Sunday, 16 October 2011

There's poetry in them there Kanji!

This is the dawning of the age of Kanji, the Chinese characters, probably imported to Japan in the 1st Century AD. In any case, the first recorded use of Kanji in Japan was in 57AD with a golden seal given by the Han Chinese Emperor Guangwu. In our Japanese history lessons we’ve been learning about the various machinations that led to the Japan we know and love today and so much of it comes from its gargantuan western neighbour, and much of it through Kyushu and Fukuoka. Where’d you get that tea Japan? Where’d you get that Buddhism?

The Kanji are complicated and beautiful like a Parisian woman but useful and technical like a Munich engineering student. And they’re bloody difficult to learn.

The Japanese have a kanji for most nouns and verbs and adjectives, conjunctions and, probably, conjunctivitis. A lot of them are imported wholesale from the Chinese equivalents (so I’m looking forward to going back to the mainland and seeing how much I can read), though many, the so called “Kokuji” or “national characters” were, like a Toyota or a Mitsubishi, made in Japan following a system developed overseas.
Speaking generally, they each have a Japanese reading and a Chinese reading, a kunyomi and an onyomi. Generally speaking, the kunyomi is used when the word represented by the kanji is used in isolation, while the onyomi is used when the kanji combines with others to make a new word.
Thus:
女海へ行きました
Onna umi e ikimashita
The woman went to the beach
女子海へ行きました
Joshi umi e ikimashita
The girl went to the beach
Here, woman () on its own is given its kunyomi, “onna”, whereas when it is used with another kanji to mean girl ( 女子- literally woman child)  it gets the onyomi and becomes “jo” to make “joshi”.

I think that’s pretty cool, though it becomes quite difficult with some kanji that have a couple of onyomis, a couple of kunyomis. The kanji for “day” or “sun” is , but this can be read in a couple of different ways: ひ (hi) び (bi) か (ka) are some of the kunnyomis; 二 (ni) ニチ (nichi) ジツ (jitsu) are the onyomis. As one of my students often mutters to herself : “difficurt, difficurt” !

When we first started Japanese lessons, Seb was quick to point out that there was no alternative for just sitting down and writing out the kanji again and again until you can remember them and their readings. Putting his 24 years of experience next to my 6 weeks, I think this needs revising.
Laurie-san (I think) borrowed a book from one of the teachers at the Linden Hall junior high school (I think) which is a systematic way of memorising the kanji. By “The Kanji” I mean the 2 000 or so kanji specified by the Japanese government as the standard ones that are allowed to appear in official documents and which all Japanese schoolkids should be able to read by the end of education.
The book is called “Remembering the Kanji” by a Mr. Heisig. Unlike the “Basic Kanji Book” we’ve been doing along with our classes, the Heisig method does not present the kanji in a series based on how useful or frequent they are, or based on themes. Instead, Heisig does two special things. 1) He breaks down the kanji into their component parts (I won’t say “graphemes” or “radicals” yet because I’m not 100% sure of the proper meanings of those terms) and presents some kanji which use those components. He calls them “primitives”. 2) He creates little stories that link together the component parts of the kanji and the meaning of the kanji such that memorising how to write the kanji is a simple matter of remembering which component parts go into the story. I can vouch for the fact that it is a million times faster than memorising the stroke orders over and over again.  

There are some simple kanji that are pictographic and, as such, don’t really take much remembering: the sun (), mouth (), tree (), &c.
Others get the full Heisig treatment. Let’s take the kanji for wealth: . Here you can see the primitives for house (), one (), mouth (), and rice field (). As Heisig would put it, the wealthy household keeps and eats a disproportionate amount of rice for itself. If you can remember that incendiary statement, your kanji recall will be on fire!
Some are a bit more tenuous though: the kanji for a petition () contains the kanji for meadow (itself made up of the primitives for cliff, small and white) and for head. Heisig spins some tale about small white flowers sitting under a cliff that borders a meadow and how they have the light blocked out by a giant stone head and so form a petition to have it removed. Well, it sort of works.
Others, I think, are gorgeous. The kanji for seduction is , made of the primitives for sword and mouth : I love the idea that seduction is simply turning your mouth into a deadly weapon !

There is a danger with this that one gives to the kanji or to these primitives a meaning that they simply don’t have, carried away by the poetry of it all. For instance, Heisig says that one of his primitives means “baseball” which I am almost certain the ancient Chinese did not have.
Another issue with this method is that it is, as Laurie-san put it, it’s very much all-or-nothing. I have learned the kanji for “gall-bladder” (), but not the kanji for “to be” or “to say”. If I stick with the method to the full 2 000 I will get there, but not if I don’t.

Still, I find this method an attractive one, not simply because I’m getting very good results from it, but because it combats a sort of intellectual bone-headedness prevalent in Japan that says that the only way to learn things is to simple memorise thousands of set phrases, or actions, or statements, or ideas or movements until you’ve memorised them all. But language is not a memory game. Language is not, nor was it ever, simply a list of words that we say that mean things. It breaks my heart when I teach children who can ably rattle off the names of a hundred different things that they’ve seen a hundred different times on a hundred different flashcards, completely fall apart if I ask them a question phrased in a way they’ve never heard it phrased that requires an answer they’ve not memorised. Absolutely no thinking takes place; all they want is recall and it’s bad because huge time and financial resources are committed to an enterprise which rarely if ever, bears fruit. When I get the train home from Tenjin, the railway is at such a height that you can see into the classrooms of various “cram schools” that line the route. And I can almost hear the poor young’uns reciting things like “I am fine thank you, how are you”, and the teacher telling them that “I’m fine, cheers” or “Yeah, alright”, is “incorrect”: don’t think, learn!
It’s called Bushido or the “way of the warrior”: the idea that mastery of an art comes from infinite repetitions of the actions or words of the master and it dominates Japanese society to this day. Outside Cambridge House when coming home, I am often displeased to find the baseball team out there, “practising” their swings in my direction. I can’t really see how practising the swinging motion without a ball is all that useful, as it’s the coordination that counts, not the swinging itself no?

In any case, I find Heisig interesting and exciting and I’m learning to draw some beautiful characters which will, of course, be of zero use to me in Europe.

In other news, I bought a basil plant yesterday. I thought it was dead this morning but I gave it a drink and it woke up. 

1 comment:

  1. Is the "basic kanji book" the red one by any chance...? We used the red and then turquoise ones in first year at Sheffield... BKB1 and 2. And I've also used Heisig, but I lose interest in him too quickly!

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