Thursday, June 16, 2016

How to make a logo out of a mountain

The Chinese symbol for mountain, 山, rendered as calligraphy.
With some help from a Chinese friend, I worked out a Mandarin rendering of my name. First I have a literal translation of West (the direction), 西 (Xī, pronounced like Shee), as the family name. The next two parts approximate the pronunciation of my given English name, 美 山, měishān (beautiful mountain), which sounds pretty close. Altogether it's 西 美 山 or Shee měishān, and I'm pleased with that. Sometimes I plug it into Google translate and push the speaker button to hear the machine say it over and over again. Google renders this back into English as West Miyama. Miyama is the name of half a dozen towns and a mountain in Japan.

The character for mountain, 山, and I go a long way back. 山 is one of 214 Chinese radicals. I don't mean revolutionary fighters like Mao Tsetung back in the day; nor do I mean chemical radicals like HO, the hydroxyl radical, NO, nitric oxide, etc. Chinese radicals are characters that, while they have meanings in their own right, are also the building blocks out of which all other Chinese characters are made. Although recognizing the two or three or more radicals that compose a character will not give you the exact meaning of the word, the radicals do give you clues about broad meaning and sometimes pronunciation. So one pedagogy for learning Chinese would have me learn the radicals first (for reasons I don't understand, this approach through radicals seems to be disappearing). Since I've long wanted to learn Chinese, but haven't quite yet advanced beyond the radicals, I've been looking at them on and off for a long time. 山 has stuck with me because I can see its resemblance to the thing for which it stands, and I just think it's a cool character. I'm sentimental about it in a way that a Sesame Street fan might be sentimental about the letter Z.

Then, when I study the trigrams in the I Ching, ☶ is 山. I mean the three-line trigram with two broken (yin) lines, ⚏, on the bottom topped by a solid (yáng) line, ⚊, is called Mountain. Both the all-yin trigram (☷) and the all-yin hexagram (䷁) are called Earth ( or ), and the all-yáng trigram and hexagram are called Sky, Heaven, or Day (天 or Tiān). So what I see when I look at the Mountain trigram () is two broken yin lines of Earth reaching up to touch a solid yáng line of Sky, and isn't that what a mountain is? Earth reaching up to touch the sky? That probably wasn't the intention of the people who invented the trigrams twenty-five centuries ago, but it serves as a good mnemonic for me to remember the symbols.

(By the way, Wikipedia tells me that the study of the philosophy behind the trigrams is called Bagua. It's an interesting area, and it's good for beginners because the eight symbols don't push me out of my comfort zone the way sixty-four characters do. One of the approaches to the I Ching's hexagrams agrees with me on this: it interprets the six-line figures in terms of a pair of trigrams, one over the other. If I'm interpreting a hexagram about myself, the upper trigram is my outward situation in the world, while the lower trigram reflects my inner, mental condition. The history of the Vietnam war that placed American political and military actions within the sociocultural context of Vietnam, A Fire in the Lake, comprises two trigrams, fire ☲ and lake . As a hexagram, fire over lake is ䷥, Diverging (瞡) / The Shadow Lands, which, according to Stephen Karcher's Total I Ching, is about opposition, discord, and the need to change conflict into creative tension, all of which seems so appropriate for such an inappropriate war.)

One of the uses for the trigrams involves arranging them in instructive circles. Rather like the four-state cycle that I linked to Carlos Castaneda's teachings of fear, clarity of purpose, power, and old age, the eight-state cycle swings back and forth between yáng action and yin passivity. This yin state is ideally entered through meditation, that staunch and powerful shutting down of the inner chatter box so the intuitive mind gains the freedom to think, and that stage of meditation is represented by the mountain () preceding the passive all-yin state Earth (). (Later I will write more about the I Ching, and the next installment in that series will be on the eight-state cycle, so I won't say much more about that here—today I'm talking mostly about seals...)

If you've ever looked at Chinese art, somewhere on the paper you'll see a stamp in red ink that comes from the artist's chop (the stamping block)—this amounts to the artist's signature on the page. That red stamp contrasts sharply with the thousand shades of gray of the image which is composed with a hundred different dilutions of sumi ink. A chop is the seal that a person uses to identify him- or herself in official documents in East Asia. It serves the same purpose as a signature in the US and Europe. Chop is the English word, which, according to Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, came from the Hindi chāp, meaning impression or seal—yet another vestige of the British adventure in India—which suggests that the Indians were using seals as well. Europeans and Americans did have seals with which to identify themselves in the days that they sealed their letters with wax. The seal made a unique image in the wax that certified the identity of the letter's author. (Anyone watching Game of Thrones will know how seals play an important role in written communication.) The Mandarin word for seal is 盖印 (Gài yìn).

The movie Spirited Away originated at Studio Ghibli—which is the most brilliant animation studio anywhere, anytime—but its English language soundtrack for the American distribution of the film was produced by The Walt Disney Studios. When their preliminary translation of the script mentioned a "golden seal," they naturally thought of the marine mammal because, after all, that's what a seal is in California. But, no, the seal in Spirited Away is a chop. There's a lot of magic tied up with names in this movie, and the evil boss possesses the young heroine by taking her name and leaving her with just a utilitarian single syllable. The magical theft of a name closely parallels the physical theft of a chop. The quest that liberates the heroine lies in finding this seal—much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz has to bring the witch's broom to the Wizard.
The golden seal is a chop made of gold in Spirited Away. Fair use.
When I arrived in Korea to teach at Woosong University on a two-year contract, I was assigned a mentor, a fellow foreigner, whose job it was to orient me both at the university and in the city of Daejeon. Over a period of a few weeks I gradually figured out that my mentor's purpose as he understood it wasn't so much to orient me professionally and geographically as spiritually. He was a Moonie. But he did do one useful thing for me: he took me to see a chop maker. He and my mentor figured out how to render my name in Korean (이슨 웻트). We asked for the first name only, 이슨, on the chop, and the man said to come back in a few days. The result was a chop about three inches long with an elliptical end, the major axis of which was about the diameter of a dime. (I would show you the chop and its impression, but it's in Colombia at last report.) Fortunately a real mensch took me under his wing and oriented me with more practical things like buses, parks, grocery stores, and little shops that sold things that Koreans don't need very much but foreigners do, like deodorant and oatmeal. (Most Koreans don't produce the stinky sweat that people of European descent do.)

With the automation of banking, chops have taken a back seat to plastic cards with computer chips, but I did need the chop for academic papers that needed official signatures. The departmental secretary got frustrated with me because most of my colleagues just permanently parked their chops with her, but I didn't feel comfortable doing that. So there are still a lot of chop shops scattered around, rather in the same way that I find key copying kiosks in the foyer of Walmart.
Chop-makers in Man Wa Lane, "commonly known as Chop Alley (圖章街), is a lane in Sheung Wan of Hong Kong, spanning from Bonham Strand to Connaught Road Central, across Wing Lok Street and Des Voeux Road Central" (Wikipedia). Photograph by Henry Li. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

The second and third symbols of my chosen name are "měishān," (beautiful mountain), which come pretty close in pronunciation to my name. As I seek to build audience on the internet, it makes sense to me to have a virtual chop serve as a logo. After all, corporate logos provide a highly recognizable symbol—we immediately recognize NBC's peacock, CBS's camera lens (or invisibly bloodshot eye), McDonald's golden arches, and Starbuck's figurehead from a ship's prow (appropriate since Starbuck is the First Mate in Moby Dick). We in the West, otherwise accustomed to reading words built out of phonetic symbols, read corporate logos with the facility that a Chinese person has for five or ten thousand symbols. In my case, it makes sense for me to choose for a logo this character to which I've related in so many ways.

As I deployed my new virtual chop as my thumbnail on various social networks, a friend complained that the bold red strokes of my symbol reminded her of the violence that had been happening in Orlando. So I explained to her in a nutshell the things I was thinking about when I chose —no boyish love of gore here. But, yes, I understand how the times (and no Chinese background) might have led her where she went with it. As for this ugliness and horror in Orlando, my heart is in the right place. I'm a little irritated that the second event has completely overshadowed the first, which happened only days before, and which is no less symptomatic of the sick obsession the US has with guns. Incessantly the US thinks about guns and race, and as a result it is one of the leading killer countries and one of the most racist countries. By comparison, in murder, the US has a problem ten times greater than that of western Europe, and a hundred times greater than those of Japan and Korea.

I suppose the unstated idea behind these Second-Amendment fanatics is that they want to be armed in case they want to make a revolution, but the gun-flaunting right-wingers are the last people in the world I want to overthrow the government of the US. A nation run by people bearing arms is a police state. Well, OK, they want to be able to shoot a burglar, protect their castle, but usually the burglar turns out to be their cat or their adult son who has come home unexpectedly in the night. So may the love of guns fall like scales from their eyes.

"Anyway," I wrote to her, "wrap this Chinese-ness around your mind. It's a big fat symbol for mountain (which is evident in the pictogram's shape) in official signature red, like you would use at your bank to sign a check."

For the rest of you, may the tranquility of the meditative mountain state lead you into a moment of yin tranquility that leads you by stages through the epiphany, clarity of purpose, and the moment of great action.