Dis­sect­ing lan­guage

Swedish Si­nol­o­gist tells of love for Chi­nese char­ac­ter

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at yangyang@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

When a friend, a mid­dle-aged Chi­nese man from Xi’an, heard that I was go­ing to meet Ce­cilia Lindqvist in Bei­jing last month, he told me to thank her be­cause both his chil­dren grew up read­ing Char­ac­ters King­dom.

The 84-year-old Swedish Si­nol­o­gist was in Bei­jing to re­ceive the Spe­cial Book Award of China.

In Swe­den, Lindqvist’s books on China have also won book awards.

Both Char­ac­ters King­dom, pub­lished in 1989, and Qin, pub­lished in 2006, have won the Au­gust Award.

And her lat­est book An­other World, pub­lished last year, won the Strind­berg Award.

Char­ac­ters King­dom has been trans­lated into 14 lan­guages, in­clud­ing Chi­nese.

A new edi­tion specif­i­cally for chil­dren came out re­cently, the eighth one since it was first pub­lished in China in 1998. And a new edi­tion of Qin will re­port­edly to come out soon.

An­other World, based on her life in Bei­jing in the early 1960s, has also been trans­lated into Chi­nese.

Al­though she now uses a walk­ing stick due to knee surgery, and was ex­hausted by a long and tight sched­ule when she was in Bei­jing re­cently, she was full of pas­sion when speak­ing at an event about Chi­nese char­ac­ters in her book, the guqin (a seven-stringed plucked in­stru­ment sim­i­lar to the zither) and her other ex­pe­ri­ences in China.

One of the writ­ten Chi­nese char­ac­ters she spoke about was (bam­boo).

First, she mim­icked the sound that is cre­ated when a strong wind blows through bam­boo.

Later, she says: “Bam­boo is very strong. When the wind blows, the bam­boo just leans. But big trees like oak fall be­cause they fight the wind. Bam­boo does not. The Chi­nese say when times are dif­fi­cult, lie low and wait, and bet­ter times will come.”

Lindqvist, who spoke mainly English pep­pered with­some Chi­nese, apol­o­gized to her lis­ten­ers that she could not speak Chi­nese as flu­ently as be­fore be­cause it was a long time since she had spo­ken the lan­guage.

Lindqvist’s in­ter­est in China was first sparked at the age of 5 or 6, when her mother showed her an oiled-paper um­brella brought to Swe­den by a friend from the Far East.

Later, dur­ing a nine-year pe­riod spent at univer­sity, she at­tended lec­tures by fa­mous Swedish Si­nol­o­gist Bern­hard Karl­gren on an­cient Chi­nese philoso­phers, such as Con­fu­cius and Laozi.

Karl­gren of­ten showed his stu­dents how a Chi­nese char­ac­ter was writ­ten on or­a­cle bones and bronze ware in an­cient times, and how the char­ac­ters had de­vel­oped through his­tory.

Karl­gren’s strong in­ter­est in the struc­ture of char­ac­ters in­flu­enced Lindqvist greatly.

So, in 1961, when Lindqvist’s hus­band was posted at the Swedish em­bassy in China, she trav­eled along and en­rolled in Pek­ing Univer­sity.

At the univer­sity, her Chi­nese teach­ers told her tomem­o­rize ev­ery­thing, in­stead of telling her why, so she tried to seek so­lu­tions her­self.

How­ever, her life changed when she started learn­ing to play the guqin at the Bei­jing Guqin Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion in a court­yard be­side theHuguo Tem­ple.

There were 11 masters there and she was the only stu­dent be­cause at that time the guqin was seen as out­dated.

Re­call­ing those masters, she says: “They were the most el­e­gant and cul­tured peo­ple I’ve ever met.”

In 1962, Lindqvist re­turned to Swe­den as her hus­band’s post­ing in China ended.

But, be­fore she left — in or­der to con­tinue study­ing the guqin in Swe­den— she bought a recorder from Hong Kong and the 11 teach­ers recorded 23 pieces of guqin mu­sic for her.

They also gave her a guqin from the Ming Dy­nasty (13681683) be­cause it was im­pos­si­ble to buy one any­where.

In 1971, Lin­qvist started teach­ing Chi­nese at a high school in Swe­den.

Like her teacher, Karl­gren, she told the stu­dents about the ori­gin, de­vel­op­ment and struc­ture of Chi­nese char­ac­ters by show­ing them pic­tures of or­a­cle bones and bronze scripts.

But dur­ing her teach­ing stint she of­ten found the ex­ist­ing ma­te­rial was very lim­ited and could not an­swer many of her ques­tions. So she kept a close eye on the new arche­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies then be­ing made in China.

In the 1970s and 1980s, China was on a build­ing spree, and many arche­o­log­i­cal sites were be­ing dis­cov­ered as the ground was be­ing ex­ca­vated for the new­struc­tures.

Lindqvist then re­turned to China to visit some of the sites to see how the newdis­cov­er­ies re­lated to her stud­ies.

She also trav­eled ex­ten­sively to dis­cover the ori­gins of char­ac­ters.

In the course of her trav­els, she even went to a silk fac­tory in Suzhou, the home­town of silk, and saw women there pro­duc­ing silk fiber from silk­worm co­coons that were im­mersed in wa­ter.

Re­call­ing her visit, she says: “I saw then how the an­cient char­ac­ter silk had evolved.”

Speak­ing about how the idea of writ­ing Char­ac­ters King­dom de­vel­oped, she says that, at first, she wanted to write an aca­demic book about char­ac­ters. “I thought I had found an in­ter­est­ing topic.” But grad­u­ally she found that aca­demic cir­cles did not re­ally “ap­pre­ci­ate what you’ve done. They just crit­i­cized what you got wrong.”

So, she — based on her teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence— wrote a book about 266 Chi­nese char­ac­ters with more than 500 pic­tures to show the ori­gin and de­vel­op­ment of the char­ac­ters.

A great sto­ry­teller, she be­gan the book with peo­ple, peo­ple’s faces and bod­ies, and then the places where they lived, the nat­u­ral sur­round­ings like moun­tains, rivers and forests. From there, she moved on to an­i­mals, wild and do­mes­ti­cated, such as dogs, sheep and horses.

The char­ac­ters in­cluded in the book range from those re­lated to clothes and ve­hi­cles to ar­chi­tec­ture.

“I chose char­ac­ters that in­ter­ested me, and through them I can tell a lot about Chi­nese cul­ture and peo­ple’s lives,” she says.

Some­times, she ex­plains the struc­tures of char­ac­ters from a mod­ern Western per­spec­tive, like in the cases of (slave) and (an­gry).

“con­sists of a woman and a hand, pos­si­bly im­ply­ing the woman has to do a lot of work at home. And , with a on a heart could re­flect the re­ac­tion of women to the life they were forced to live,” she writes in the book.

Lindqvist, who took 15 years to write the book, vis­ited China more than 50 times for re­search.

She saw Chi­nese char­ac­ters ev­ery­where. “All through, it was won­der­ful for me. It took a long time. But it has be­come some kind of a way of liv­ing,” she says.

I chose char­ac­ters that in­ter­ested me, and through them I can tell a lot about Chi­nese cul­ture and peo­ple’s lives.” Ce­cilia Lindqvist, Swedish Si­nol­o­gist


Swedish Si­nol­o­gist Ce­cilia Lindqvist’s Char­ac­ter­sKing­dom ex­plores Chi­nese char­ac­ters and their de­vel­op­ment. The book has been trans­lated into 14 lan­guages, and a new Chi­nese edi­tion (above) specif­i­cally for chil­dren came out re­cently.

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