On Homophonic Association

Emily Lee Luan

In language, sound coincides with meaning. Chinese is a language that contains many homophones, which means that it is both a language of overlapping sounds, and also a language in which its sounds have many overlapping meanings.

窟 means cave or hole. It sounds like 哭 which means to cry.

Much of my memory of Taiwan is from childhood. I can’t see the characters that name my father’s hometown but I can hear the glass bottle and north in its name. My mother’s, a peach garden. Sometimes these impressions overlapped with literal meaning. In other instances, I spent decades with mismatched sounds and meanings rattling in my ear.

This was maybe my first lesson in association: that the sound of a word could conjure a feeling, a memory, an image, and that you could live with that conjuring for a long time. In the meantime, it would gather its own associations, threading itself to other sounds or meanings in your world of language.

The phrase 辛苦 means arduous, to go through pain in order to reach something. 辛 means laborious, and 苦 can function either as an adjective—bitter—or as a noun—hardship. But 辛 shares the same sound as 心 or heart, a word I was taught to write early on, as a child, because of its simplicity. And so 辛苦 became 心苦, the act of overcoming a bitterness that resides in the chest. I’ve since paired the sound with its intended meaning, but I often forget. It’s hard not to hear the heart in hardship.


When I relearned how to read Chinese, I copied characters over and over again by hand, mouthing them as I went. I started to really look at them. What could I see outside of their meaning, outside of even their sound?

For a while, I put the word sadness into every one of my poems, until, with each repetition, sadness gradually left and stood outside of me—until it became decoupled, just sound. The sound accumulated images and memories it had touched before. It was the peach, it was a descaled fish, it was the shape of land against water.


The longer I looked at the Chinese character, the more it became an object—the little picture that it is. In the picture there was a feeling. And I bowed to the character because it did what a poem does: contain a feeling. Each character a picture, and in the picture, a poem.

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