Loosey-goosey characters

Whilst on an informative jolly around Shaoxing’s lántíng 兰亭 (orchid pavilion) in the sweltering heat, I came across the following  stele:

goose pond

It reads 鵞池 é chí, ‘goose pond’ (it probably loses something in translation). The guide told me that the é is a painstaking reconstruction of a character written by Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303–361), whilst the chí was written by one of his descendants. And aparently Wang loved geese because he felt that, in profile,  they resembled the shape of the character 之 in his name.

Anyway, you’ll notice that Wang’s é has the 我 and the 鸟 in different places compared with how we normally see it. What’s going on? Well, Mrs. tour guide told me that the normal horizontal line up (鹅) isn’t particularly aesthetic and the vertical line up (鵞) gives the character a better balance in Wang’s beloved cursive script (行书) – especially in the traditional vertical columns – so that’s why he ‘invented’ this new way of writing it.

She then went on to say that Chinese calligraphy doesn’t demand that you pay too much attention to how things are supposed to be written, what counts is what looks good, because it’s an art form. But according to the Kangxi Zidian http://www.kangxizidian.com/kangxi/1491.gif, and the Taiwanese Ministry of Education’s Variant Character Dictionary (异体字字典)  http://dict.variants.moe.edu.tw/yitia/fra/fra04732.htm, 鵞 is listed as a variant character. 鵞 is also used in Japanese and Korean, so I’m guessing it was an early import from China. Was this variant born out of a desire for proper calligraphic balance?  Or is that just a nice little story to tell tourists?

If a variant character is a character that has the same phonetic and semantic values as the original, only a different form, are all characters written differently for aesthetic effect variant characters? What about a character written wrongly by accident?

3 responses to “Loosey-goosey characters”

  1. pott says:

    There are at least 4 forms of this character: 鵝鵞䳘䳗. Apparently positions of the components were less important in antiquity. The modern distinction between standard form (正體) and variants (異體) is based more on usage than on origin. In fact, judging from the seal script form in 說文解字, 䳘 might be the earliest form.

  2. Claw says:

    I can’t really comment on the aesthetic value, but you often see the same thing with the character 峰/峯. 峯 seems to be more prevalent in calligraphy while 峰 is considered the modern standard form, though 《康熙字典》 says 峯 was the standard form.

    Both 裡 and 裏 (simplified form is 里, meaning “inside”) are currently used in free variation. 裡 is more commonly seen printed while 裏 is more commonly seen written, but both forms can be seen in either context. 裡 does not appear in 《康熙字典》 and other older dictionaries so it appears to be a more modern invention.

  3. pott says:

    Let’s add 够/夠 群/羣 慚/慙 啓/啟 棋/棊. The complete list might be very long.

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