Handwriting vs. typing in Chinese


A computer screen with Chinese characters (screen shot taken from the below mentioned BBC video)

A BBC reporter traveled all the way to China, to see, among other things, how electronic devices are affecting Chinese writing. A short video tells the story.

It seems that ‘devices in China feature a system that allows users to type words using the Roman alphabet and then select the corresponding characters.’ Chinese writing comprises over 50,000 characters, but some 1,000 are the ones mostly and commonly used, so it was obvious that some sort of mediating writing system had to come between this complex writing system and the smart phone user.

Cameron Andersen traveled to Anyang, a city in China’s northern Henan province, and visited the National Museum of Chinese Writing. There, he met with Richard Sears, an American who appears to have dedicated his life to the recognition of the provenance of the Chinese signs, i.e. their etymology (although this term is borrowed from linguistics and has a very specific meaning in that context).  It would be unfair to criticize a person’s life work in the narrow space of a blog post, but Sears promotes a theory about the beginning of Chinese writing that is popular with numerous researchers of various writing systems: that the characters can be shown to resemble some object or other, and that their original inspiration came from the copying of said object.


National Museum of Chinese Writing, explanatory panel (screen shot taken from the above BBC video)

This particular theory has also been suggested as an explanatory tale for the genesis of other scripts, for instance for the (Phoenician) alphabet (which was adopted to create the Greek alphabet; which, in its turn, became the prototype for the Roman alphabet, making it the ancestor of numerous alphabets used until this day, such as the one I am writing in/you are reading in right now). It is thought, for instance, that the sign ‘A’ acquired its phonetic value through a rebus principle, whereby at the beginning it stood for the initial of the word ‘alef’, meaning ‘bovine’; the supporters of this theory would like to see ‘A’ as a development from the schematic rendering of a bovine head. With a simple internet search I found a couple of graphics on how this theory works:


The difficulty lies in the fact that we usually have very little evidence for the beginning of writing, and no theory can be suggested to be valid or common for all writing systems. An additional difficulty with this sort of theories is that the recognition of a presumed visual prototype behind any sign involves highly subjective judgements, which can be easily contested by even more subjective objections and alternate judgements. Yet, this theory is appealing, it has become wildly popular and is even taught at schools (Ι remember being taught about it at primary school in Greece).

But, back to the main topic of the BBC story: will Chinese handwriting become obsolete any time soon because of the electronic age? A Chinese teacher interviewed by Andersen doubts it, and she offers the information that as a countermeasure the government has allotted ’10 min of every class just to handwriting.’ There are also school calligraphy clubs and spelling contests, which the reporter claims ‘are increasingly popular.’

spelling bee

A spelling contest in Chinese TV (screen shot taken from the above BBC video)

And to the reporter’s question, whether Chinese characters and script could ever disappear, the teacher confidently gave a response that surely resonates with script users of multiple nationalities:


(screen shot taken from the above BBC video)

The khipus of the Incas: another type of ‘writing’

Collata-coloured-khipu-cords-1024x683Peruvian twisted chords, known as ‘khipus’, have long been known as a means of keeping accounts. They are thought to have been used by the Incas and are attested as late as the 18th cent AD.

The village of San Juan de Collata on the Peruvian Andes invited Sabine Hyland, an anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews, to examine two specimens they thought had functioned as letters exchanged by local leaders in a revolt against Spanish authority.

She suggests that the knots, as well as “three-cord sequences of distinct colours, fibres and ply direction at the end of each khipu appear to represent lineage names”. She adds that “analysis of the khipus revealed they contain 95 different symbols, a quantity within the range of logosyllabic writing systems, and notably more symbols than in regional accounting khipus”. More interestingly, she claims that “the Collata khipus express syllables in a profoundly Andean fashion, using differences among the fibres of various animals, such as vicuña, alpaca and deer to indicate meaning. The reader must often feel the cords by hand to distinguish the fibre sources of these three-dimensional texts.”

(Info: The Courier)

“Historical graffiti as sources. Methods and perspectives of a young research area”

ByronA conference on graffiti as historical sources is taking place between 20 and 22 April 2017 at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. The conference discusses these unofficial inscriptions, methods and techniques of study as well as preservation methods.

A graffito functions as a person’s makeshift signature in a public space, carved or painted by themselves in order to commemorate their presence on the spot. The picture shows the English poet’s Byron signature, which he carved himself at a column in the Poseidon temple in Sounion, Greece. Byron visited Sounion at the beginning of the 19th cent. AD. It is more than probable that Byron would be seen nowadays as a vandal; this only shows our changing cultural attitudes towards graffiti. There are many fascinating aspects of graffiti to be studied and highlighted, which I am certain the Munich conference will address.

Graffiti in Mosul

2Graffiti can be a powerful means of communication. ISIS had painted multiple graffiti in one of the Iraqi cities it had occupied, Mosul. In the liberated parts of the city, people painted over the walls with ISIS graffiti, but one man further wrote his own messages. The journalist Rukmini Callimachi tells the story in a series of tweets.

“The one he chose for this wall says, “In life, be like a cube of sugar, so that when you are gone you leave a sweet taste.” Sadoun Dhanoun, 39 years old, was hired by a senior citizen group to paint over a wall that carried a verse from scripture calling for violence against the kuffar, or infidels.

ISIS uses black color, Sadoun chose red.

“Act of the scribe” workshop in Athens

workshoplogoX_mustapohjaThe workshop took place in Athens, Greece, and was aimed at discussing various aspects of scribal work and how these relate to language use and language change in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Because a lot of information we have on scribes comes from papyrus texts, the workshop was heavily populated by Egyptologists and Coptologists! But there appears to have been some space reserved also for us epigraphists!

I found it to be a sad coincidence that as we were busy with our workshop in sunny Athens (rather with an excursion to Mycenae the day after the workshop concluded), twin attacks on two Coptic churches in Egypt claimed the lives of dozens of worshipers.. The attack prompted some articles about who are the Copts and why they were being targeted.

A photo of the happy participants, taken at the courtyard of the Finnish Institute in Athens!AoS