Monday, August 18, 2008


“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

It is in many ways fitting, that China should host the Olympic Games straight after Greece, for if Greece is the eternal rock upon which the prefabricated structure of Western Civilization stands, China certainly is the compass that has determined the orientation of Far Eastern Civilization, over the course of thousands of years. Just like the Athens Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Beijing Ceremony was a marvellous, breath-taking exposition of aeons of deep-rooted culture and tradition, as authentic and as venerable as our own. The two countries may be geographically poles apart. Superficially, their modes of thought and social composition may be the antithesis of each other, and yet, paradoxically enough, for civilisations that developed more or less independently of each other, they appear to have much in common. Both for example, have made lasting contributions to philosophy, science and much more besides.
In the history of ancient China, there are moments when it is absolutely incredible how the same things transpired contemporaneously in Greece and in China. The first of the Greek philosophers, Thales, lived about the sixth century, just about the time that Confucius was in China. Heraclitus, one of the early Greek philosophers, also of the early sixth century, based his philosophy on the “Logos” – the first principle of knowledge – the structure or pattern of the world, the unity of world process which sustains it as a process. This unity lies beneath the surface, for it is a unity of diverse and conflicting opposites in whose strife the Logos maintains the equilibrium of the universe at every moment. Although Heraclitus taught that “all things change and nothing remains at rest,” he knew the Logos itself to be stable, as the measured pattern of flow.
At about the same time, in China, there lived the philosopher Lao Tzu (Old Master.) He too wrote of the same universal pattern or ordering principle that Heraclitus styled the Logos. “I do not know its name,” he said, “but characterize it as the Way (Tao)” – the path, or pattern of Heaven, the Course that all things follow. It is the Way that creates and it is the Way that nourishes, develops and protects creation, balancing the strife of opposites by itself not contending.
Of course, six centuries after Heraclitus and Lao Tzu, there lived on the Greek island of Patmos an old hermit named John. While exiled in a cave on Patmos, he dictated the following revelation to his disciple Prochorus: “In the beginning, there was the Logos, And the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God…” While the ancient Greeks and Chinese grappled with metaphysics in similar fashion, the Christians extended their ideas further, by maintaining that the Logos – the Creator, Sustainer, Pattern and Ordering Principle of nature – “was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Even more fascinating is that the first Christian missionaries to China, Nestorian monks, in the second century AD, imbued with knowledge of both Greek and Chinese philosophy, translated St John’s Gospel, knowing that “Tao” meant to the Chinese what “Logos” meant to the Greeks, thus: “In the beginning was the Tao.”
If one is to delve, the similarities do not end there. The Hellenistic and ultimately Byzantine conception of the God-king or at least of the Emperor as representative of God on earth have their counterparts in the veneration of the Chinese Emperor as the Son of Heaven in a strictly hierarchical society. Ranging from the superficial – for example the use of the pentatonic scale in ancient Greek and Chinese traditional music (and indeed, many of the songs of Epirus sound positively Chinese), the use of the same geometrical decorative motifs such as the «κλειδί της πόλεως» design, to the downright uncanny, ie. the same veneration for the written word in the contemporaneous production of poetry, historical chronicles and a mania for recording everything, the obsession with science and invention: of steam powered engines, water screws, Antikythera mechanisms and war machines of Archimedes and others his ilk, the intricacies of silk making, stolen from the Chinese by the Byzantines, the Chinese invention of paper, movable type printing, gunpowder and the compass. The Greeks and the Chinese are the founders of Western and Eastern medicine respectively, display the same penchant for reasoned, harmonious philosophies of architecture and remarkably, are possessed of languages that have changed very little over the course of thousands of years, giving rise to a profound respect and constant reference to historical precedent.
I remember some years ago, being approached by someone with the crackpot theory that the Greeks were the fathers of the Chinese people. This theory was based on the fact that the southern Chinese province of Yúnnán, sounds a lot like Yunan, the Persian word denoting Ionians and ultimately Greeks. Quaint though it is, it is completely inaccurate, as the name of the Chinese province actually means: “south of the clouds.” This notwithstanding, and the possible ancient tenuous trade links with the western, Turkic provinces of the Chinese Empire, it is truly amazing how many words appear to be common to both languages, sharing the same meaning. The existence of these words in absence of the close proximity required for borrowing is as astounding as the parallel development of much of Greek and Chinese cultures, proving Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who opined, “Those that know nothing of foreign languages, know nothing of their own,” totally correct.
The word “hygeia” – health for example, is partially homophonous to the Chinese word “yu” – which means to heal, to recover, or become well. Stretching things further, the Chinese word, "gu" means a small amount. This word also refers to the thigh bone, with its prior meaning being a "branch" or "part". The Chinese word "liao" means water. Thus, the term "guliao" means "a little water". The similarity between the Chinese "guliao" and the Greek "goulia" is evident.
Today, the Chinese word, "yi" which comes from the compound word, "hou yi" means "descendent" and "son". The Greek word for son is the similar sounding: "yios". Intriguingly, one word in Chinese for "fox" is "laopo". This sounds like the Greek word "alopix" or “alepou.” The Chinese word, lao, means old woman and po, means the first wife (of many wives presumably). In Greek, one can traditionally refer to an old woman as a fox alluding to her wisdom.
The word "pouggi" refers to a purse with money. Long ago, Greeks often hid money in bedspreads and under mattresses as a way of protecting their assets from thieves. Significantly, the word "pugai" in Chinese means bedspreads (pu=spread and gai=cover).
My favourite of these putative borrowed words would have to be “babeizi,” which means “eight life times,” indicating a long period of time. The word is found together with lao=old (laobabeizi) meaning then “old-fashioned, outdated”, because old people supposedly are held to have rusty ideas. The Greek word “babesis” is linked by some to the Chinese “babeizi” and explained as an old man that has a lot of knowledge and experience and can always find his way out, like Odysseus. Of course, this disregards the Albanian origin of the word, which has its root in the word besa, meaning honour, but is an ingenious attempt at derivation nonetheless.
And since we mention Albanians, try these polylingual derivations for size: Today, Albania, is referred to as "Aibainiya" in Chinese. Poignantly, in modern Chinese, "bai" means "snow white". In the ancient Chinese however, "ai" means "snow white." This could refer to dramatic Greek descriptions of the snow white mountains of Albania which bring to mind the trials faced by Greek soldiers during World War II upon such mountains.
Not convinced? The Chinese word, "bai", ("white") offers another fascinating far-fetched meaning. The Chinese word for white spirits (like ouzo) is "bai jiu". Many wines are referred to, in Chinese, as "san- bai" which means exactly: "white three-fold". Notably, as these particular wines produce such heavy foam, one might venture to assert that the type of wine known for its heavy foam is champagne, which sort of sounds like “san-bai” if you’ve drunk a few bottles of the really bad stuff.
In the quest for redeption and the re-acquisition of some credulity, here is one that is at least plausible. The Greek surnames “Meggousoglou” Meggos, Meggoulas, Meggidis, Meggisides are derived from Asia Minor. Menggu in Chinese means Mongolia, and considering the far-reaching sway of the Mongol Khans, (from Mongolia to Hungary,) and the original homeland of the Turkish people on the Chinese periphery, this is clearly a far travelling loan word.
Let us now rip any shred of plausibility we may have ever possessed. "Ren lei" is a Chinese word which means "human being, or mankind". "Lei ren" however, signifies an anthropoid, chimpanzee, gangster, and monkey. Could this correlate with the Greek word "lera" which means dirt, or an individual of ill-breeding?
Before you cry for mercy, here is a last one: Today, we live in a world in which the notion of a "show" plays a major part whereby through a television show, a spectacle etc. Originally, however, could this word have come from the Chinese word "zhou" which means circle and/or week--namely, something that turns around like the roulette in the casino? Then surely the word "zhou" is derived from the Greek words tzogos, tzogadoros, referring to gamblers and gambling. And indeed the prevalence of elderly Greek and Chinese Australians at Crown Casino on any given day may well give rise to further borrowings in the future.
Given that Alexander the Great, or at least descendants of his army were reputed to have traversed as far as China, we could assume that the story of Alexander’s the Great horse, Bucephalus, is well-known throughout the East. The most salient trait of this nag was the fact that he feared his own shadow. In Chinese, "xia" means "to scare". In ancient Chinese, "xia" most likely means shadow. Similarly, in Greek, the words "skia" and "skiazomai" mean shadow and also the verb, to be afraid. Notably, there appear not to be any corollary Slavonic borrowings.
Diatribe takes you leave this week, saluting a noble and ancient people and marvelling at how Hellenic concepts such as those of fair competition, excellence and peace as exemplified in the Olympic Games have conquered the globe, inspiring even the most seemingly distant of peoples. One day, even our languages may become as fused as our traditions. David Bowen, perhaps offers the most insightful commentary in this regard, when he quips: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are shocked to discover that despite all the progress that has been made over the past 30 years, many foreign people, still speak foreign languages.”


First published in NKEE on 18 August 2008