The magic of Chinese characters

CHINESE CHARACTERS

The magic of Chinese characters

The written word, the Chinese characters, have had from their very origin, a magical meaning for the Chinese. There is no doubt that for them a character is not only a symbol of the concept it claims to represent but the object itself. We introduce here three small texts that show three different aspects of the magic attributed to Chinese characters

“Before taking the ancestor tablet to its final resting place in the ancestral temple, a ceremony called «putting the commas on the tablet» is held whereby the half-written characters on it seem to come to life. These ancestor tablets bear on their inner surface the character zhu 主, meaning «place where the spirit dwells.» The outer front surface, meanwhile, bears the characters shen wei 神位, meaning «place of the spirit.» When writing these inscriptions, neither the comma is written on top of the character for zhu nor on the wei. Completing these two characters by adding that missing stroke constitutes the consecration ceremony of the tablet.

In the midst of a family gathering and with elaborate formality a high-ranking mandarin takes a red brush writing the missing strokes in red and completing the two characters. Sometimes two ceremonies are performed, with mandarins of different grades officiating, one to complete the zhu character and the other the wei character. However the consecration is performed, the tablet then becomes the permanent abode of the spirit of the deceased”(1).

“Among the national characteristics of these people is the respect shown for the paper on which Chinese characters have been written, stamped, or printed. Chinese characters are sometimes referred to as «the eyes of the wise,» and sometimes as «the footprints that the wise have left behind them.» It is said that «if one protects or respects the eyes of the sages (i.e. the Chinese characters), it is the same as protecting one’s own eyes against the evil of blindness». The ashes of these papers are carefully placed in earthen pots and kept until a large quantity is collected. They are then transferred to baskets, in which they are carried in procession, in which the members of the society dealing with these matters take part, along the main streets of the city and its suburbs, to the river bank, where they are either deposited in the water, or allowed to float downstream to the ocean. Many think that, by reverencing the Chinese characters in this way, they only show the respect due to the ancient sages who invented them and who taught their use to mankind.» (2)

The characters were widely used as charms and talismans, it being believed that wearing any object with certain characters written on it could protect against evil spirits, or that even eating or drinking dissolved in water the ashes of a paper on which the relevant characters had been written could protect children and the elderly against illness.

The characters were also used in divination. A method of prognosis that consisted of dissecting the written characters into their parts and providing meaning.

«These soothsayers almost never open a store as such, but when they engage in this interpretation in a professional manner, they select a convenient place near some frequented street, and after spreading on the ground a paper on which the writing instruments are arranged, they remain looking for customers. They generally carry with them a small box containing a few folded sheets of paper, on the inside of each of which is written a Chinese character. When a customer arrives, he is instructed to take out at random two of these sheets, one after the other, which he will respectfully hand to the fortune teller. The fortune-teller opens them and takes note of the Chinese characters written on them, and then proceeds to dissect the Chinese characters by dividing them into the various parts of which they are composed. He will then relate these parts to the matter about which he has been consulted, making constant references to the different parts of the characters, before making his prognostication.» (3)

(1) James T. Addison. Chinese ancestor worship. 1925

(2) Doolittle, Justus. Social Life of the Chinese. Vol. II. 1865. P. 167.

(3) Doolittle, Justus. Social Life of the Chinese. Vol. II. 1865. P. 355

chinese character

Rebirth. Yes, many of these axe-marked projects are houses that reflect a simple, sometimes Spartan way of life that we foreigners have grown accustomed to seeing as part of a familiar landscape. For many families, the chai character on the door of their walls means that they will finally leave their rudimentary dwellings to participate, for once, in the progress that is spreading throughout the country. For others, it means that the hammer of speculators will strike their lives.

The eternal cycle of yin and yang. To die and to be reborn, are currently conjugated in this curious character.

Pedro Ceinos is the author of Manual de Escritura de los Caracteres Chinos, and other works on China.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The magic of Chinese characters," in Ethnic China, 10 abril 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/the-magic-of-chinese-characters/.

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