Volume 13, Issue 2
  • ISSN 1932-2798
  • E-ISSN: 1876-2700
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In the Anglophone sphere, according to popular and most academic understandings, the term “ideograph” is regarded as an unproblematic synonym of 漢字 ‘Chinese character.’ On graphological grounds, i.e. as applied to writing systems, it can easily be shown that the concept of “ideograph” is both theoretically incoherent and practically unfeasible (McDonald 2016); while historically it is clear that the notion was founded on an imperfect understanding of Chinese characters as a writing system, and grew out of a European obsession with the notion of a “universal character” at a particular historical moment (Mungello 1985Saussy 2001). Nevertheless the concept has become deeply embedded in European understandings of Chinese language and culture, to the extent that it is, in effect, a valuable conceptual possession of Western modernity (Bush 2010), and promoted alike by those with a detailed knowledge of Chinese writing, such as H. G. Creel (1936), as by those in blissful ignorance of it, like Jacques Derrida (1967/1976). In the Sinophone sphere, while for most practical purposes, as well as in a large proportion of scholarly work, more grounded understandings of Chinese characters as a writing system operate either implicitly or explicitly, the traditional emphasis on characters as a link between civilization and the cosmos (O’Neill 2013), as well as a long tradition of pedagogical “just so stories” about the construction of individual characters (e.g., Zuo 2005), provide a key point of contact with Western notions of the “ideograph” as symbolizing not a word, but an idea or an object. The situation may thus be described involving a type of inversion of the phenomenon of or “false friends,” where two words are understood as being more or less synonymous; or alternatively as an example of Lydia Liu’s (2004) notion of a cross-lingual “supersign” where two comparable terms exercise an influence on each other across linguistic and cultural boundaries. This article will attempt to trace the genealogy of these complex and overlapping notions, and see what differing understandings of Chinese characters have to tell us about notions of cultural specificity, cultural production, and cross-cultural (mis-)communication in the contemporary globalized world.


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