teapot chinese lessons

teapots remain some of my primary texts in learning mandarin. yesterday, for example, yang qian asked me which teapot i wanted to use. i answered, ¨the red one.¨ he laughed. why?

it turns out that the conventional order of description in mandarin would have been: the material the teapot was made of (clay 紫砂的 verses porcelain 瓷的), size (large 大的 versus small 小的), shape (round 圆的 versus square 方的), and only then color (black 黑的, red 红的, and blue 蓝的). so i could have asked for the ¨big clay pot¨ or ¨the round clay pot¨. he pointed out, with other items, such as a table top, texture (smooth 平的 versus 不平的 ) would have been more salient than color.

yang qian then posited that the ancient greeks understood the world through vision, while the chinese understood the world through tactility. consequently, our respective languages (off shoots of languages no longer spoken or even written) organize the world differently. i see color first, where he ¨sees¨ materiality.

in addition to learning to rephrase my requests, i´m not sure where to head with this. metaphors we live by (linguistic anthro 101) has remained one of my favorite books about language acquisition through increasingly abstract processes. default categories are more or less universal (tree, cup, pot) because we can touch them, but more specific and more general categories are shaped by culture (specific tree names and relative familiarity with said trees).

caveat aside, i´m now thinking about the cultural organization of pleasure. i´ve heard various arguments that chinese civilization has been traditionally more hedonistic than western. i have tended to interpret these arguments as projection of the ¨what i want my life to be, but isn´t, so i see that life in country x¨ variety of insight. but, it is interesting to contemplate that pleasures might be focused through different senses. and i find it even more interesting to think about how careful attention to everyday requests and descriptions might map entry into those other worlds.

yes, teapots bring all sorts of joy.

2 thoughts on “teapot chinese lessons

  1. Hi,

    I am in town this week and next looking for a green building I can tour, if there is one. I’d heard there are several on the drawing boards. But do you know of one that I can visit and gawk at? One so futuristic looking my jaw will drop?

    Your wanderings around Shenzhen are fascinating.

    Keep up the great work.

    • Hi Marc,

      Welcome to Shenzhen. I suggest the Vanke Center, even if you can´t arrange a tour, the building and environs are stunning. Also, in Shekou there are the repurposed factories that have been covered in vines to help regulate temperature…

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