The Profound Chinese Language (Episode 6): Human

Da Qiong (Colossal Firmament)

PureInsight | January 9, 2006


An opening poem recitation by a group of children:

Where did the mankind come from?
Saying that the man had evolved from ape is a wild guess.
It was clearly recorded that the gods created humankind.
Humankind is the most prosperous when in harmony with Heaven,
People are wasting time when they pursue fame and self-interest.
They will have a wonderful future when they return to their true selves.
When a person constantly keeps the thought of Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance in his mind,
He will become a healthy man glowing with smiles.

Narrator: Mr. Wang enters the classroom with an old book in his hand.

Ying Ying: Mr. Wang, what is the book in your hand? Why does it look so beat up?

Mr. Wang: You have to forgive its appearance because it is 84 years old! It is my grandfather's Chinese textbook from back when he was in the first grade of elementary school. It is very interesting!

Yuan Yuan: Mr. Wang, may we have a look at the book please?

Mr. Wang: Sure! This will help broaden your horizons.

Ying Ying: Wow! The content is so simple. It teaches only one Chinese character in lesson one --- human. The character has only two simple strokes. If only I were born in your grandfather's times, I wouldn't have so much homework.

Mr. Wang: The Chinese character for human is very easy to write, but human beings are the most complicated creatures on earth. There is a Taiwanese idiom, "One type of rice nourishes countless types of people." There are all kinds of people in the world. No two people look exactly the same. There are even different races of people. An ancient Chinese painter once commented, "It is easier to paint an incorporeal ghost than a human being." While it might be a challenge to paint a complete portrait of a human being, the ancient Chinese people used only two simple strokes in the Chinese character for "human being." Human beings are the most complicated creatures on earth, but the character for "human being" is the easiest to write in Chinese. It is both pretty to look at and easy to write. The profound Chinese written language has never ceased to amaze me. This is an excellent illustration of an essential characteristic of the Chinese culture --- using the most simple, elegant solution to solve the most complicated problem. The Chinese language is perfect!

Ying Ying: Mr. Wang, but I don't think this character looks like a human being at all.

Mr. Wang: I agree with you. The character for human in modern handwriting no longer resembles a human being. However, we must not make judgment on any Chinese character based on its modern form alone just like we shouldn't pass judgment on anyone based on his one-time behavior. Let's now look at the evolution of the character for human being, starting with the oracle-bone inscriptions.

Narrator: Let's look at the Chinese character for human in oracle-bone inscriptions. Doesn't it look just like a standing man in side view? It has a human head on top, a stroke on the left to represent his arms and the other stroke extended from his head to represent his body and legs. To be specific, it looks like a bowing man. Some variations have a longer stroke for the arms; others have a shorter one. Some variations portray the arms on the left; others on the right. There are different variations for the character because there are different types of people in the world. But they all share something in common: all the variations portray a standing, bowing man in side view. The character for human in Chinese Small Seal writing looks like an even more humble man whose arms also touch the ground. Why did the ancient Chinese people want to make man bow? I suppose they wanted to encourage everyone to be more humble and polite?

Ying Ying: I didn't realize two simple strokes are so rich in meaning!

Mr. Wang: Children, the rich meanings in the character for human have shown us our predecessors' thoughtfulness. From now on when we encounter anything unpleasant or conflict, why don't we reflect upon ourselves to identify our own inadequacies first? We may as well take a polite bow and apologize, and then all the conflicts will disappear into thin air.

Grandpa Brush Pen: Children, do you find the Chinese character for human interesting? Next time we will introduce an even more interesting character!

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