Archive for the ‘Communication in Asia’ Category

Cultural similarities at the confines of the Indonesian archipelago

Bali, a dream destination, a harbour of quietude bathed by the Indian Ocean, at the confines of

Bali beach - cultural show

Bali beach - cultural show

Indonesia, at the southern boundaries of the large Java, is a vivid window of Eastern culture. Attracted by its charms, amateurs of surfing, expatriation or rest regularly colonize the beaches of this Sunda island (1). Determined to preserve the originality of their traditions, the inhabitants are eager to shelter themselves against too much foreign influences. They maintain their heritage and their invaluable ethnological capital. Beyond the sun, the sand and the waves, the Hindu Pantheon (2), with his divinities, mythological characters, its many festivals and religious rites, attracts and enchants the travelers.

Kuta, a small town, on the shore of the sea, did not escape modernism. Beyond its beaches, in its hotels and “guest houses”, in the stores and stalls, on the roads and in the narrow lanes, the animation is permanent. Gifts and handicrafts, adapted to tourist tastes, all kind of copies, particularly of recent movies, a comprehensive offer of fast food and ready-made clothes brands are appealing to passers-by. This urban landscape would be monotonous without the exotic spots of small Hindu temples, colourful and peaceful islands, a contrasting permanency to the ephemeral commercial centres. They are strongly enrooted in their traditions, maintaining customs and beliefs through frequent ritual ceremonies, like the daily offerings of rice and flowers.

At a crossroads, in the middle of the city, a small temple is particularly in obviousness. I had often

Bali writing

Bali writing

visited it without really paying attention to a gilded inscription, engraved on one of its walls. Suddenly, this message, in dancing letters, appeared familiar. It seems written in Thai characters, like a welcoming message to Siamese visitors. The resemblance to the writing of Chiangmai, the one of the North, the old kingdom of Lanna, is even more striking (3). “This is Balinese writing (4)”, explained some passers-by. It was used before the romanization of our characters, introduced with colonization. Nowadays its use is limited to religious inscriptions and to some street names, but its bases are still taught in the schools.

Thousands of kilometres separate Thailand from the island of Bali. Between them, all writings are in Roman characters, making the similarity more astonishing. Some believers, that I met in a temple, gave me some elements of an answer. With a broad smile they affirmed: “Thailand, is also Buddha”.

As this island has a strong Hindu (2) prevalence, I am amazed by the number of representations of Siddhārtha Gautama(6), available in tourist shops. This is not only a commercial opportunity, as the

Bali Hinduism

Bali Hinduism

local practices really combine elements of both religions. The relationship of the writings thus goes back to the roots of Hinduism and Buddhism. The alterations of history, with political and religious transformations, have covered the linguistic ties in Malaysia and Indonesia when Islam became predominant.

Many Indian and south-east Asian writings have their roots in the brahmi(5). Ashoka, an enlightened Indian emperor and promoter of Buddhism, used it for his edicts, engraved in rocks and on monumental columns marking events of the life of the Buddha. The merry farandole of rounded characters gives a familiar appearance to these writings. However, the similarity ends with the visual impression. Divergent evolutions and local adaptations made these alphabets incompatible.

Sometimes following separate trails, sometimes antagonistic or intermingled, two main streams modeled the cultures, beliefs and writings of Asia. The Middle Kingdom (7) extended its influence from the North and the Aryan India propagated its culture from the West. A third current, brought Islam through the Indian sub-continent, reaching Indonesia. More recently, western colonization added another layer, also modifying some habits, languages and religions. The island of Bali was not covered by the Islamic influence and Hinduism remained prevalent(2). With the western colonization, on the other hand, the local writing was replaced by the Roman characters, used all over Indonesia.

Burmese, Thais, Laotians, Khmer and many inhabitants from the South of India will find similarities

script from the North of Thailand

script from the North of Thailand

when comparing their writings, particularly in the inscriptions of temples and old streets names. Unfortunately, this resemblance does not allow them to decipher the messages as the alphabets underwent divergent evolutions and the spoken languages are completely different.


(1) Bali is most western of the lesser Sunda islands, situated in the south of the indonesian archipelago.

(2) Agama Hindu Dharma is the formal name of Hinduism in Indonesia. It is practised by 93% of the population of Balii http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Balinese-Hinduism accessed 12.10.2008

(3) The Lanna script is a descendant of the old Mon script like the Lao religious scripts and Burmese script. It was used during the time of the Lanna kingdom, founded in 1259 and conquered by Burma in 1558. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/lanna.htm. Accessed 10.10.2008

(4) The Balinese alphabet or Carakan descended ultimately from the from Brahmi script of ancient India. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/balinese.htm. Accessed 10.10.2008

(5) Brāhmī is a term which refers to the pre-modern members of the family of the systems of brahmic writings, born in India

(6) The original name of the Buddha

(7) Name given by Chinese people to their country (Zhong Guo)

The Indian god Ganesh

The Indian god Ganesh

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An easy and universal script!

This is of course a joke! Learning the Chinese writing is extremely challenging. Without this major

The sun behind a tree = East

The sun behind a tree = East

difficulty, it could however be universal. By using ideograms (1) drawn without reference to an alphabet of sounds, communication is freed from the constraints of the spoken language. The graphics are representing objects and concepts in an often very schematic way (2).

A similar system develops again in the modern world. Symbols are used to express ideas and to transmit message which can be quickly assimilated, without being decoded through sounds. This is, to some extent, the reinvention of the writing in Chinese characters.

On roads, at the stations and in airports, signalization panels are burgeoning. Words are replaced by simplified images or drawings with an obvious visual meaning. “

Nose toward the sky” on takeoff, the symbol of a plane announces “departures”, “check in” or a “bus stop for the airport” depending on the posting environnement. The message is expressed without the use of the hermetic phonemes of the oral communication. Pictograms have the advantage to be universally understood.

A realistic fruit with a cross

Realistic crossed out fruit

Graphic signs might be combined to extend their meanings and convey specific messages. Crossing an image indicates nega

tion or prohibition, for instance over a cigarette, a mobile phone or a durian (3) all not allowed in certain public areas. A square represents a mouth, an opening or a tunnel. Combined with other caracters, it shows an underpass and his direction if an arrow is added.

Streching this concept to the limits and with the respect of some conventions, a succession of signalisation panels could express a whole sentence, breaking the barriers of spoken languages. This « picturesque » way to describe objects and ideas is an original characteristic of the Chinese writing. Without a tonal alphabet and the necessity to convert words to sounds, it is used to communicate in various languages, not only in all Chinese dialects, but partially in Japanese and Korean.

Mouth-man-direction = pointing to underpath

Mouth-man-direction = pointing to underpath

By investing the time necessary to master a few thousand ideograms, one is equipped with a sort or writing esperanto (4), a universal mean of communication. Nowadays, a billion and a half people make this effort, more or less voluntarily. In ancien times, the Chinese characters were used in several asian countries. They were completely replaced by locally designed alphabeths in Thailand and in Vietnam and are used only partially in Korea and in Japan (5). These changes were intended to reduce the time needed to acquire literacy. The gain in speed took his toll on the universality of the writing.


(1) “Logograms” , “ideograms” , “sinograms” or “pictograms” are nuances used in linguistics publications and are not useful within the restricted framework of this blog.

(2) Waves of simplifications of the Chinese writing (the most recent at the occasion of the Cultural revolution) do not always contribute to universal comprehension. The characters become different between periods and counties. Taiwan, for example, preserved the traditional characters whereas continental China adopted the wave of simplifications.

(3) Durian. The king of the exotic fruits but with a very strong odor. Reference: https://mybanyan.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/smells-like-hellsmells-like-hell

(4) Esperanto is a built language, conceived at the end of the XIXe century by Ludwik Leizer Zamenhof with an aim of facilitating the communication between people of different languages through the whole world. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto

(5) In Korea and Japan a system was set up combining an alphabet of local design with Chinese characters, often used in a phonetic way.

left - east - exit (mouth)

left - east - exit (mouth)

This blog was originally written in French and translated with the assistance of Babelfish


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