning air and hear the gentle lapping of the waves . . . I'm sure that you can imagine your own quiet pond.

But the other part is its sheer practicality. What is a carpenter's level, after all, but a trapped drop of quiet water? When water is calm, it's level. That's a scientific fact, etched right there in a language that may in fact be the oldest living language on the planet. It's almost as if you never consciously have to learn what the word "level" means, because the word itself constantly reminds you.

Nearly every word is like that in Chinese; individual meaningful syllables combine to form a word whose meaning is somehow a melding of the meaning of the individual syllables, but not always in the ways Westerners are used to. In Western languages we do the same thing, only on the word level. (Think of words like chambermaid or seatbelt or bootstrap.) We can think of that method as additive - you just plop one word onto another. (German is the prime Western language for word adding, if you ask me.)

But that's not exactly what's going on in Chinese.
For example, if you ask a Chinese person what the character "ping" means, they'll tell you, "peace." But if you ask them the word for peace, they'll tell you "tai ping." And if you should use "ping" by itself to mean "peace" in a sentence, they'll become confused. What's up with that? I'm not entirely sure, but I can tell you that whatever the mental processes are that convert "tai" and "ping" into "taiping", they diverge in interesting ways from the ones that convert "head" and "master" into "headmaster."

And finally, there's the sheer economy of it all. Most Chinese words consist of two or three characters at most. (In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a Chinese word that's not a foreign place name that's longer than three characters.) People have told me that books written in other languages and translated into Chinese are always shorter than their Western counterparts, and vice-versa.

Then there's the spoken economy of having individual syllables convey meaning. We would never use a phrase like "calm water" to mean "level," partly because we'd add a syllable (and a few more mouth-moves) to it. But in Chinese, the words for water and peace flow (haha) easily off the tongue together; each syllable begins with a consonant and ends with a vowel; you can go from one sound to the next practically without moving your tongue or lips at all, or at least moving them together in complementary contiguous motions. (Try saying "shui ping" slowly and then say "headmaster," and see how your tongue bounces around in comparison.)

Then add to that the way each character contains a story or a central root that tells a story or that conveys an action or a place . . . It just goes beyond poetic and pragmatic. It's rooted in time and place in ways that are endlessly fascinating to me.

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