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Two palindromes
Yu Müller / 翟彧
19 December 2022
published in Issue Two

My poems, in Chinese, can be read in (at least!) two directions. Their meaning is fluid, and depends on the path the reader chooses to read them. Translation to English demands a doubling and an inverting — perhaps an unfolding as much as a translation. I call them palindromes (回文). How I came to that form, from far away, requires some explication.

Not until I read Les deux raisons de la pensée chinoise: Divination et idéographie (2013) by the French sinologist Léon Vandermeersch did I become self-conscious about my own mother tongue. The translated Chinese version appeared in 2017; I had been living in Germany, and had ceased speaking Mandarin Chinese on a daily basis, which allowed me to focus on the written world and to immerse myself, in a different way, in those Chinese characters that I was so familiar with. The distance from the daily utility of what was once the only language I spoke brought a novel estrangement. It kindled both rational analysis and word games.

A younger version of me sat in Chinese philology class, drawing pictographic characters. I was in awe of them, and of their etymologies. I learned the etymology for 牛 (niú, meaning ox), for 羊 (yáng, meaning sheep), for 鹿 (, meaning deer). In that old textbook’s pages, the words began to dance in front of my eyes. Later I read the American sinologist David Keightley’s inquiries into the origins of Chinese writing. « All writing », Keightley noted, « depends upon the conventional taking of one thing, the sign, for another, the word. » All writing depends on abstraction; Keightley posed a formative harmony between Chinese logography and « the aesthetics of ancestor worship ». Ancestor worship is itself an abstraction-game: for the dead to be worshippable, after all, they must be abstracted into ancestors.

Words have ancestries.

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