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Negative Connotation of 幻 in Classical Chinese

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Recently, I read an article about the history of Sci-Fi in China former debate about the term 科幻小说, the character 幻 having a negative connotation in the Classical Chinese tradition of wild fantasy and nonsense.

I am looking for the specific quote where this is referenced... It might be from the Analects, but I am really unsure.

Does anyone know?

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幻 does not seem to be attested to in the Analects, It appears amongst others in the Book of Shang and the Liezi, as well as many later works, and can mean 假而似真,虛而不實, as well as 欺詐. So you would not be mistaken in saying it can carry doubtful connotations, such as in the word 幻世, which roughly means '[rel/phil] fake reality'. There's also 幻人 'a magician, a wizard'.

Based on my dictionary's example sentences, however, I would hesitate before saying this word carries a negative connotation in Classical Chinese, and prefer to do some further textual research into the contexts in which this character was used. Specifically, 'wild fantasy' might be a bit of a stretch, at least generally speaking. The Chinese Text Project would be useful for that.

I hope this helps a bit.

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This is quite helpful.

I was referring to a question in an article by Mikael Huss entitled "SF's Changing Fortune in Mainland China."

Quote: "The term used in Chinese for "science fiction" is "kehuanxiaoshuo." "Kehuan"is a contractionof the characters"kexuehuanxiang": the approximate meaning is "sciencefantasy." This term, however, dates only from the founding of the People's Republic, when Russian sf was introduced to China. LuXun, MaoDun, and other early twentieth-century Chinese had used another term-"kexue xiaoshuo," closer in meaning to"sciencefiction." Duringthe 1950s, the name was changed to approximate the meaning of the Russian term (Guo 105). In response to the negative connotationsthe newer term has acquired, Guo Jianzhong proposes changingthe termagain: "[today's]Chinese

name for sf is 'Science Fantasy'.... However, 'fantasy' in Chinese is always associated with 'wild fancy' and 'nonsense."' Referring to the Confucian doctrine of rectification of names, Gao suggests a revival of the older term "kexue xiaoshuo," which would sound more respectable and less fanciful. Besides, he writes, it was good enough for Lu Xun, Mao Dun, and Lao She" (Huss 98 ).

I was not able to find the original paper he refers to, and so was trying to find what the rectification of names was and an exact quote in the original to support my use of this claim in an essay I am working on atm.

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Oh, dear, that's quite a difficult subject. Disclaimer first, then: I am no expert, and I'll recommend a book you should probably read if you want to get the full picture. But in a nutshell, and to the best of my knowledge, rectification of names 正名 is an important concept in early Chinese thought, referring to the idea that all objects and phenomena in the world should be called by their correct names. The epitome of this idea is perhaps the following, as recorded in the Analects:


Duke Jing of Qi enquired with Confucius about government. The Master replied: "Let rules be rulers, ministers be ministers, fathers be fathers and sons be sons."

If you ask me, this concept was by no means only Confucian, though. It was widely known in the chaotic Warring States period, being a useful concept to bring some much-needed structure to society. A modern example: if our definition of "civil servant" includes the idea that they must not accept bribes, and yet some government employees accept bribes, can you then call those corrupt officials "civil servants"? That is, do the 名 'names' reflect 實 'reality'?

I think most thinkers would agree that their behaviour needs to change for them to adhere to this definition. Failing that, they can not be called civil servants and we must use another name to describe them, according to this doctrine. Of course, this begs the question of how to define what a name means. It's a difficult debate, and I'm not qualified at all to do it justice in a few paragraphs.

The concept remains important to Chinese philosophers, as far as I know, though I'm really more at home with early China. But your article's usage seems to me to imply that Guo feels the current Chinese name for SF is unfitting since it implies "wild fantasy" (according to him), and that its name should therefore be changed, since it does not reflect reality.

On a personal note, I would doubt this, because if most people call SF 科幻小説, this does not necessarily mean they understand it differently. I mean, many speakers of Mandarin refer to a computer as a 電腦, but I think they all know very well that this compound word means something different from the meaning of the two characters used to form it. See also this essay by Victor Mair on a related idea, the interpretation of as 危機 'crisis' meaning literally 'danger and opportunity'.

I hope this helps a bit, though as I said, this is a complicated philosophical concept, and if you really want to know more about it you should consider consulting John Makeham's Name and actuality in early Chinese thought (Google Books result here). In fact, I think I might want to read that book myself!

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Okay, so this seems to be a lot more complicated and less established than I had thought previously.

I had not realized that the rectification of names would refer to this part of the Analects...

On another note, I agree with your comment about the typical reading of words like 危机. I was having a discussion with my professor about Chinese-English translation recently, and he mentioned the issue of secondary readings of compounds that can influence the reading and thus translation of a text.

For him at least, only situation where the secondary reading of compounds would influence the translation would be in poetry.

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My pleasure, of course. In a way, it is established, in that it boils down to the idea that 名 must reflect 實, but the actual interpretation depends on the thinker, and is not confined to the Analects. Gongsun Longzi and Hui Shi, for example, are both considered 名家 philosophers, and make 正名 the centrepiece of their works, even though that's an entirely different school from Confucianism. But I'm not sure whether Guo would have meant to refer to all those different takes on 正名; I could very well imagine a modern Chinese writer referring to the concept to merely argue that any given name is not right and should be changed to better reflect reality, without necessarily evoking the entire philosophical 正名 debate.

On a completely unphilosophical sidenote, I am suddenly reminded of

:wink: Edited by Daan
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