Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

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Why Chinese conceptions are more artful

Here I've stylized two Chinese characters, and compared them with a well-known sign from American culture.

On the left is the character for "love," normally written:
愛. In the middle is the character for "virtue," normally written: 德. The I-love-New York, of course, is on the right.

What all three have in common is the red heart.

In both
-love and -virtue, notice how the character for heart is embedded in each word. So my stylized rendition substitutes the conventional way of writing "heart" with a Valentine's heart.

Love, already and concretely, includes heart. Virtue, already and concretely, includes heart. The aesthetics of each character emits a penumbra of meaning, as it were, that entails connotations of heart. Each character is a pool of meaning.

English works in a different way: abstract units, whether letters or words made up of abstract letters, convey meaning. Here, the N and the Y are additionally abstract because they are only the first letters of abstract words that are actually not there.

In this case, the Valentine's heart is something from an order of things totally separate from the order of words.

The aesthetic value of I-(heart)-N-Y is that something from another order of things -- the artwork of the heart -- has replaced the abstract arrangement of lines that mean LOVE.

Put another way, if all we had was I-L-N-Y, the sequence would be incomprehensible. It would not only have minimal aesthetic value; it would have little value of any kind. What is aesthetically striking about the I-heart-N-Y is precisely because the English tendency to abstraction has been breached with a symbol that more directly means "heart."

But in the Chinese cases,
心 is already and concretely in each character.

So in the Chinese cases, the use of the Valentine's heart for "love" is a symbol-to-symbol transformation. In I-heart-N-Y, the use of the Valentine's heart for "love" is an abstraction-to-symbol transformation.

In the Chinese cases, the art-value is intrinsic.

In the English case, the art-value had to be added.


Note: contemporary Chinese script used in mainland China deletes the heart from the word for love (). When some folks of my parents' generation bemoan the use of the "simplified" script, they are feeling the loss of the richness of meaning of some of these more utilitarian characters.


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