What is the Electric Brain?

The graphic at left means "computer" in Chinese. Actually, it consists of two characters that literally mean "electric brain," which the Chinese read as "computer."

But it really means a lot more.

Most Chinese characters are combinations of other characters or parts of characters. Sometimes a character seems to have little to do with the sum of its parts, possibly because the original associations have been forgotten over the centuries. But many characters contain a great deal of abbreviated symbolism, or layers of meaning. This is particularly true of complex characters. "Computer" is a good example.  


[ SKY ]

Let's start with the first character in "computer." It's related to this simple character, which means "sky" or "heaven." The distinctive elements are the horizontal lines at the top, which represent the heavens or a horizon.

[ RAIN ]

This means "rain." Notice the horizon lines at the top. Below are short downward strokes representing storm clouds. And below the clouds are four smaller strokes, unconnected to anything else, which appear to be in free-fall. They are the rain.


This means "thunder." The top part means "rain," as shown above. The square at the bottom with the cross, when written alone, means "field" or "land" (especially cultivated land). Chinese culture is ancient, and many characters date back to a time when most people were farmers and were very concerned with the weather and forces of nature.


Adding a tail-like stroke to "thunder" creates this more complex word, which means "electric," "electricity," or "lightning." It's a very appropriate symbol. Rain, thunder, and lightning are elemental forces of nature, like electricity. And also like electricity, these forces can be beneficial or dangerous. The tail at the bottom also resembles the power cord on an electrical appliance, adding yet another subtle layer of meaning.


Now let's analyze the second character in "computer," which by itself means "brain." This, too, is a complex character consisting of smaller elements.

[ MEAT ]

This means "meat." However, it's not the word for "meat" you would see on a restaurant menu. That version looks completely different. This form means something closer to "flesh" in English. The Chinese use it as a prefix to build characters that usually have something to do with parts of the body. (Such prefixes are common in Chinese and are called "radicals.")

[ FLOW ]

This means "flow" or "stream" when combined with other elements. (When written by itself, however, the character's strokes aren't bent like this; they're drawn as three straight vertical strokes.) What does flow or stream have to do with a brain? In English, we express this concept as "flow of thought" or "stream of consciousness."

[ SMART ]  

This means "smart." Sometimes it's paired with another character that consists of the symbols for "sun" and "moon"; the combination means "very smart" or "brilliant" because the person is said to be as bright as the sun and the moon.


Put them all together, and the character for "brain" can be interpreted as "smart meat that thinks." After all, that's literally what a brain is: a hunk of meat that's smart. (The Chinese are nothing if not practical.)


Which brings us back to electric brain, or computer. The Chinese pair the character "electric" with many other characters in order to create new meanings out of ancient words. For example, the Chinese word for telephone means "electric speech." This is probably better than continually inventing wholly new characters. There are already about 40,000 characters in Chinese, with about 5,000 in common modern use, so it makes sense to recycle old characters into new meanings.

In English and other phonetic languages, we do something similar by inventing acronyms, such as "PC" for "personal computer." Complex Chinese characters, like acronyms, consist of multiple words strung together, except the Chinese do it symbolically instead of phonetically. It's actually a form of data compression. And it's a measure of how our languages are adapting to modern demands: We need to pack increasingly complex definitions into short, readable words.

But it doesn't end there.

In the 1950s, the communist government of the People's Republic of China decided to simplify the written Chinese language to improve literacy. The result was Simplified Chinese, which substitutes less-complex characters for many older, traditional characters. Today, Simplified Chinese is commonly used in mainland China, Singapore, and other places settled by mainland Chinese people. Traditional Chinese survives in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and in Chinese communities in the United States and elsewhere. On the mainland, critics of Traditional Chinese say the complex characters are more difficult to learn. But critics of Simplified Chinese say the new characters abandon historical tradition and make it difficult for mainland people to read prerevolutionary literature. Here is the Simplified Chinese version of "computer":


It's definitely simpler, though to Western eyes it still appears complex. The "electric" character discards the "rain" symbol, and the "brain" character retains the "flesh" radical but discards "flow" and makes other small changes.

The controversy over Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese may never end. Ironically, Simplified Chinese has made learning Chinese even more difficult for people who want to read all Chinese writing, because now there are multiple variations of the same words to learn.

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