The cover image on David Berlinski’s new book, Human Nature, is, shall we say, delightfully cryptic. It’s a Chinese ideogram. The book says in the image credits that it means “happiness.” That is all.
How is it pronounced? How does it relate it to the themes of the book? I asked Dr. Berlinski, who answered:
Chinese characters do not have anything like a canonical pronunciation. That seems to be the genius of the Chinese system. The characters float free of pronunciation. Mandarin speakers pronounce the character in one way, Cantonese speakers in another; and generally neither speaker can understand the other. That’s why in conversation Mandarins very often sign with their hands. The character does mean happiness, but in the expanded sense, I think, of the French le bonheur — a sense of happiness that includes well-being, appropriateness, and some associated concept of goodness, too. But for a far more informed idea about the connotations of this character, it would be necessary to talk to a literate native-Chinese speaker. I liked the character for its elegance and beauty. The happiness was extra — as it so often is.
Agreed, it is beautiful and elegant in a way that the English word, the approximate translation “happiness,” is not. You will not find the character otherwise explained in the text of the book, which is somehow a classic move on the part of the author. But now you know!