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Picture goodness

IN the study of written Chinese characters we find that many new words are combinations of already-learned symbols. If it were your job to make a pictograph for the concept ``good'' which you could make up of already-known pictographs, what would you use? Try to think of the most pleasant, nonthreatening symbols you could conceive.

The Chinese did it long ago. Their character for good is made up of the characters for woman and child. Isn't it fun to know that every time you read or write the character for good, you are seeing the gentle curves for woman and a symbol that, at one time, looked like a child? Even now you can see the whole child in profile, bundled up and exposing one arm.

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My friend Jo and I are at work on our Chinese studies at my kitchen table. This hobby started several years ago when we studied conversational Mandarin at a local community college under a stern, generous Chinese-born teacher. After repeating the course for several semesters we felt bold enough to continue studying at home on our own. Hence the kitchen-table setting for our language lab.

Conversational Chinese was difficult for us, because we had no mental memory ``hooks'' to help us associate words. In the romance languages we find many ``hooks'' in the roots, prefixes, or suffixes of words derived from Latin or Greek. In Chinese such hooks are almost completely missing.

Recently we started to study written Chinese characters, expecting them to be more difficult than speaking and hearing. We were pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. Characters were easy and fun, partly because most new words combine already-learned characters. These combinations, constructed of a beautiful logic, humor, or of connections lost in their 5,000-year history, serve as memory hooks as well as entertaining us. We pounce on each new case with glee, as in the example of ``good'' above . (The spoken word for ``good'' does not carry this meaning.)

The universality of this symbol is seen in the quantity of great religious art of the Middle Ages which features the mother and child. In any language we recognize the simplicity, the joy, the purity, and innocence -- in a word, the goodness of the mother and child.

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