The Name of T'ang Haywen

The artistic signature of T’ang is an association of the Roman letters of T’ang and the Chinese characters of Hai (海) and Wen (文). T’ang was therefore known to his relations and even to his closest friends as T’ang - but pronounced as the name of the Tang (唐) dynasty. Most of them, with a few rare exceptions, therefore assumed that the character of his family name was that of the great Tang dynasty, considered by historians to be a golden age in Chinese history, but this did not correspond to reality.

During more than twenty years of research we have never found confirmation of what a small number of observers were saying, sometimes with a romantic intention to add a wonderful kinship to their artist friend’s story but also sometimes with much less laudable intentions.

Various sources tell us that the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese character of Zeng (曾) can be Tang or Tsang or Tăng or Tseng; therefore, it operates with a certain variability due to an evolution over time and according to different transcription systems.

To ensure this and understand this regionalisation of the pronunciation of the same character, we have long searched for the oldest possible academic and bibliographical sources commenting on these particularities of pronunciation on the geographical perimeter of China.

In November 2018, we were able to purchase a rare copy of INDEX DES CARACTÈRES CHINOIS, published in 1886 and listing the various regional pronunciations of Chinese characters in Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese.

This INDEX probably is one of the oldest academic sources on this subject, since France’s colonization of Vietnam’s current territories was only completed after 1890 and it is unlikely that another index, such as this one intended for Westerners, could have been produced before 1886. Interestingly enough, this index book bears the handwritten mark of Léopold de Saussure (1866-1925), a scientist, a lieutenant in the French navy and younger brother of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure(1957-1913).

This INDEX DES CARACTÈRES CHINOIS, is first of all an autograph version of linguist and Sinologist Samuel Wells Williams’ dictionary augmented with Annamite Mandarin pronunciation, Cantonese pronunciation, Chinese Mandarin pronunciation and finally Mandarin pronunciation given in a small dictionary published by the Jesuits of Shanghai. Sometimes an Annamite regional pronunciation is also added.

The Chinese character Zeng (曾), according to INDEX DES CARACTÈRES CHINOIS, as shown in the image above, may have five different pronunciations in Vietnam. The most frequently used, is romanized as Tăng, the small accent above the “ a ” providing an indication. T’ang chose to add an apostrophe between the “ T ” and the “ a ” of his romanized name to maintain the link to the authentic Chinese character of his name.

It is therefore finally well established that Zeng Tianfu (曾天福), born in China in 1927, who emigrated to Vietnam in 1937, had the phonetics of his family name “Zeng” transformed first into “Tseng”, then into “T’ang” in Vietnam where he also adopted a pen name – “Hai-Wen” or “Hai-Woon(海文), then emigrated to France in 1948 where he became a painter under the name T’ang Haywen (曾海文).

The spelling he adopted for “Haywen”, with a “ y ”, instead of the pinyin “Hai-Wen”, with an “ i ”, is intended to give to the French readers that are unfamiliar with pinyin pronunciation, a phonetic indication.

INDEX DES CARACTÈRES CHINOIS that Léopold de Saussure once owned is now being part of the T’ang Haywen Archives.

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