Der hermeneutische Zirkel von Qian Zhongshu

For the westerner confronting the Chinese language for the first time and thereafter, it is daunting to look at not just 26 alphabets as in English, but tens of thousands of unique words.  The following is excerpted from Ronald Egan's translation of a Qian Zhongshu essay collected in the book, Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters.

In the first part of the excerpt, the message is that the person who has memorized and learned how to pronounce, read and write the thousands of basic Chinese words is still unable to comprehend the meaning behind words or carry on intelligible conversations.

When two words are joined together, the resultant compound cannot be interpreted on the basis of the separate, individual components.  Even in phrases that commonly fall from our tongues or brushes, we find that synonymous words may produce compounds with different meanings, just as words of different meanings may produce synonymous compounds.  Both are, in fact, widespread occurrences, and neither permit "letting a single interpretation sum up a particular word."

For example, qu "to bend" is like qu "bent," but weiqu 委屈 "to be wronged" is as different from weiqu 委曲 "circuitous" as the Yellow River is from the Han River.

Ci "words" is like yan "words," but weici 微詞 "subtle criticism" is as far removed from weiyan 微言 "profound words" as the distant north is from remote south.

Jun "army" is like bing "soldiers," but there is a considerable space between bingfa 兵法 "military strategy" and junfa 軍法 "military regulations."

Nian "year" is like sui "year", but 棄十五年之妻 "divorcing a wife of fifteen years" and 棄十五歲之妻 "divorcing a fifteen-year-old wife" present a considerable difference in age.

Gui "to go back" and hui "to return" are alike, but chungui 春歸 "spring departs" and chunhui 春回 "spring returns" are opposites.

Shang "above" and xia "below" complements each other, but when you are talking something falling down, both dishang 地上 and dixia 地下 mean "on the ground."

There is no great difference between xin "mind" and xing "the nature," and so the two are often paired together, as in the statement "to understand one's mind and correctly perceive one's nature."  However,  喪失人心 "to lose the people's mind (i.e. their trust)" means that you have lost something located in someone else, whereas 喪失人性  "to lose your humanity" means that what is missing is gone from you yourself.

There is no difference between ruhe 如何 "It is like what?" and heru 何如 "What is it like?," therefore 不去如何 "What if we don't go?" is similar to 不去何如  "How would it be if we don't go?" in that both are uttered when considering whether or not to go.  However, 何如不去 "How about not going?" implies we should not go and urges that we stay put, whereas 如何不去 "Why don't we go?" means that we ought to go and finds fault with having not yet departed.

Imagine a person who is filled with pent-up anger and complains that "inside I feel all circuitous," or who seeks to learn about the Way and says "I am investigating subtle criticisms," or who in imposing a military punishment says that he is "applying military strategy," or who reads "he divorced a wife of fifteen years" and concludes the man had married a girl who was not yet of age, or who recites the line "Where has spring gone?" and wonders why there are no signs of spring if it has arrived, or who sees the words "it has fallen on the ground" and understands that the thing has seeped into the ground like mercury, or who takes the statement "alone, he has lost the people's trust" to be the same as "he is crazed and has lost his mind" or who does not see any difference between "What if we don't go?" and "Why don't we go?"  Such a person, it must be allowed, possesses some degree of literacy and understanding of language.  But you would not say that he comprehends the meaning behind words or knows how to carry on a conversation.

Chinese is not the only language that contains these higher-order context-dependent complexities.  In English, a simple verb like 'go' means different things when combined with other prepositions, such as "go", "go on" (=continue), "go over" (=review), "go apeshit" (=go beserk), "go through the trouble", "go hungry", "go peacefully" (=expire quietly), "go under" (=fail in business), "go down on" (=commit fellatio), "go all the way" (=have sexual intercourse), and so on.

What is to be done?  It means that there has to be a reading strategy.

The Plain Learning Movement of the Qianlong and Jiaqing periods (1736-1820) taught that one must first know each word's gloss in the ancient commentaries before one could discern the meaning of an entire line, and that by thus understanding each line one would come eventually to grasp the larger sense of an entire piece of writing and from there go on to discover the drift of the book in which it is contained.  This, however, is only one side of the matter or only its lower rung.  It is also necessary to understand the sense of the entire piece and the drift of the entire book (zhi ) in order to ascertain the meaning of any particular line (ci ), and from thus understanding the meaning of the entire line to ascertain the gloss of a particular word (wen ).  It may also be necessary to appreciate the author's general purposes in wanting to write, the prevalent literary fashions of the day, and the influence of form and genre upon the style of expression in order truly to understand the import of the entire piece or book.  By amassing many small units you comprehend the entirety, while by comprehending the entirety you string together the small units.  By tracing down from the tip, you get to the base; while by starting from the base, you eventually move out to the tip.  Utilizing both methods, back and forth, you may yet arrive at a complete understanding and avoid a biased view.  This is what is known as der hermeneutische Zirkel.  

By this point, this is no longer about reading a text.  It is about the rest of life.

Does not The Master of Ghost Valley say, "By reverting to the past, one seeks to return to an understanding of the present?"  It is like examining yourself to gauge others better, and observing others to improve your understanding of yourself, or using the past as a mirror to shed light on the present and carefully observing the present to understand the past better.