Apr 202017

UN Chinese Language Day is observed annually on this date. The event was established by UNESCO in 2010 as a way “to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as to promote equal use of all six of its official working languages throughout the organization.” April 20th was chosen as the date to pay tribute to Cangjie (倉頡), a legendary person who is credited with inventing Chinese characters. The first Chinese Language Day was celebrated in 2010 on the 12th of November, but beginning in 2011 the date was changed to the 20th of April, roughly corresponding to the start of Guyu (谷雨) in the Chinese calendar. Chinese people celebrate Guyu (which usually begins around April 20th) in honor of Cangjie, because of a legend that when Cangjie invented Chinese characters, the deities and ghosts cried and it rained millet; the word “Guyu” literally means “rain of millet” (or “grain rain”).

This is all very convoluted, but that is all to the point. UNESCO’s intention in celebrating the UN’s 6 official languages on different days is to celebrate linguistic diversity. Learning a foreign language, if done right, makes you understand that it’s not just a matter of learning new words and grammar: you have to think differently. If you are a native English speaker and you learn French or German, this point may be lost on you. But if you learn Chinese, or, Japanese, or (heaven forbid) Burmese (as I am trying now), you quickly grasp that the native speakers of these languages don’t think of the world in the same way as English speakers. You get a little of the flavor of this idea (a very little), when you have to confront gender in French or Spanish. In Chinese you start, almost at the outset, with the notion that everything has to be classified into about 50 categories based on shape, quality, purpose, and whatnot, because you can’t express the number of objects without a measure word, and to use the correct measure word you need to be able to classify the objects you are counting. Maybe they are small living things, or things that are jointed, or flat and useful things. Each has a special measure word. But the trouble does not stop there; flat and useful things include credit cards, movie tickets, and tables, among other things !!! Westerners would hardly objects into such a category. The degree to which one’s native language affects one’s way of thinking is a matter of considerable debate (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/benjamin-lee-whorf/ ), and I’m not going off on that tangent. I’m just making you aware that linguistic diversity is not some inconvenience to be resolved: it is important as a means of personal and cultural identity.

According to legend Cangjie lived around 2650 BCE and was supposedly an official historian of the Yellow Emperor when he invented Chinese characters. He is said to have had four eyes. Cang Jie was the eponym for the (c. 220 BCE) Cangjiepian proto-dictionary as well as the Cangjie method of inputting characters into a computer.

There are several versions of the legend of Canjie’s creation of Chinese characters. One sayss that shortly after unifying China, the Yellow Emperor, being dissatisfied with his “rope knot tying” method of recording information (like Quipu), charged Cangjie with the task of creating characters for writing. Cangjie then settled down on the bank of a river, and devoted himself to the completion of the task at hand. Even after devoting much time and effort, however, he was unable to create even one character. One day, Cangjie saw a phoenix flying above him, carrying an object in its beak. The object fell to the ground directly in front of Cangjie, and he saw it to be an impression of a footprint. Not being able to recognize which animal the print belonged to, he asked for the help of a local hunter passing by on the road. The hunter told him that this was, without a doubt, the footprint of a Pixiu (something like a winged lion used in Feng Shui), being different from the footprint of any other beast that was alive.

His conversation with the hunter greatly inspired Cangjie, leading him to believe that if he could capture in a drawing the special characteristics that set apart each and every thing on the earth, this would truly be the perfect kind of character for writing. Thenceforth, Cangjie paid close attention to the characteristics of all things, including the sun, moon, stars, clouds, lakes, oceans, as well as all manner of birds and beasts. He began to create characters according to the special characteristics he found, and before long, had compiled a long list of characters for writing. To the delight of the Yellow Emperor, Cangjie presented him with the complete set of characters. The emperor then called the premiers of each of the nine provinces together in order for Cangjie to teach them this new writing system. Monuments and temples were erected in Cangjie’s honor on the bank of the river where he created these characters.

It’s a cute story, but archeology suggests that the Chinese writing system developed over a considerable period of time. The exact evolutionary sequence is now lost to history but the conjecture that the characters evolved over centuries from simple pictographs to complex characters is widely (not universally) accepted. Children (and beginners) are taught the rudiments of Chinese characters by imagining them to be pictographs. For example, my teacher taught the character for nǚ 女 (woman) by suggesting that it looked like a pregnant woman (two legs at the bottom, belly protruding on the left). He explained dozens of characters in this way, but modern linguists agree that such teaching techniques are simply mnemonic devices and not actual indications of the evolution of the characters.

Let’s turn our attention to the millet that supposedly rained from the sky when Cangjie invented the characters. Millets are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for fodder as well as human food. Millets are important crops in the semiarid tropics of Asia and Africa. Foxtail Millet is known to have been the first domesticated millet. Chinese legends attribute the domestication of millet to Shennong, the legendary (prehistoric) Emperor of China.  Palaeoethnobotanists (archeologists specializing in plant remains) relying on data such as the relative abundance of charred grains found in archaeological sites, hypothesize that the cultivation of millets was of greater prevalence in prehistory in Asia than rice, especially in northern China and Korea. Some of the earliest evidence of millet cultivation in China was found at Cishan (north). Common millet husk phytoliths and biomolecular components have been dated around 8300–6700 BCE in storage pits in Cishan along with remains of pit-houses, pottery, and stone tools related to millet cultivation. A 4,000-year-old bowl containing well-preserved noodles made from foxtail millet and broomcorn millet was found at the Lajia archaeological site in China.

In most of China congee (porridge) made from rice is a common nourishing comfort food. I don’t like it very much, but, then again, I don’t like oatmeal porridge either. Millet porridge is, however, a staple in the north of China where it was first domesticated and still widely grown. You can buy millet, not necessarily Chinese millet, in most health food stores. It may come from India or Africa where it is also an important staple. Chinese specialty markets will stock the Chinese variety.

There’s really nothing much to cooking millet as a porridge. For a watery porridge use 4 cups of fresh water to ½ cup of millet. Simmer gently for about 30 minutes until the millet “blooms,” that is, pops open. In China it is served hot in the winter and warm in the summer.  If you want a drier millet dish reduce the amount of water to about 3 cups and increase the millet to about 1 cup (you need to experiment based on a number of variables such as humidity). Cook tightly covered over low heat for 30 minutes until all the water is absorbed. This way you can use the millet in the same way that you serve rice.