Characters: Lothar Ledderose’s “China writes differently”. Review. – Culture

“Everything came into being through the word and dwelt among us,” we learned from the evangelist. But in what form the word set up a dwelling, how it was and is recorded in writing, whether painted, printed, scratched or knotted, the world cultures found fundamentally different techniques for this.

The Heidelberg sinologist and art historian Lothar Ledderose, a world-renowned representative of his guild, has now described the path that Chinese culture has taken to preserve its words in an essay that is as slim as it is compact and highly readable. Writing has always and everywhere been much more than the flat collection and transmission of data. But none other than Chinese culture has created such a complex system in which writing embodies the highest values ​​of social order, aesthetics and transcendence.

Under a headline by Mao Zedong: The “People’s Daily” from Beijing.

(Photo: fengxiaolin/imago images/Imaginechina-Tuchon)

This began more than 3,300 years ago with the interpretation of signs in the so-called oracle bones, which opened up access to the afterlife. This is still evident today in the importance of the art of calligraphy, which of course is also the very personal characteristic of each person who writes. Because every sign is, to put it mildly, always also a possession, or at least the claim to it. Ledderose provides numerous examples of this throughout Chinese history. He finds one of the most apt ones from recent times in the Beijing People’s Daily, the organ of the Chinese Communist Party, whose title has appeared in Mao Zedong’s unmistakable handwriting since the newspaper was founded more than 70 years ago.

The order, the structure of these signs has to be learned. If the students of a “Western” alphabet, regardless of whether Greek, Cyrillic, Etruscan or Roman letters, get by with little more than twenty individual forms, in Chinese, where each word is expressed by its own character, there are several thousand or more symbols . This cannot be learned in just a few elementary school classes, it requires a longer exercise full of deprivation and peppered with some disgusting punishments. Its main focus is initially on dull copying, i.e. on the constant and stupid repetition of patterns, since the sequence of each stroke of the sign is also binding. You don’t have to be a behavioral scientist to draw conclusions about different forms of socialization in children and their fears of authority.

These authorities, and this has always been the case in China, are the social and political elites. Outside of the imperial family, birth nobility usually played a pleasingly minor role in the long term. Biblically speaking, the measure of order was the scribe. Only a tiny fraction of the population could read, let alone write. This has improved by a few worlds today, but fundamentally little has changed in the digital world either. “The stability of its writing system,” writes Ledderose, “ensures China’s cultural coherence.” Whatever that means for this arrangement.

Lothar Ledderose: "China writes differently": undefined

It was, and ultimately will remain, the signs on the walls that proclaim the crucial messages. The signs of the rulers and often also the signs of the politically rebellious. “Fear nothing, only fear the wall newspapers” was one of the oppressive slogans during the so-called “Cultural Revolution” 60 years ago. Those were the evil writings on the wall

But China also knows peaceful conquest through the power of signs. In a massive project at the Heidelberg Academy, Ledderose and his Chinese colleagues researched how the advance of Buddhism into China can be traced over the centuries in texts carved into mountain walls. It is a celebration of faith and at the same time a monumental work of calligraphy. And even leading representatives of the Chinese Communist Party, die-hard atheists, have been making efforts to go to the “sacred mountains” of Shandong province in the last few decades to put their names and comments next to sacred texts. Politicians are always drawn to places of immortality.

In its little more than 100 pages, Ledderose directs our attention to central aspects of Chinese culture that have no place in the daily business of news. Enlightening, enriching, arousing curiosity. One wishes it on many desks of decision makers.

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