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Deciphering

232 words

While I don’t know any East Asian language I keep being fascinated by their writing systems. But they’re somewhat non-trivial to handle, particularly if you don’t know the language.

I was curious whether the Chinese characters on my boss’ guest tea mug mean anything in particular or whether they just picked some vaguely interesting characters to amuse the Westerners buying them. So I copied the signs down and wanted to look them up. But how do you look up a character if you don’t have a dictionary. Or if – in the computer’s character palette – do have a kind of dictionary but only have a rather vague understanding of how things are sorted in that dictionary (by some ‘base’ glyph and then the complexity of the whole glyph, at least in the Japanese one, a pointer to an explanation how this works exactly will be appreciated).

And while finding the glyphs I had among the thousands of glyphs available was actually feasible and not as bad as I feared it might turn out, it still was way more of an effort than looking things up in a Western dictionary.

So here I am with three characters:

萬 無 疆

which according to the Unihan database (conveniently provided by your favourite Unicode utility, of course) could mean things like 10000/innumerable, negative/no/not/lack and boundary/frontier respectively. Which, to me, doesn’t make much sense.

September 2, 2007, 23:56

Comments

Comment by adb: User icon

I’ve seen these characters, along with one other character (福, fortune) on the plates at a local Chinese restaurant. 萬 is a variant of 万 (10,000), 無 is “not” or “without,” 福 is “fortune,” and 疆 is not in my dictionary, though 彊 is. My instinct is that these are some sort of special Chinese thing in which the characters have some special meaning when put together, emphasizing or promoting some sort of idea or philosophy. My specialty is Japanese, not Chinese. Perhaps if you ask someone who knows Chinese outright they will be able to explain it thoroughly.

September 4, 2007, 3:07

Comment by wvh: User icon

The system for looking up characters based on a certain component is called “Radical and stroke sorting”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical-and-strokesorting#Radical-and-strokesorting

Those characters, except for the second one, are strictly Chinese, so I can’t help you out with their meaning or lack thereof; my expertise is in Japanese only.

September 4, 2007, 3:15

Comment by Dave2: User icon

Japanese has “alphabet” characters known as Hiragana (to spell words of Japanese origin) and Katakana (to spell words of foreign origin). Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet equivalent, so sometimes their characters are used for their sound, not for their meaning. So, while “ten thousand endless” could be a phrase or saying that has meaning to somebody who understands Chinese, it could very well be something else entirely.

Also, for future reference, characters are looked up by their stroke count or (if you’re more proficient) their primary radical. Stroke count is easiest to learn, but can sometimes be confusing because some strokes that look as though they may be two or three individual strokes are actually counted as a single calligraphic stroke. It’s all fascinating to study, if you’re so inclined.

:-)

September 4, 2007, 9:54

Comment by ssp: User icon

Thanks for all the hints. It seems a bit hopeless to get a grip of this without knowing more of the language. I hope I’ll get an opportunity to learn more at some stage.

I kind of figured out the ‘main radical’ thing myself as that seems to be what the character palette’s Japanese section uses. Unfortunately I’m not all that good at actually identifying the main radical or doing the stroke (?) count which seems to do the secondary ordering. (Which according to the Wikipedia link seems ‘as expected’ though.)

I mean I found the characters in the end, but I just assume that people who know what they’re doing will be much much quicker at this than I was (or they’d have given up dictionaries, I guess).

Interesting to hear that such a character combination isn’t entirely unkown, adb.

I’ll try to decipher the characters on the boss’ other mug this afternoon, I think :)

September 4, 2007, 10:22

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