1. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    trouble with appreciating foreign lit

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Mckk, Sep 24, 2014.

    Does anyone else have trouble getting into or appreciating foreign literature?

    I'm basically trying to brush up on my Chinese and my dad bought me this crime mystery book from HK. It's by a well-known author and many of his books have been turned into TV drama in HK. His books are highly praised. And my dad, who's rather into Chinese Lit, tells me this author is an excellent writer with beautiful grasp of the language.

    And I'm reading it and I'm like, "You've got to be kidding me. The sheer amount of infodump!!"

    And I keep wondering - is it simply a different style? That good writing looks different in another language/culture to how I've learnt to identify a good story or good writing in English? Some of the things are also a little implausible - which I suspect is a genre thing. I also think there's a chance I'm translating everything into English, which makes it sound more absurd than it might be...

    So is it a cultural difference I'm facing? Anyone else have a similar experience when they first started reading literature in a different language?
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2014
  2. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    It is indeed a cultural difference, it very often is, but that's ok - that is part of the fun of exploring a different culture's literature. Maybe this writer just doesn't cut it for you, but you must also keep in mind Chinese literature is based on a very different literary philosophy than we have in the west.

    Its why I find Murakami's success so interesting, because he is so inspired by American post-modern fiction, and is in effect a one-man Japanese reaction to it. Because the Japanese literary establishment is very traditional and nationalistic - actually almost offensively Japanese. The Chinese have a worse reputation for it, but both China and Japan have very nationalistic and xenophobic cultures.

    In a way it's like reading Shakespeare. Shakespeare's modern English is different to Old English, but still his culture was a totally other culture to our own. I would suspect no one tries to write in Shakespeare's style anymore, but at the time his style was very much the regular style. Just, again, as how 19th century novels like Dickens or George Eliot has more focus on description and long ornate sentences when compared to the modern tastes, which has been shaped by the 'stripped' Modernism that came up around the first world war.
     
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  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    You should read more than one author before drawing any conclusions. Maybe you just came across an author you don't like. It happens.

    That being said, it's true that there are cultural/stylistic differences. I've read a lot of Chinese poetry (in translation), and there are some things that a Western reader wouldn't "get" unless he first learned about the culture/way of thinking (this is especially true for Zen poems/koans). I don't think these differences are as apparent in novels; from my experience, novels by both Eastern and Western writers are fairly similar as far as form is concerned. Poetry is really where the differences are obvious.
     
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  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    That is also true, it could simply be the writer's style. Some writers in English write the most flowery-prose to ever pollinate modern novels, but still that is generally seen as a bad thing, where Chinese aesthetics are I've heard more geared towards what we would consider Romantic.
     
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  5. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I remember reading somewhere about the difference between Eastern and Western styles of storytelling, I think it was in 'The Writer's Journey". Eastern is slower, more philosophical, and they like circular or ambiguous endings. I'm probably butchering the fine points, but apparently there is a difference. Or maybe you just don't like that particular writer? I'm sure there are others who are better suited.

    I love foreign lit, because my native language isn't spoken by many people, so by default most literature I read is 'foreign'. And far from being mostly from English-speaking writers. But translations are most important, unless you speak the writer's native language (as you do in this case).
     
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  6. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Slower is certainly the case, more philosophical could be debated.

    The Chinese literary tradition was for a long time consciously based on the philosophy of Confucius, and this doesn't change until the introduction of Buddhism, and then in the last century Marxism. Christianity has been only a marginal influence since European 'interests' in China. That means there is over 2,000 years of Confucius being the only major philosophical principle for Chinese literature to follow. Even today, PhD literature students are required to know the Analects by heart, from memory.

    In the west it's a little different, because while we were late to have comprehensive philosophies develop, we have had more of them. So by the time of the fall of Rome you had things as diverse as Epicurianism, New Platonism, Soclasticism, Christianity, blah blah blah.

    None of this is counting revisionist readings, like saying Penelope in The Odyssey is a Feminist hero, of course.

    Slower, though, yes it is. Romance of the Three Kingdoms has as a complete version literally just less than half of it essentially repeating of material of armies going to villages and killing or gathering men, on and on. The first thing in The Iliad is the focus hero, Achilles, throws a strop, and then after Book 2 (which is just a listing of the Achaean army) you are thrown straight into the battle in Book 3.
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2014
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  7. bakinpowder
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    bakinpowder Member

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    Language can be a barrier but there's a perplexity about it. Mostly it should be fun to translate. The test of translation gives away some level of geographic durability of the piece that can be anchored into the literature. Not purely context or specific cultural traits but you'll find when certain thought bubbles just feel foreign. Literature can be good when it's mainly depending on residence and inheritance of the writer, but a real artist writes pieces as if they'd surpass limitation of expression by any means (albeit through those means). If you master this, you might be able to write different styles that would adapt to some areas in the world better on purpose, no matter your native tongue.
     
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  8. Mckk
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    @bakinpowder - that's interesting about translation. Occasionally I have fun trying to translate Chinese song lyrics, when I feel the wording is particularly pretty. Perhaps if I did that for the book I'm reading, I might come to appreciate it. My Chinese is honestly not good enough for me to be able to tell when something's literary Chinese - of course you recognise poetic tropes, but that's different to being able to differentiate beautiful writing from ordinary writing from bad writing.

    With this book - it's just sometimes the phrases, when translated, sound really off. It doesn't work in English, and maybe that's the problem for me. I'm trying to make the sentence as it stands work in English and well, it just doesn't.

    But my objections are actually less the language and more the story-telling itself. For example, the MC gets on a taxi just to realise it's being driven by some old enemies of his, obviously wanting trouble. But the MC is such a criminal mastermind that he's not afraid at all (and right now I feel like the people are too perfect - they're SO excellent at what they do that there's no one else like them, that kinda thing) - and then for the next 3 pages it's describing how he did this and that (to show his excellence). And then partway through this, it sorta goes further backwards. Now it's talking about the beginning of the evening when he received this call - but it's not a flashback, it's an entire actual narrative.

    And I'm like, "So when's the story gonna actually start...? No, not more background!"

    Things are happening - it's just definitely not the present lol.

    I think the excellence thing is an Asian thing, so I think I'm just gonna have to accept it. So the MC is a force to be reckoned with - but so is this mysterious guy, who's also EXCELLENT at what he does. And the MC's with this girl he's just met at a night club, and she's BEAUTIFUL, but the MC doesn't even care. (again, I feel like it's playing on a lot of cliches - but from my experience of watching Chinese drama, like I say, this really could be an Asian thing)

    So I tried to translate a bit of description - I'm getting the sense that perhaps it's more of a storyteller. I'm getting that maybe it's the repetition and the explanation of the obvious that irks me... but now that I've translated it, it doesn't read like it's so bad.

    I'm also wondering if it's seeing writing tropes with fresh eyes and they jump out more in a different language. Like, if I read exactly the same thing written in elegant English, let's say, would I really be bothered by it, or would I gloss over it?

    So, I tried to translate the meaning primarily - there were definitely instances of poetry that just didn't really translate:

    This isn't like, "literature" like Shakespeare is literature - I think it's just something more like, say, Harry Potter. A cultural phenomenon but written to a higher linguistic standard. I'm not good enough at Chinese to read proper lit. unfortunately! @Lemex - does the translation above fit into what you know of Chinese Lit being "slower" perhaps? Any patterns?

    Incidentally, this is the first time I've ever tried to read a Chinese book! Previously it's all been comics. I got into reading only after I emigrated, which means when it comes to novels, I've always read English.
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2014
  9. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Lemex : I always think, they have over 4000 years of continuous civilisation (with government, administration, culture etc) we have 2000. They considered us savages for a lot of our history, rightfully so. I wonder if the kind of variety we in the West have in terms of philosophy is the maturation process that they went through a long time ago. We think we are advanced, and we are, technologically, but we have nothing on the Chinese (and possibly Hindus, but they've been devastated by the colonisation) in terms of understanding and wisdom of how the world, nature, government, war etc works. The philosophy of Tao is probably the most profound I came across.
     
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  10. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    It's honestly impossible to tell. There is not enough of it to really say - but that sort of style does feel quite focused on minute details, which is rather typical of the Chinese poetry I have read, like Li Po and Tu Fu. But the same sort of style can be found in certain modern short story stylists, as it is a good way to denote tiredness, or very careful, precision action.

    There is a certain atmosphere to it though! I must admit, it did have be fixed on it.

    @bakinpowder also has some great observations on the translation process.

    I think it might be, and that we saw our verity of philosophies, different to them is down to the fact that the Chinese had a large, centralized culture, while we had many different cultures that sprung up, were conquered, morphed and changed, almost in a Hegelian Dialectical way. Aside from the mongols, China's wars were mostly internal, civil wars. Japan and it's Shinto philosophy with it's more feudal Shoguns were only across the sea but the Chinese did not seem to care.

    It's amazing how they got along apparently so relatively peacefully. Europe, instead, has had it's fair share of sea-based empires.

    I personally think they seem to have understood the wisdom of the world, because something like the Analects is either cultural tradition, or good sense for building a civilized world. All the other philosophical questions proposed by life was worked out along these essential Confucian/Taoist lines. It might be wrong to suggest the ancient Chinese were secular, but does seem they were religiously adaptable with their ancestor worship.
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2014
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  11. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Nope, no trouble. Maybe you've read wrong books or need to approach them somehow differently?

    If I can, I read the novel in its original language, but that's not always possible as I can only read 3 languages + 1 very slowly. :( So I've had to read translations of Russian, Polish, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Icelandic, and German novels. I haven't noticed huge story-telling differences to be honest, though it might also be due to the novels I have read. I actually haven't read my two favorite novels, Dina's Book and Ég heiti Ísbjörg, ég er ljón in their original languages at all. The former I've read in English and Finnish, and the latter only in Finnish. With the former, it feels like it's a tad more distant American and British novels, and there's a bit more telling, maybe. Isbjörg is similar to a lot of first person stream-of-consciousness type of literature you're bound to find in English as well. Though in both it is actually common to leave the "like" out of similes, though that could also be a coincidence.

    I was reading Dumas side-by-side in English and French, and those translations felt to my unskilled brain equally captivating -- and wordy! I'm not entirely sure, but I felt a bit like the French original was more cheeky, but I'm not sure. Plus I haven't finished that endeavor yet.

    When I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Swedish, I felt like it took off slower than e.g. an American or British crime novels would. But again, I'm not entirely sure 'cause I don't read a lot of those, and I've also read pretty much every novel by Jonas Gardell -- also Swedish -- and they progress fast. Same with his fellow-Swede Mikael Niemi.

    Come to think of it, Scandinavian (and even Finnish) authors tend to be a bit more naughty with their writing. Sex is treated in a relaxed, natural way in many of the novels I've read in comparison to some general fiction from the UK and US. And even those that discuss sex have often not done in that as realistic, gritty way as e.g. Mikael Niemi.

    I've read Russian sci-fi a bit, and there's been a similar sense of realism and grittiness to them as well, I think. But it's different than with Joe Abercrombie's or Brent Weeks' titles. It's hard to explain, really. Sometimes I feel like the likes of Abercrombie and Weeks try too hard. I can't vouch for this, and in general I've enjoyed British and American titles better, but I haven't much to complain about those Russian or Polish works I've read, either.

    Now if we were to talk about graphic novels, the French wipe the floor with American or British titles -- even manga titles. Sorry. :p

    So yeah, I think there's a lot out there to explore, so I would just dig deeper if I were you. I'm sure there're good Chinese titles too. :) I may have even read some, I'll have to check my bookshelf...
     
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  12. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You guys are making me think I should find out more about Chinese philosophy lol.

    @Lemex - so the writing captured you? :) it does have a certain charm now I think a bit more about it. Maybe it's more a case of not being used to it. It has this ring to it like a really good storyteller is relaying a particularly delicious tale, like, "Ah, but you see, what he doesn't know..." if you get me :D you know, since you seem to have read Chinese Lit - got any recommendations? I don't like too much philosophy but enjoy philosophy that's brought out in the events of a story.

    And it just occurred to me - maybe the detail stems from the fact that in Chinese we have compound words, which we can drop half of. Imagine "water lily" but I would only say "lily", for example. So if you combined say 4 compound words together - you really have 8 meanings, 4 from the root of the word, which are spoken, and the other 4 which have been dropped, unspoken, but the implication remains. So you say a whole host of things in only 4 words, which is each 1 syallable.

    Then try translating that into English lol. The only way it wouldn't sound ridiculous would be to turn a 4-worded clause into maybe 2-3 long sentences lol, which is likely to make reading feel more laboured.

    @KaTrian - let me know what you end up reading re Chinese Lit! Maybe I could read it too :D

    The only classic author I know is this guy who writes in the martial hero genre. The Chinese of that one is way, way out of my league but his books are modern - the guy's still alive I think.

    His name is Jin Yong. Wiki says he's the best selling Chinese author alive and I just found out his works have been translated into English!?! Ok I'm sooo gonna try and find that!
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2014
  13. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad) is the first book I tried to read in a language other than English.

    In the first chapter, there is a paragraph with over 800 words. There is even a sentence with at least 100 words. Fuck that.
     
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  14. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Hahaha that reminds me of the time I tried to read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment! I was so bored but I told myself - lets just read to the end of the paragraph.

    3 pages later I was like: where the hell is the end of the paragraph!!?

    I flicked through the book and found the end 5 more pages later :D that's when I said: screw it, I give up!

    That guy needs to learn to paragraph... haha
     
  15. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is how I feel every time I sit down to work. The length of sentences in Spanish can leave you with a kind of somatoform longing to stop and draw in a breath, even when reading silently. o_O
     
  16. bakinpowder
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    This is an interesting phenomenon that is a sign of sophistication. I'm sure there is a name for it but it happens in other languages, I bet with each their own take on it. See how I said 'it' but in this case the word means nine words. We can only look down on differences so much, that at some point we can only get wiser by looking at the contrast in relation to what we're used to.
     
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  17. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Mckk :
    This reminds me of Tao Te Ching, the basis for philosophy of taoism, it's a beautiful, ancient text that I got to read in it's best translation, which basically tried to present it in as pure a form as possible (without unnecessary explanations of what those words mean etc). Another one that always spins me out is a Chinese character 子 (zi). I know it as Rat, Yang Water (and all that goes with it), it's one of the characters used in Chinese metaphysics, and yet, I see it everywhere in written Chinese :) .
     
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  18. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Do! I think a study of philosophy can hugely aid any writer. :)

    A few. Chinese Lit is not my field at all, you have to keep in mind. I'm on another forum, dedicated to literature, and there is an expert in Chinese Literature on there. I know a lot of what I know on the subject purely because of him.

    Analects of Confucius (for the philosophical grounding)
    Journey to the West
    Romance of the Three Kingdoms (I'm always advised to read it abridged first)

    And to be honest, I mostly know the poetry so:

    Li Po and Tu Fu (they are always put together, they were great friends and their work reflects each other s well
    Chu Ci
    Wang Wei

    That would be a good start without spending too much money on books. If you want a more comprehensive list, I'll let the expert I mentioned above speak for himself: http://www.online-literature.com/forums/showthread.php?78860-A-Chinese-Reading-List&highlight=

    I can't add much more too @bakinpowder's excellent post. But the same thing can be found most obviously in Anglo-Saxon poetry. They were fond of euphemisms, and so would refer to the sea as the 'whale road', which to me evokes a great number of specific images, from the lighter parts of the sea you see when you are so far out (they really do look like motorways at times) to the more obvious image of the whale. Whenever I read that phrase, I image a whale's tail sinking into the deep water.
     
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  19. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    鼠 means mouse/rat.
    子 is traditionally "son". However, it's often used after nouns to mean... I'm not too sure lol :D an object or living thing perhaps.

    孩子 means child or children, where 孩 is the root that specifically means "child".

    My Chinese app tells me 子 is also simply a noun suffix.

    You can have 兔子 where 兔 is the root that means "rabbit".

    Or 帽子 which means hat and 帽 is the root.

    And you can basically replace "rabbit" with a whole host of other roots.

    Other times I think 子 is put with a person sometimes to indicate that they are young, eg a youth. But I'm not 100% on this lol.

    Honestly I don't think I've ever given that word much thought! :D
     
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  20. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Crikey that list is huge!! I always think it's such a shame my parents didn't see any point in teaching us Chinese that now my level is that of a secondary school teen, vastly lower than my grasp of written English. Would love to actually get lessons but I'm not sure how I'd find such a thing, esp as I would like it in Cantonese, not Mandarin, first.

    Whale road sounds awesome! But do we still write like that now?

    @bakinpowder - what you said is indeed insightful! It's true it's tempting to look down on differences, and I've never thought of the word 'it' as anything sophisticated, but put the way you did and it sounds rather intricate. Again, it may be a case of my taking English completely for granted that I missed it, and also take English thinking and the western style of story-telling as the norm or 'only right way' of telling something that I now struggle with the book I'm reading. Gonna push through it :) after rereading the same parts over and over (cus of discussing it here and the trnalsation), I think I'm growing fond of it lol.
     
  21. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Yeah, I know. But it's got to be remembered that that is almost 4,000 years of literature. By comparison, our literature is only 3,000 years old if you don't count Gilgamesh - and few people do. And how scary is our western canon when you look at it with completely fresh eyes!

    The conventions have changed, and it wasn't until modern poets began to reappraise these things that these phrases have started to reappear. Like with Seamus Heaney using the phrase 'Ban Haus' as the title of a poem, which is the Anglo-Saxon phrase for 'Bone house', for the human body.

    These conventions were effectively lost for a long time, because critics either couldn't read the Anglo-Saxon texts, or for some reason treated them as purely historical texts and not literature. Because they were idiots, apparently. So don't worry, even professional readers have problems with reading another culture's literature. :D
     
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  22. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Mckk : That's really interesting! Also, I see the sign for 'hai' 亥 (Pig, yin water) quite a lot, like in your 'children' example, and both zi and hai are water elements, it's interesting that they are associated with life and youth. Son might correspond to Ren Water area in feng shui, I don't know bagua off by heart, but I wouldn't be surprised. It is these types of connections that native speakers can make, to deepen the understanding of five elements. However, I haven't learned how to actually write properly, the order of strokes, and that can make all the difference I've been told.

    In BaZi and Traditional Chinese Medicine the so called 'earthly branches' (versions of five elements in yin and yang polarity) are represnted by symbols for astrological signs/animals. Most if these have a dominant energy, but consist of several different ones (like for example Wei Goat is mainly Yin Earth, as per below, but it also stores Yi Yin Wood chi, and has also Ding Fire in it, but only a little)

    (zi) - RatYangWater, 丑 (chou) - Ox, YinEarth, (yin) - Tiger YangWood, (mao) - Rabbit, YinWood, (chen) - Dragon YangEarth, (si) - SnakeYinFire, (wu) - Horse YangFire, (wei) - Goat YinEarth, (shen) Monkey YangMetal, (you) - Rooster YinMetal, (xu) - DogYangEarth, (hai) - Pig YinWater.

    Heavenly stems, or pure yin or yang energy of elements is represented by some really old pictorial signs, but again, I think a lot of them are incorporated into written Chinese

    甲 - Jia Yang Wood, 乙 - Yi Yin Wood, 丙 - Bing Yang Fire,丁 - Ding Yin Fire, 戊 Wu Yang Earth, 己 Ji Yin Earth, 庚 - Geng Yang Metal, 辛 - Xin Yin Metal, 壬 - Ren Yang Water and 癸 - Gui Yin Water.

    Many of these are beautifully pictorial, how Gui looks like a man with raindrops falling on him, Geng like a warrior with a shield and a sword, Jia like a tall tree etc,
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2014
  23. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @jazzabel - crikey I think you know much more than me. I left HK long before they started teaching about the meaning of the specific units. I don't think a lot of native Chinese would necessarily know some of this stuff either.

    But one interesting thing I noted from your post. These symbols below that you listed were used in school as grades :D

    甲 - A grade (the best)
    乙 - B
    丙 - nobody wanted this grade, basically a C but it's like, really bad lol. You could call somebody this and it would be an insult, like you're stupid or a nobody I think.
    丁 - it's a joke to get this grade lol. I think - not sure - but this could also indicate being a nobody. Usually a person of low rank.

    In terms of day to day usage anyway,
    己 = self
    未 = not yet
    午 = noon
    甲 = other than used as a school grade, I know it as meaning "nail" or "shell". My Chinese app tells me it also means "first", so it makes sense it was used as the top grade in school lol.
     
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  24. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is really fascinating! Bing Fire is a third heavenly stem, so it makes sense that it's a C but Bing Fire is a person that brings light into people's lives, like big illumination, Einstein was Bing Fire person, for example. Ding (D) is more like a candle illuminating the way, so philosophers, psychologists, therapists, that sort of thing, helping others see in the dark. Jia, which was A is Yang Wood, associated with learning, books, academic performance so it makes sense.

    Thank you for the meanings also, Wu Horse sign meaning 'noon' is apt, because it is Wu Horse hour. Very interesting, I wish I could speak Chinese now :D
     
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  25. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    This conversation makes me wish I knew more about Mandarin as a language. I've only read this Chinese literature in translation, and I know full well what can be lost even in a good translation. :(

    *Lemex is jealous*
     
    jazzabel and Mckk like this.

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