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Sun, J.T. (1923). Symbolism in the Chinese Written Language. Psychoanal. Rev., 10(2):183-189.

(1923). Psychoanalytic Review, 10(2):183-189

Symbolism in the Chinese Written Language

Joe Tom Sun

The study of Chinese writing affords an opportunity to gather facts bearing upon the question of symbolism in primitive word formation that is absolutely unparalleled in any other linguistic field. Ultimate justice to the subject can only be done by a highly trained sinologue and one who is well versed in the lore of psychoanalysis.

Chinese script as found to-day is rather complicated. Each character may stand for a single word or, as is almost invariably the case, for several words having quite different meanings. There are from eighty to ninety thousand of these characters. They are written with a brush and there are nine kinds of strokes. Each stroke must be made with almost geometrical precision lest an error result that will prevent the correct reading of the character. Each character is composed of from one to fifty-four separate strokes. Not content with this confusion ingenious scribes have evolved a series of variants; there are, for instance, forty-two ways of forming the character for the word precious.

A study of the evolution of Chinese writing evidences the fact that in the construction of the character there is to be found endless illustrations of many of the most profound tenets of the psychoanalytic school. Chinese writing has passed through three stages, that of the Pictogram, the Ideogram and the Phonogram. It did not progress to the Syllabic or Alphabetic stages.

The earliest form is that of a simple picture of the idea that it is intended to convey. Many of the signs for such universal subjects as the sun, flowing water, rain, and mountains are identical in the early Chinese and Egyptian records. The application of the pictogram was limited to the most concrete of concepts, only the nouns and verbs lending themselves to this mode of recording.

The next stage, that of the ideogram, was reached when it was desired to write an abstract word such as an adjective. It then became necessary to devise a device that would meet the need. The manner in which this was accomplished by the Chinese affords instruction in primitive thinking of a most valuable analytic nature.

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