Back to the future

China’s quest to break down its language barrier
by
June 2022, no. 443
Buy this book

Kingdom of Characters: A tale of language, obsession, and genius in modern China by Jing Tsu

Allen Lane, $45 hb, 336 pp

Back to the future

China’s quest to break down its language barrier
by
June 2022, no. 443
Jing Tsu, Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University (photograph via Yale)
Jing Tsu, Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University (photograph via Yale)

Picture, poem, or puzzle? The Chinese written character has been one of the most enduring obstacles to and catalysts for intercultural appreciation. When, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wanted to demonstrate the relative backwardness of Oriental thought, he could find no better exhibit than the form of its writing. Attached as it was to ‘the sensuous image’, the putatively pictographic Chinese character forfeited access to the conceptual abstraction that afforded European thinkers their passports to the ‘free, ideal realm of Spirit’. Yet a century later, it was this very characterisation of Chinese writing – as irreducibly concrete and free of intellectual mediation – that persuaded the philologist Ernest Fenollosa and poet Ezra Pound of its therapeutic promise for Western art. ‘Full of the sap of nature’, the Chinese character would inject primitivist vitality into the dry husks of romanised verbiage. What had made it peripheral to the historical florescence of ‘reason’ now legitimised it in the name of aesthetic modernism.

James Jiang reviews 'Kingdom of Characters: A tale of language, obsession, and genius in modern China' by Jing Tsu

Kingdom of Characters: A tale of language, obsession, and genius in modern China

by Jing Tsu

Allen Lane, $45 hb, 336 pp

Buy this book

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