Jerry and Louis, thanks for your interesting comments.
Jerry, from your various references to “translation,” I realize that I may have been misleading. At least in this thread, I have not been addressing the art of translation, per se. For me at least, the search for meaning and the search for appropriate translations are different things. On this board, I usually assume that most readers have enough background in the discussions that translation concerns are of minor importance compare to understanding meaning. I therefore translate words inconsistently and use them more as conversational “handles” or “cross-references,” rather than as assertions of my translation preferences.
All in all, I think that “distinguish” is clearly a superior translation to “distribute.” I used “distribute” in my post above out of pure whim and as a reference to the earlier discussion about fen on another thread, where ideas of “distribution” and “apportionment” were discussed. If this was the major motivation for your posts, we basically have no disagreement. In case you perspective really does encompass more, let me address other issues.
What I am asserting is that exact direct translation of even short phrases between most pairs of languages is often impossible if there is no context. Both at the level of grammar and at the level of vocabulary, it is often impossible to avoid over- or under-specifying things if no context is known. Even with context, incompatible structures complicate things.
How can one translate even such a simple phrase as “Nin hao?” into English or into any of the other languages mentioned on this board? “How are you?” and “How do you do?” are not the same thing. They do not specify singular or plural, except in non-standard English. Neither phrase specifies level of respect or courtesy. Languages that do specify these categories often do so along different lines than those that exist in Mandarin. In no case, however, would I assert that “Nin hao” is “mysterious” or exceptionally “vague” from the Chinese viewpoint or that this is a difficult phrase to translate, once one knows the context in which it is used.
You mention that “fenqing” and “fenqingchu” are used in the literature as equivalents of “fen.” I agree that these words are good support for using “distinguish” as a translation for “fen.” I disagree, however, that these usages are clearly meant to exclude other core meanings of “fen.”
Yang Chengfu himself specifies a case of full and empty that is hard to understand as exhaustive in the context of the form Yang Zhenduo teaches, where very few postures involve 100/0 weight distributions. If all one needs to know is which leg has all the weight and which doesn’t, why make a fuss about distinguishing them, as opposed to simple making sure to separate all weighting into 100/0 where possible? In this case, I think he merely discusses a clear case to give guidance in less clear cases, assuming that the practitioner has enough understanding to amplify his remarks appropriately. My understanding is that even in the midst of a 50/50 transition, one must “fen xu shi” and not wait for the culmination of the transition before doing this.
In explaining “fen” as “fenqingchu,” I do not think the intention is to clarify ambiguity, but rather to simplify complexity in order to provide overall guidance. In short, I do not think the Chinese is really ambiguous at all, merely quite expansive.
If I say that one must distinguish full and empty in every spot of the body, I do not think it would be fair, for instance, to say that “spot” is ambiguous. I could mean every cell, every joint, or every limb, but I think the lack of specificity in such a phrase is intentional and not a mark of “ambiguity” or “mystery.” I might explain that “spot” means the spaces in the joints, but this would not really preclude other meanings.
A word like “spot” in English is sometimes vague, sometimes, ambiguous, and sometimes quite specific. In almost all meanings I am aware of, there is a commonality of core meaning that does not translate into most languages that must chose more specific terms, or at least terms that involve other distinctions between things that are “spots” and thing that are not. I would argue that “fen” is such a word in Chinese and that its core meaning (probably division and apportion?) likely persists in all the compounds in which it is used and that it does so in ways that are not easy to capture in another language.
If I were to see “fen xu shi” as only the equivalent of “telling whether something is ‘xu’ or ‘shi,’ I think I would unnecessarily restrict the meaning of “fen.” For instance, even “telling” and “distinguishing” are not really the same thing.
“Telling” whether someone has a Taiwanese accent does not necessarily involve the same process as “distinguishing” the same thing. For instance, one can say: “You should not assume that ‘si’ means ‘silk,’ because you have to distinguish between Taiwanese who say ‘si’ for ‘shi’ and Northerners who do not.” In this case, “’telling’ whether someone is Taiwanese or a Northerner” is not a good equivalent, because it provides for no call to action. The idea is that one must do more than simply understand whether it is a case of x or y, but must also act accordingly, depending on what the case is. There is more than a simple injunction mentally to divide all cases into x and y, but also an idea of apportioning one’s responses accordingly. I may be able to tell what accent someone has, but not distinguish appropriate responses from inappropriate ones based on this knowledge.
Jerry, you also stated the following: “As far as words like gao1 'tall', they function differently in Chinese when used in pairs of opposites like high and low, light and heavy, empty and full, so I'm afraid your analysis won't hold up.” Are not “xu” and “shi” used precisely as a pair of opposites “like high and low” etc.? In fact, now that I think of it, such pairs are also used as compounds to indicate gradations directly, such as “height” (“gaodi”), “heaviness” (“qingzhong”), etc. Why is it not possible to view “xu” and “shi” also as a compound indicating gradation (i.e., as “xushi” meaning “fullness”/”solidity”/”emptyiness”? My ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary has just such a listing. In other words, why can the meaning of this phrase not include the following sense: “Make distinctions as to solidity”? If I say: “Fen gao di,” can this mean only: “Separate high from low”?
The Taijitu emphasizes that black and white are not enough to understand the relationship of Yin and Yang, but shows them as intertwined and exhibiting various proportions of prominence. The theories in the Yi Jing talk about strong and weak Yin and Yang, implying that both binary and graded relationships are important. Is it not reasonable to see Xu and Shi in this same way, where it is important to distinguish between being “more strongly Xu” and “less strongly Xu”? If I must act on such distinctions, why can “fen” include no element of “apportionment” or “distribution”?