ON THE CHAR­AC­TER

The im­por­tance of cred­i­bil­ity has to be seen to be be­lieved人无信不立

The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY LIU JUE (刘珏)

魅力汉字

One morn­ing circa 350 BCE, cit­i­zens of the cap­i­tal of Qin State—then based in Xianyang, Shaanxi prov­ince—gath­ered at the south gate of a mar­ket, mur­mur­ing at a 10-me­ter tall block of wood that had been erected overnight.

Be­side the wood was an an­nounce­ment from an of­fi­cial, stat­ing that any­one who could carry the block to the city’s north gate would be awarded 10 pieces of gold. The crowd couldn’t be­lieve such a sim­ple task could re­ceive so rich a re­ward. They all hes­i­tated to make a

move. Soon, the re­ward was raised to 50 pieces of gold, a sum high enough to fi­nally tempt one man to step for­ward, load the wood onto his back, and march to the north gate. As the crowd watched, the man, to his own ev­i­dent as­ton­ish­ment, was im­me­di­ately pre­sented with the 50 gold pieces as promised.

The point was: There was no catch. The whole ex­er­cise was to mea­sure and es­tab­lish the idea of “cred­i­bil­ity” among the pub­lic, to pre­pare them for a new law in the War­ring State Pe­riod (475 BCE – 221 BCE), mas­ter­minded by renowned Qin states­man Shang Yang (商鞅). Shang was re­spon­si­ble for many of the re­forms that ul­ti­mately led the Qin to trans­form a dis­parate col­lec­tion of war­ring states into China’s first uni­fied em­pire. The tale of the wood is called 立木取信( l#m& q^x#n, “erect wood to win trust”), and is now one of China’s most fa­mous his­tor­i­cal fa­bles.

Whether it’s an­cient times or the mod­ern day, trust and cred­i­bil­ity es­sen­tially form the fabric of so­ci­ety. The Chi­nese char­ac­ter for “cred­i­bil­ity” is 信 ( x#n). Its form is rather self­ex­plana­tory: on the left is 亻, the “peo­ple” rad­i­cal, and on the right is 言, mean­ing “words”—to­gether, they sug­gest a per­son speak­ing hon­est words.

The orig­i­nal mean­ing of 信 is “hon­est” or “truth­ful”. An early ex­am­ple was the id­iom 信誓旦旦 ( x#nsh# d3nd3n), which means “to pledge or prom­ise in all sin­cer­ity and se­ri­ous­ness.” First used in the Clas­sic of Po­etry《诗经》( ), the id­iom de­scribes an abused woman re­call­ing how her hus­band of three years had vowed solemnly to love her be­fore their wed­ding. Still in use to­day, this id­iom is usu­ally ap­plied in the neg­a­tive, with the con­no­ta­tion that such prom­ises were not kept.

Pretty words are not al­ways truth­ful; in­deed, the truth can of­ten be ugly, as stated in the say­ing from the clas­sic Daoist text, Daode­jing《道德经》( ): “信言不美,美言不信”( x#n y1n b& m0i, m0i y1n b% x#n; “truth­ful words are un­pleas­ant, while pleas­ant words are not truth­ful”).

Those who speak truth­fully and al­ways keep their prom­ises are able to main­tain cred­i­bil­ity among their au­di­ence. Thus 信 later took on the mean­ing of “cred­i­bil­ity.” Keep­ing your prom­ise is 守信 ( sh6ux#n, “keep cred­i­bil­ity”), while break­ing faith is 失信 ( sh~x#n, “lose cred­i­bil­ity”). When it comes to the im­por­tance of be­ing hon­est and hon­or­able, one can ex­pect a lec­ture from the likes of Con­fu­cius, who of­fers wis­dom such as “Al­ways keep your prom­ises among friends” (与朋友交,言而有信 y^ p9ngyou ji`o, y1n 9r y6u x#n), and “Prom­ises must be kept, and ac­tion must be res­o­lute” (言必信,行必果y1n b# x#n, x!ng b# gu6).

In the mod­ern day, we could hardly op­er­ate with­out 信用 ( x#ny7ng, credit, cred­i­bil­ity), es­pe­cially in the fi­nan­cial world: We have credit cards (信用卡 x#ny7ngk2), credit unions (信用社 x#ny7ngsh-), credit loans (信贷 x#nd3i), and trust (信托 x#ntu4). Busi­ness has to be built on rep­u­ta­tion and pres­tige, 信誉 ( x#ny&).

Cred­i­bil­ity en­gen­ders trust, there­fore, 信can also mean “trust, be­lieve,” as in the ver­b信任 ( x#nr-n, “trust”) and 相信 ( xi`ngx#n, “to be­lieve”). Re­li­gious faith is 信仰 ( x#ny2ng), while su­per­sti­tions are 迷信 ( m!x#n), which means “con­fused be­lief.” On the other hand, con­fi­dence, which is to be­lieve in your­self, is 自信 ( z#x#n).

The char­ac­ter 信 can also be a to­ken of trust, or a form of cre­den­tial. Let­ters are some­times re­ferred to as 信, be­cause they carry trusted mes­sages from one per­son to an­other (such as the con­fi­den­tial memos sent to em­per­ors). Along this line, 信 can also re­fer to mes­sages, news, and “in­for­ma­tion,” which is信息 ( x#nx~).

Liv­ing in the In­for­ma­tion Age, in the midst of a boom in the IT in­dus­try (信息产业x#nx~ ch2ny-), cred­i­bil­ity and trust are more im­por­tant than ever. Tech­nol­ogy con­stantly changes the way we con­duct ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties, from mak­ing a sim­ple pur­chase to man­ag­ing our per­sonal fi­nances. So it’s per­haps a good time to keep in mind one last mean­ing of 信: “ca­su­ally, at will,” as in 信口开河 ( x#n k6u k`i h9, “talk ir­re­spon­si­bly”) and 信马由缰 ( x#n m2 y5u ji`ng, “to ride a horse with lax reins and let the horse go where it pleases”). This speaks of the con­se­quences of blind trust.

From a piece of wood that helped bring an­cient China to­gether to the mod­ern build­ing blocks of our so­ci­ety, 信 is a char­ac­ter that is more mean­ing­ful to­day than ever.

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