On Chinese Characters, The “Alphabet Effect,” “Fuzzy Logic,” and Beyond Language Relativism

Author: Martine Frederique Darragon (Sichuan University, China)
Speaker: Martine Frederique Darragon
Topic:Cognitive Anthropology and Language
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


This essay is the follow-up of a paper titled Of Jade, Silk, Tea, and Chinese Characters – which I presented in July 2018 at the 24th Philosophy World Congress in Beijing; it was selected to be part of the proceedings of the Congress.

China has the longest uninterrupted civilization, has always been the most populous state on earth, and its script made of lolograms has been in use for more than 3500 years. Nascent scripts probably all started with pictographs, but only the Chinese did not feel the need for phonographic writing by later shifting to a syllabic or letter alphabet.

Starting in ancient Greece, a lot has been written about the relationship between thought and language. In the wave of anthropological surveys of the 18th and 19th centuries the “theory of language relativism,” was hotly debated; but the discussions were mostly concerned with spoken languages, and Chinese was not taken into consideration. Today it is largely believed that even if a language does influence the world vision of the speaker, many cognitive processes are independent of the use of language.

Concurrently, the western fascination with the “Needham Question”and the “Great Divergence,” coupled with the observation of a backward 17th to 20th centuries China, resulted in westerncentric assessments commonly declaring a non-alphabetical writing system a hindrance to scientific progress.

However, both early Chinese inventions and recent Chinese scientific achievements are calling for a revision of the Eurocentric “alphabet mother of invention” theory. A couple of empirical researches have demonstrated that children learning to write Chinese characters develop precocious spatial abilities and are at ease with mathematics. Moreover, modeled by the Chinese philosophy of “zhongyong” and by the use of lolograms, the Chinese cognitive process can be considered similar to the “fuzzy logic” now celebrated to apprehend non-linear problems.

This paper will briefly study the evolution of writing, then try to unveil the reasons why China still use lolograms. It will also examine how, through time, Chinese characters influenced South-east Asia cultures and expended the Chinese Cultural Sphere. Finally, it will scrutinize how the Chinese characters shaped the Chinese mind, were crucial to the success of the Chinese society, and continue to impart lolograms users with a distinctively agile mind particularly well adapted to our non-linear world.

It will conclude that, as a vivid illustration of Chinese correlative thinking, lolograms are both a product and a shaper of Chinese cognitive process and Chinese uniquely enduring civilization.

Keywords: Chinese cognitive process, Chinese characters, lolograms, correlative thinking, alphabet, linguistic relativism, fussy logic, zhongyong, yinyang, non-linear problems