The Han dynasty scholar Xu Shen (c100 AD) had already discussed the “Six Categories” of Chinese characters in his etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi: they are ideographs, pictographs, phonetic complexes, logical aggregates, associative transformations, and borrowings. Over the last 2,000 years, this classical elucidation of the making of the Chinese script has been little disputed. However, if we can be a little more sensitive, we will find as we explore the hidden history of the growth of Chinese characters, that the “Six Categories” are no simple juxtaposition, for between all of them exists the invisible element of time. Specifically, the roots of the script lie in the visual properties of ideographs and pictographs, with the result that a small group of the oldest characters consists entirely of pictorial abbreviations of external objects: sun 日, moon月, person人, or horse馬, for instance. Later, via another essential metaphor for language itself – “names from objects, parts from analogy” – we proceed to the later four categories, each progressively more abstract, which made the script into a linguistic system dynamically derived from the history of Chinese culture. To give an example, the character 明, meaning ‘bright’, is composed of the elements of sun 日and moon月. Here sun 日 and moon月are classic early pictographs, while the concept of ‘brightness’ is a further abstraction based on these pictographs. The character明shows evidence of at least three procedures: from initial observation, to pictographic representation, and then to completion as an integrated abstraction. A character is first of all a seen image, and that image, while it may later be altered by extension, has not yet lost its obvious and original visual elements. Further, even its sound (and please note that its makers gave it the sound míng with a rising tone, a sound which rises like the morning sun), because of its invisibility in the script, has what I call its secret energy – compare how the Chinese word Yang strikes the eye when written in English. Finally, 明 developed into a conceptual construct. It is extremely important to examine this process in detail, because it is directly connected to an understanding of poetic form in Chinese. That direct vision evolved in the rules of old-style regulated verse (詩 shi) into duizhang, or parallel structuring: in adjacent lines of verse, the words in each corresponding position in the line must match each other, noun for noun, verb for verb, adjective for adjective, number for number, even colour for colour, and so on, so that a couplet of regulated verse is a single vision – a site of resonance in space. The implied music is developed in the patterns of level and oblique tones, like rules for composition, which govern the tone of every syllable in the poem. The classical structured verse forms in Chinese, such as seven-syllable regulated verse, are made up of pictographic characters which have been gradually systematised with the element of space. (See my review of “Poems of the Masters”, LPR Spring 2005, p31-34.) This pictographic quality is both the ancient starting point for the Chinese script, and the source we must look back to when we seek to be aware of language: it is precisely from here that be can begin to understand the true philosophical and aesthetic characteristics of the Chinese script.

Pound encountered Chinese characters when he borrowed Fenellosa’s notes, which led him to the translation of Classical Chinese poetry, and, further, led him to the creation of Imagism, and his own discovery of Eliot’s ‘invention’. As I see it, that word is a little ridiculous, and it would be preferable to say that it is high praise indeed. Faced with Chinese characters of such distinctiveness, characters so impossible to fit into western ideas of ‘grammar’, characters which, moreover, have yet to be fully and clearly explained by Chinese linguistics, if the poet doesn’t invent an understanding of them, what else can he possibly do? Pound’s most valuable contribution was his creative attitude to language. Starting from his poetic intuition, he parted the weeds on the Academy’s pond, reached down into the water, and produced treasures form the deep. His theory of images is the first ever to open up the Chinese script, allowing us to see the precise movements of the gear wheels inside these little black boxes which had been sealed for millennia. He wasn’t a sinologist, but he made them sweat, because he gave Chinese Studies its significance, that of opening up human wisdom. From Yeats on, all modern English poetry has benefited from the solidity and specificity of the image. Perhaps Robert Bly described it most accurately when he wrote, “All levels of abstract thought silently blend together”.

All my work in poetry can be seen as an effort to continue invention from images. From an early stage, when I invented my own character for the title of the long poem Yi, to the cycle Where the Sea Stands Still, to my latest English collection, Concentric Circles, the gene running through it all is the attempt to extend outward from the pictographic nature of the script through to the concept of space in image and in structure. Part Five of Concentric Circles is just as unintelligible to the Chinese reader. Here the inter-connectedness of the titles is purely pictographic/visual. I open up the word ‘poetry’ 詩 by using its three component parts (言, 土 and 寸, three independent characters), each of which is related to six other characters which use these three components as part of their form, and so I develop a poem cycle. Finally, the three poems which end three of the part of the book, all use the word ‘poetry’ 詩 to structure ‘the world in a character’. I had to ask Bloodaxe Books to print these Chinese characters, because it was the forms of the characters themselves which project a poetics where linguistics breaks through into reality. A ‘human condition’ which transcends the borders of China, leaps the limits of the Chinese language, and leaps the limits of the self, has no need of tense because it contains all tenses, an essentially pictographic script using ourselves as manuscript –

this place that never changes
only then does one collect the disaster of one’s own past

Concentric Circles

Yang Lian 2005
Translated by Brian Holton January 2006