Debates on the nature of the Chinese writing system, particularly whether Chinese characters may or may not legitimately be called “ideographs,” continue to bedevil Chinese studies. This paper considers examples of what are referred to as “discourses of character fetishization,” whereby an inordinate status is discursively created for Chinese characters in the interpretation of Chinese language, thought, and culture. The author endeavors to analyze and critique the presuppositions and implications of such discourses, with the aim of defusing the passions that have been aroused by this issue, and showing the way toward a more comprehensive and grounded understanding of the nature of Chinese characters, both as a writing system and in relation to Chinese culture and thought.
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