The Duality Code: Book Review

By
W. K. Choy

yin-and-yang
This image was captured from Google Translate.  The concept is represented in traditional Chinese characters.

 

The title of this book, The Duality Code, will lead some readers to expect a spy mystery. In a way, that expectation is correct. There is a mystery, one that involves an obscure code. And there is intrigue, even murder. The startling aspect of the murders is that these are occasioned by disagreements over language.

W. K. Choy guides us through the sometimes gruesome history of China’s language wars. As he does so, he deciphers the mystery of China’s ancient language. Choy provides detailed analyses of relationships between Chinese written characters and he explains the difference between traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

According to Choy, the Duality Code has its roots in pre-modern China, in a warrior class called the shi. The “code” is secret in the sense that mastery of it, even today, is reserved for the highly educated. It is partly because Chinese characters were historically complex, according to Choy, that the literacy rate in China remained low, until recent times. Attempts toward simplification in the twentieth century included the suggestion that Chinese characters be eliminated altogether in favor of an alphabet-based system. Such a reform, it was believed, would make the language more accessible to ordinary people. However, the reform was never instituted.

Choy writes about how language has been a cultural football in China, and how the rules of this game have been brutal at times. For example, the Emperor Qin Shihuang ordered (in 212 BCE) that four hundred and sixty Confucian scholars be buried alive. He wanted to control scholarship and the use of language in his empire. Mao Tse-tung, centuries later, also wanted to control scholarship and the use of language. In furtherance of that end, Mao boasted, “We are a hundred times worse (than Qin Shihuang)…We have buried forty-six thousand Confucian scholars”.

I learned a great deal about the Chinese language from reading The Duality Code. I know now, for example, that Chinese characters are logographic. Each character represents a concept. This is distinct from alphabet-based languages, in which letters are combined to represent speech sounds. Sounds, in Chinese, are not associated with the characters. Therefore, Chinese characters may also be used by people who speak other languages.

Chinese characters can be combined (described and diagrammed in detail by Choy). Some characters are pictographic–their shape approximately resembles the idea they are intended to convey.

This book has much to offer besides an analysis of Chinese language. There’s history, political theory and philosophy. There’s commentary on the role of language in culture. W. K. Choy has a broad command of a variety of subjects. Readers of this book may not understand everything that is offered, because there is so much here. Choy’s analysis of language morphology is very clear and logical. For those with the ambition and time, it can serve as a veritable course on the Chinese language.

I found a wealth of information in The Duality Code, and not all of it specific to China. The book is unlike any I’ve read. It is challenging and entertaining. It is a cultural history and technical analysis. For Western readers, this will likely be an eye-opener. It was for me.

I highly recommend W. K. Choy’s Duality Code.

A. G. Moore  2/3/2017

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