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     Interview with Alexis RYGALOFF on Language, Writing and Chinese Culture


         [This interview with one of the foremost linguists in Far Eastern languages was carried out  in French, when the guest-editor and two fellow members of the editorial board of the Canard Laqué interviewed  Alexis RYGALOFF, Professor at the EHESS in Paris, but the revised version which appears here is a completely fresh rewrite by the interviewee, himself.]


Question: What sort of future, according to you, could Chinese civilization be destined to beget?


Alexis RYGALOFF: In all likelihood, it seems to me, none - that is, if what you have in mind is, in effect, Chinese « civilization » rather than « culture », or better still « the Chinese cultures », if not the cultures « of China » including those of the non-Han minorities, since as much as I am hard put to visualize how it might be possible for it to rise again from its ashes, that’s as much as I believe that the very same cultures would be revived in the civilization to come, the same cultures on which it fed and sustained itself all along its development. Not just so where language or languages would be concerned, but also, therefore, in fact, above all where writing is concerned.


Q: The language, no doubt, but why writing? Isn’t it in the interest of the China of tomorrow - with of course its language, and not to forget its culture - to finally attune itself to the alphabetical clock by replacing its far too old written form with the new « pinyin » [romanisation of Chinese characters]? Vietnam and Vietnamese - even if the latter was otherwise difficult enough to convert to a system of alphabets - have they lost something in the conversion to « quoc ngu »? And furthermore, isn’t the written form, whether Chinese or any other form, above all a product of civilisation?  


AR: Without a doubt. Whatever might have been the case with the other forms of writing, Chinese character writing has been a product of civilisation. But I do doubt if it could have remained as such ever since. It was, in effect, at the same time both a privileged instrument and a product of Chinese civilisation; and this is why it has also finally become much more than merely the form of writing in China and of the Chinese, by constituting itself as one of the two composite elements, that is to say, the common composite element of the forms of writing, both concurrently and complementarily, of two other national Korean and Japanese forms of writing which are respectively the hangul and the kana. And if it has ceased to serve the Vietnamese language, this is, due to yet another fact of « civilisation », which has been the cause of its own abolition in favour of the Latin script.

         But then, in the event of the chances of fresh annexations or new rebuffs for Chinese character writing remaining equally slim, one is obliged to accept, it seems to me - given the more than possible divergent role of the Latin script - that Chinese has ceased to impose itself as an event or fact of civilisation. Unless of course one is constrained, by contrast, to admit it and to set it apart as a major fact or event of cultures; and by this token to accept it as one of the principal constituents of « the » civilisation to come. And by this means to construe this civilisation as ultimately unique but never again as dominant, that it’ll be as tolerant and relativistic towards its variants and the cultures with which it will adjust itself, while nevertheless remaining intransigeant as far as its principles are concerned. Failing which it will not be able to exist: a culture gone astray perhaps, but not a civilisation, and much less the civilisation.  


Q: You are not claiming in the same breath that Chinese character writing would be superior to all other forms of writing, up to and including ours?


AR. Obviously not, but not the contrary either. What I’m only affirming is that as different as it might be - though for us others it may be somewhat disconcerting - it cannot but contain defects, without any corresponding advantages either.

        The advantages of phonic script are quite well known. To begin with, there’s the undeniable economy of means that the possibility of writing anything at all with two or three times ten or a dozen different signs: the letters of an alphabet or syllabic signs. It is all the more necessary - should it prove to be feasible - that everything ought to be written as it should be pronounced, and that everything ought to be read as it is written which is very probably the case with the Vietnamese quoc ngu, or the Chinese pinyin, as well as the [Japanese] kana or the [Korean] hangul, but certainly not so with the French, English, or Russian scripts, with the exception, of course, of those in Spanish, Italian and German. And as for the advantage of it being used anywhere, if not by anyone at any time, let’s not forget that its usefulness can be found only in the strict limits of one and the same language, that is, to the exclusion of all others.


Q: What else? And as for Chinese character writing: what would be its advantage?


AR: « American children with reading problems can easily learn to read English represented by Chinese characters. »  Under this title - perhaps a little too long though it could not be more explicit - was introduced in the journal Science (March 26, 1971) the results of a series of experiments carried out by three American researchers: Paul Rozin, Susan Poritzky, and Raina Sotzky.

         Following which, a few years later, two other researchers, Danny D.Steinberg  and Jun Yamada revealed in the Reading Research Quarterly (1, 1978-9, xiv, 1) that of a group of Japanese pre-school-going children none was able to retain, even a little while after, a single one of the 30 kana which had been shown to them, whereas all of them recognized without error between 30 to 70% of the Chinese characters, often highly complicated in structure, which were shown to them at the same time.

         Finally, a personal observation in the guise of an hypothetical explanation. A Chinese schoolboy, aged 11 or 12, in Peking, managed without fault a dictation in pinyin though immediately afterwards he declared that he didn’t like the pinyin in contradistinction to Chinese characters simply because as he said: Meiyou yisi! which in English translates as: « It’s not interesting », which also could be construed literally as: « It doesn’t make sense. »

         Yet, that’s the least that one could say in the circumstances. For, if the fact remains that none of the letters mean at all anything, it is because it exists there arbitrarily. Not only does it not mean anything more than the sound it represents as such, but also it does not evoke or represent  anything at all; failing which it would not be, or not yet, or further still, the letter notwithstanding what it is. Anything but this letter. As for example, a circle in the case of the vowel O, representing either this or that, though at best the rounded lips suggested by this O, that is, l’eau [French for water] which flows, or the « haut » [French for high] as opposed to the « bas » [French for low]. As much as to say that our letters, far from being devoid of meaning, have to all intents and purposes a meaning, which at each instant is the same, that is, necessarily negative; and that by this fact, as « simple » as they might be, these letters are no less extremely « difficult ».


Q: Because they would be too abstract?


AR: Without a doubt it may well be here so on account of its quality « of abstraction ». But I’d rather say because it is far too « less naturally » abstract, while being at the same time excessively « arbitrary », bordering on the limits of the (un)reasonable, but perhaps too on the verge of entering what we call the « rational ». 

        We have here, itself, in this Maison de Sciences de l’Homme [ where the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) is housed] a psycholinguistic laboratory whose main activity concentrates on the auditive and visual perception of very young children, beginning with new-born babies. Now, the little I thought I was able to understand in this field of research undertaken here, it seemed to me to have been determined that in the course of development of these infants a brutal fall in the capacity to react to modifications in the acoustic environment had been engendered, with the effect that one approximated the child’s condition to that of the adult, that is, by compelling the child not to ever listen to the differences which prevented the recognition of one and the same sound in its repetitions, in other words, to make « abstraction » of all these differences and only these, in order to identify the occurrences of an O sound, for example, amidst them and only of this sound type.

        Having said this, it should be understood that what is recognised here is not the vowel O as such, but one or another of the words which contain it, « eau » or « haut » in the case of French, and the sound O implicitly by their existence and through the agency of these words. And this is what informs my view that this sort of abstraction which, if it’s not « natural », is at least humanly natural in the effort that one might - one should - deploy in contrast to what is required in the learning of letters, but not, let’s admit it, of Chinese characters.  


Q: If I understand you correctly, it would be more natural, and as a result less difficult, to abstract meaning than a sound, this being precisely one of the great advantages of Chinese character writing?


AR: That is exactly what I mean, with one reservation however. Chinese character writing permits, without making it a condition, the abstraction of sounds while not prohibiting the same process to take place for the meaning, being however understood that it would be better suited to the former than the latter process.

        You must not lose sight of the view that, as a form of writing, these Chinese characters had very soon established themselves as an ensemble, being open, not as ideograms but as ideophonograms; in other words, as graphic symbols combining two « halves » at least in its first approximations, while in the great majority of cases having, in principle, a connection with meaning in the first place, and with sound in the second. Even if it were true that such a model did not apply in two out of three cases, or not at all. And arising from this notion, one might find stated in recent accounts ideas such as these: « A character cannot be considered worthy of its name unless it takes into account the sound and the sense equally » (taken from a reader’s letter to the journal: Yuwen jianshe « Edification of Language », in replacement of Wenzi gaige « Reform of Writing »; or again: Pinyin wenzi bu shi wenzi  « The pinyin script is not a (form of) writing » [sic] - or « of » writing itself - unless it were taken to be « the writing of the Chinese », while allowing for the fact that no language has its own form of writing anymore, and that of the Chinese is nothing else but its own writing of yore, no doubt now simplified, but all the same holding its former status.     


Q: And the pinyin in all this?   


AR: Its adoption, in 1958, recalls a period when Chinese character writing increasingly discredited and decried all over the place, looked very much like being condemned to a brief span of life. And this, for ideological reasons in China, in addition to the personal wishes of Chairman Mao, for whom China could not - nor should it - fail to enter « sooner or later » into the manner of writing of the rest of world. But also in Japon, where faced with a situation of defeat, the kanji was reduced to less than 2000 characters, failing which one was expected to stick to the kana by completely doing away with the former, orelse as an alternative to be forced to accept the Latin alphabet. The same situation also occurred in Korea, especially in the North...

       Since then, however, things have changed. Thanks to a high degree of progress made in computer science in Japan, in China, and in Korea - perhaps soon in Vietnam too - this form of writing has been rehabilitated. And if, as far as China is concerned, the future of the pinyin is not called into question, it is only because - which is already quite considerable - it remains an instrument of linguistic unification and as a contributory factor in the reduction of illiteracy, not to forget of course its role in international relations.


Q: And the simplified characters?


AR: If the Chinese Republic had arrived at the point of being involved in massive and obligatory graphic simplifications, it is without a doubt for want of a better choice in the hope of at last attaining a mature state of transition - being theoretically and/or inevitably desirable - to an alphabetical form of writing; and this too with the intention of severing with a past, considered far too burdensome, while, though, at the same time attempting to facilitate the reduction of illiteracy. But the result of these innovations, carried out in two successive stages, is that, today, after the annulment of the second phase and the relative opening up of the frontiers, one hasn’t much of an idea of what to think. Well, I do ask myself if sooner or later it would be imperative to return purely and simply to the former state of Chinese character writing, which would at least give China the incalculable advantage of commencing its reconciliation with its past as well as with its immediate neighbours within the Far Eastern zone, called as it would be to take its rightful place in the midst of this Pacific Zone which sketches itself on the eve of the next century, and in which it has all the chances of finding itself - in the century and in the zone - in a position of strength.


Q: But aren’t you in the process of contradicting yourself? This Far Eastern sphere that you visualize, how could it with its common form of writing not constitute a resurgence of Chinese « civilisation », and not just as the projection of the original Chinese cultures which are more or less sinicised?


AR: I sincerely hope not. Provided that by displaying caution, moderation and wisdom, China does not let itself go by confounding « civilisation » and « culture » under the pretext that the character wenhua one and/or the other may indifferently signify the same: wenhua in Chinese, van hoa in Vietnamian, bunka in Japanese... This can be an obstacle, but not something insurmountable, nor besides something as a definite advantage to have in stock. Two different words - the proof being, for Arthaud one was « too many »; even with the help of « number », in the « grammatical » sense, thanks to which we would be theoretically free to consider « the » civilisation in the singular as something different from « the » [« des » and « les », plural in French] cultures, or even as one culture, however prestigious or conquering it might be. Besides, this grammatical number, let’s agree that its ignorance, the lack of restriction that it exerts on our languages has never prevented anyone: Chinese, Japanese, or any other, not to mistake « a » or « more than one » in the case of [Chinese character]: wenhua as in the case of [Chinese character]: wenzi « writing(s) » which is clearly connected - in any case in Chinese - with the fact of wen, as in wenhua, if not in Japanese: moji (and not [bunji] - and not either with [mo] or [monka]). Having said all this, I’m not claiming in any way that the differences of this nature would always be thought to be innocent - only that all is not decisive.


Q: So you don’t think that the abolition of simplified characters in the Chinese Republic will not be enough to guaranty intercommunicability within the Far Eastern bloc to come?        


AR: Of course not, but it would be nevertheless a considerable step in this direction; above all if such a measure was accompanied by a movement of concertation and harmonisation of terminologies. Since with the living languages, without taking into consideration the kana and the hangul, which have no reason not to endure as they are, the faux amis [« false friends » or deceptive cognates] abound, such as [Chinese character] shouzhi: in Japanese « letter » (missive ) - tegami, but in Chinese: shouzhi « toilet paper », which is equivalent to our [French] « actuellement », « éventuellement », or « définitivement », for «  actually », « eventually », or « definitely ».


Q: I would like to return to an earlier point of discussion. Just a while ago, at the same time of drawing attention to the fact of  too much « abstraction », you said: « less natural », and you used the word « arbitrary » with regard to our letters in comparison with Chinese characters. What do you mean by that?


AR: The case of the letter O is quite exceptional, almost a marginal case, and that is exactly the reason why I used it as a counter-example. Without taking into consideration the fact that it is caused by the form of the lips, and as a result of this fact it’s hardly arbitrary, and the sound that it signifies, at least in French, could not be more « meaningful », it possesses one quality which is remakable and that is, that its form is always the same. Well, the same is true of Chinese characters, as it is besides of the signs of hangul, while being entirely true of the Japanese kana. Doubtless there is here in this an element of convention, but without [quelque chose manquante ?] in the case of letters, but one finds it just as difficult to understand why A should be read as [a] rather than [b] or otherwise, or B, [b] rather than [d], and in keeping with all, their forms remain different: capitals, small letters, printed letters, longhand. The contrary, naturally, would have been much more evident if the composant graphics of Chinese writing had remained as figurative as in the days of yore, that is, as either figurative or symbolic. It is notwithstanding, today, a reality when little children would wish to believe that [Chinese characters: ma - niu - xiang ] are after all the drawings of « horse », « cow », « elephant », while they are hard put to admit the same of (ma) or [horse], (niu) or [cow], (xiang) or [elephant].


Q: Is this then another form of « logic »?


AR: Yes, without a doubt, but which is it? The assumption of one of my students, Tang Lin, is that this form of logic, Chinese by nature, would be that of « resemblance » or that of similitude, and not like that of ours which is Aristotelian, Cartesian, and Occidental. The latter form is a logic of identity, the reasons for such a divergence would have to be sought in the particular nature of our respective forms of writing. He is working on this topic for his doctorate without letting himself be overcome by the obvious difficulties inherent in such an inordinately ambitious theme, a theme that is close to that of « the same and the other », but quite different from that of «  two or more » from that of « two and/or more, or less than two », so wholly is it true that to be « similar », at most « alike », it should not be « the same », while in the inverse situation, it accords. And from this to assume that one and the same Indo-European source - as far as one may judge -  might have come about to furnish us with the word [same] in English: « alike » and/or « the...same » (or [very same] if need be), but also [cam] « one », or « oneself » in Russian.


Q: One last concluding word. Would you go so far as to say that - thanks to Chinese character writing - the Far Eastern Zone would come about with less of an hindrance than, say, the European Union itself?


AR: Perhaps, and so much the less for what we ourselves might have negatively contributed towards its realisation. Now we might help them to a better understanding of us, without however, in reverse, making no effort to understand them a little less incorrectly.


Q: You are nonetheless optimistic?


AR: Let’s say I prefer to remain, on the whole - if I might say so - beatifically lucid, but without committing, as far as possible, the sin of angelism.


Translated by T.Wignesan