温故知新 – Know History’s Mistakes

This week, my kanji submission for shodo is onko chishin. See below for a picture. Roughly translated, it means “know history’s mistakes.”

The kanji we need to submit is often a four word idiom, what they call a Yoji Jukugo. Yoji = four word. Jukugo = idiom. So there’s no real mystery there. But the four word idiom comes straight from Classical Chinese philosophy – the real thing, not the joking ancient Chinese secret – but rather the classical form of Chinese language.

Classical Chinese is fascinating in that, for the most part, the words are written the same now as the were two thousand years ago (if you use the traditional characters, which is what I learned). The differences are in the meanings and nuances of the words. I won’t go into the details. There’s nothing like too much detail and not enough context to send even the best of friends off to another hyperlink and a top-ten list. Suffice it to say that the average Chinese person can piece together the meaning of something that was written two thousand years ago if he/she squints hard and cranks up the synapses.

This is also true of the average Japanese person, but the connecting words – like “a”, “the”, “to” – in Japanese are so different that reading the full Chinese version would be pretty hard. Still, both languages took the essential part, the four words that describe the essence – and turned it into an idiom. Interestingly, in Japanese when you ask someone to wordsmith some writing, or to clean it up, they do teniwohe, or literally add the words “a”, “the”, “to.” I said I wouldn’t go into too much detail. Apparently, I either lied, or took a chance that one paragraph would not deter the stout of heart.

The original was a Confucian Analect, which is just a fancy way of saying a collection of sayings attributed to Confucius. The original Chinese is below.

子曰温故而知新可以師矣

For those of you without the fonts to see it, here is an image

Translated, it means “The master said, ‘If you ponder [the past], and thus get new knowledge, you can become a teacher.’” My calligraphy sensei, who is really a sweet person, and very curious about the world, asked me how to translate it into English. The best translation I can think of is a famous quote by philosopher, poet, novelist, George Santayana. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A more popular versions is, “Those who do not learn from history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.” Either way, the meaning, the idiom, as steeped in culture as it is, seemed like the best translation.

Which reminds me of an even better quote, by Kurt Vonnegut, “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.” I’m both elated and saddened to know that the yojijukugo I just sent in to the powers that be for judgement, the four word idiom that can so easily be translated into equally idiomatic English, is

T.W.O. T.H.O.U.S.A.N.D Y.E.A.R.S O.L.D.

We’ve been telling ourselves for the last two thousand years that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. I think that Mr. Vonnegut has it right, we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. But it was fun to try to write it in kanji with a brush.

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