In 1924, German thinker Aby Warburg started the Mnemosyne Bilderatlas. Named after the personification of memory in Greek mythology, the Memory’s Atlas of Images consists of 63 wooden boards covered with black cloth. On each one of them, Warburg arranged photographs of works of art, maps, postcards, and images he found on newpapers and magazines.
Warburg grouped together images from different times in history, which expressed the same same cultural or phychological theme in different ways, and through different gestures.
Fortune in Western manuscripts, caricature, and art
In the same way, Chinese characters have changed their shape in time, their most basic meaning remaining almost unaltered. One very important instance is the character jian, shown below.
According to dictionaries of classical and modern Chinese, Jian has the following meanings:
a) inspect, oversee (v.)
b) gaol (n.)
c) to revise, to look into (v.)
The central question raised by this character is who looks into what, and from where. The answer is contained in the character itself. The upper part of jian is an highly abstract depiction of a person.
Who is this person? According to the Mathew’s Chinese-English Dictionary 臣 (entry #327) was used to refer to oneself before one’s superiors, presumably by all those who were sufficiently educated to have the ability to write and read. The idea of looking into is expressed by placing the 臣 component of jian in the upper part of the character. We have a person, just an ordinary person, who looks into something from above.
The question of what this person is looking into is given by the lower part of jian, representing a bowl, a vessel, or a dish.
This, however, may just be a modern interpretation of what jian means, and why the image of an ordinary person checking the contents of a bowl should express ideas about ‘oversight’, or ‘supervision’ (but perhaps not necessarily ‘surveillance’). To make sure this meaning of jian is the same meaning the character had at earlier times in history, we may look at both the form of this character, and its use.
In characters carved on oracle bones around 1200 BCE, jian had clearly the shape of a human figure with a small container.
That the human figure was actually looking into the container, rather than drinking from it for instance, becomes clearer if we look at characters carved on bronze vessels, where the figure is leaning over the bowl, looking into it from above.
In the Book of Rites, jian referred to persons entrusted with the task to perform inspections:
In this month orders are given to the four inspectors to make a great collection over all the districts of the different kinds of fodder to nourish the sacrificial victims; and to require all the people to do their utmost towards this end – to supply what is necessary for the great Heaven, and for the spirits of the famous hills, great streams, and four quarters, and for the sacrifices to the Intelligences of the ancestral temple, and at the altars to the spirits of the land and grain; that prayer may be made for blessing to the people.
While in Confucius Analects and in the Mencius, it was used to express ideas about viewing, or overseeing:
The Master said, “Zhou had the advantage of viewing the two past dynasties. How complete and elegant are its regulations! I follow Zhou.”
Confucius, Analects, Ba Yi.
The people of Yan having rebelled, the king of Qi said, ‘I feel very much ashamed when I think of Mencius.’
Chen Jia said to him, ‘Let not your Majesty be grieved. Whether does your Majesty consider yourself or Zhou Gong the more benevolent and wise?’
The king replied, ‘Oh! what words are those?’
‘The duke of Zhou,’ said Jia, ‘appointed Guan Shu to oversee the heir of Yin, but Guan Shu with the power of the Yin State rebelled. If knowing that this would happen he appointed Guan Shu, he was deficient in benevolence. If he appointed him, not knowing that it would happen, he was deficient in knowledge. If the duke of Zhou was not completely benevolent and wise, how much less can your Majesty be expected to be so! I beg to go and see Mencius, and relieve your Majesty from that feeling.’
Mencius, Gong Sun Chou II.
In the Western tradition, the term equivalent to jian was ἐπί σκοπος (epí skopos), a magistrate envoyed in the colonies founded by the Greeks. The word is a composite of ἐπί epí standing above, and σκοπος skopos looking. So an episkopos is someone who stands above to look at something. Later, this word was borrowed by the Latin language. It maintained its pronounciation – episcopus – as well as its meaning of supervising. But, its contextual use changed. The episcopus, who by now had become the bishop, was no longer the governor of Greek colonies in the Mediterranean, or a supervisor, an inspector, or a superintendent but a successor of the twelve apostles.
In China jian instead underwent a separate trajectory of change, involving a different contextual use. Today, supervision is understood separate from notions about succession or teaching (as in 主教). It carries a set of contextual meanings which also relate to checking the quality of services purchased by the public, and the conduct of service providers, such as – for instance – taxi drivers: