Another Definition of “Culture”—Chinese Version!

I am travelling in China, and here found yet another definition of the word “culture.” I thought that this definition might be worth posting on Ethnography.com where Googling Anthro 101 students seeking to write that obligatory “write and discuss the meaning of culture” essay might land! So here is a Chinese definition to add to those from your textbook.

In written Chinese, the word for “culture” is “Wen Hua” (文化) which is made up of two characters, i.e. the character “Wen” (文) that is usually translated by itself as “language,” and a second Hua (化) which is usually translated by itself as “change, melt, dissolve.” Taken by themselves, the two characters can be roughly translated as “changing of a language.” But put together, they take on the meaning of “culture.”.

The equation of language and culture of course is not unique to Chinese—plenty of 20th century English-writing anthropologists have made this connection. However, I like the combination with the character for “change, melt, dissolve” because it implies what we all know well about culture—not only is culture connected to language, but both language and culture re in constant flux—the change! So for those of you struggling with that essay, you can cite the wisdom of the Chinese definition of culture by noting that culture is by Chinese definition transformational!

3 Responses to “Another Definition of “Culture”—Chinese Version!”

  1. Nice essay on the dangers of reading too much into Chinese characters:

    http://www.pinyin.info/chinese/crisis.html

  2. Tony Waters says:

    Kerim: Good point about reading too much into Chinese characters–I suppose I plead guilty! In recent days doing tourist things in Yunnan and Guizhou I’ve seen the characters applied very much in the fashion that tour operators do in the United States, where “culture” often refers to dance, music, food, and a curio shop. There is little of the subtlety that I hope that undergrads in a Intro to Cultural Anthropology, or Sociology course would investigate.

    Having acknowledged that, I still am intrigued by the idea of combining the concepts of language and change into the character for culture. But as you imply, the combination does not reflect any particular meaning to a user of Chinese characters today (it had not dawned on my friend who I asked about the combination–he just considered it to be a straightforward gloss of “culture”). Still, the observation of the elements of the character did make me think differently about the nature of culture, in a new way. This does not happen every day!

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