A Journey to the East

With the part that the Chinese writing system plays in Japanese and Korean, one may think that it is easier to master all three languages once you have the hang of one, right?

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of studying Mandarin alongside disciplined and highly motivated Korean or Japanese classmates, as I have for a few years now, needs to admit to being guilty of it: yes, in our heart of hearts we all succumb to the grave sin of envy! For although they might be struggling just as much as we are when it comes to pronouncing those wretched tones—or grasping a particularly convoluted grammar rule—let’s face it, their command of Chinese characters puts them in another league altogether. I still remember how, during one of my early Mandarin classes, a Japanese lady (a so-called “beginner”), after failing to grasp the meaning of a phrase that our teacher was trying to explain, asked her “Could you please write it down?” This was followed by my classmate’s happy exclamation “I see!” upon looking at the totally incomprehensible characters on the whiteboard.

It all started centuries ago, the peaceful invasion of the neighboring countries to the East by the intricate Chinese writing system. Buddhist monks took it with them first to Korea and later on, in the 5th century, it reached and conquered even the isolated islands of Japan. And so, the beautiful 汉字 came to transcribe both the Korean language, as “Hanja,” and Japanese, as “Kanji.” Of course, Korean and Japanese don’t sound anything like Mandarin or Cantonese, but it doesn’t matter, as Hanzi consists mostly of ideograms conveying the meaning of the words rather than the way they sound. And yes, both the Korean and the Japanese writing systems have evolved greatly since. In Korea, King Sejong the Great promoted his own Hangul alphabet already in the 15th century, although it was not until the 20th that it finally came to rule. As for the complicated multiple Japanese writing systems, I wouldn’t even know where to start if I were to describe those.

Having recently had the chance to pay short visits to Japan as well as Korea, on both occasions I found myself almost startled by the transformation that Chinese characters underwent for me. From dreaded symbols, constantly reminding me of my ineptitude as a student of the Chinese lan-guage, they quickly turned into welcomed companions on my journey, helping me to decipher at least some of my otherwise exotic surroundings. Upon my arrival to Japan, straight away at the airport I was struck by the revelation that the name “Tokyo” actually means “Eastern Capital” [东京]. As opposed to the Western capital, Kyoto, I was to learn later, while visiting the very educational Edo Tokyo Museum. As for the characters denoting Seoul [首尔], they already indicate the status of the city as a capital.

How delightful, I thought. Despite the fact that I don’t speak any Japanese, apart from the obligatory “Arigatougozaimasu!” and “Konnichiwa!” I’d be able to figure out the meaning of the names of subway stations I passed by, on the endless commutes taking me to Tokyo’s renowned tourist attractions and famous restaurants. Among those names, I noticed plenty of fields [田], raised paths between fields [町], hills [山] and rivers [川], possibly providing clues about the topography of the area. Upon emerging from the enormous underground labyrinth however, I didn’t see much evidence of those rice fields, just an endless sea of high-risers and low-risers stretching as far as the horizon. And so, I still had to rely on the Latin alphabet transcription in order to get the names of the stations right and orient myself.

Of course, Korean and Japanese don’t sound anything like Mandarin or Cantonese, but it doesn’t matter, as Hanzi consists mostly of ideograms conveying the meaning of the words.

Alongside my newly-found appreciation for the universal application of Chinese characters, my journeys to the neighboring countries have also provided me with a more compassionate attitude towards the efforts of my Korean and Japanese study mates. For albeit they are able to write those characters with an enviable speed and accuracy, I think I have a somewhat better understanding now of how confusing it must be for them, recognizing the meaning of a text yet not having a clue as to how to read it. It turns out we all have our different plights, when trying to master the challenging Mandarin language. Let the new term begin!