December 21, 2020

Some thoughts about my dear book about Chinese Characters

Several years ago I wrote a book about Chinese characters called Understanding Chinese Characters. What started out as small research for my personal study purposes turned into this gigantic project that took more than 5 years of very intensive research and writing to complete and even though I did most of the work alone, there were almost 30 people involved helping me. Many many thanks to them, especially those who were very involved and the book could never have been finished without them. When I was done I was so tired and burned out, that even though I managed to push the book over the finish line with 100% diligence, after I self-published, I had no energy left for promotion whatsoever. 

I'm not a sales person anyway and I feel very uneasy when I have to talk about something I did not to mention promote myself or a product or an idea I worked on, so I submitted the book only to one publishing house and when I got rejected (which happens all the time and I accepted it normally) I only put the book on my blog and let it live it's own life. 

I am very surprised and happy that to this day with basically zero promotion and with the book being hidden on my blog there were almost 200 people who were interested in it enough to buy it. Many thanks to everyone who did.

In either case, the reason why I'm writing this article now is because a reader left a comment under the article where I talk about my book and asked a few questions, the most important being: how is my book different from all other books about Chinese characters? 

A lot of time has passed since my Chinese character burn out and when I read his comment I realized that a reader who doesn't know my work from my Understanding Chinese Characters youtube channel really does not know why I think my book is the best book about Chinese characters ever written! :) All jokes on me. 

He mentioned one Russian book to me and told me that to him it essentially looks the same as mine except for the colors and I have to agree. On the surface and without any explanation the two layouts do look similar:

A page from my book:


Same page from the book mentioned by the reader in the comments:

I gathered my good spirits and wrote a 3 page long comment which I then transformed into this article:)

Interestingly the layout indeed is somewhat similar to the Russian book, but I have never seen this book before. As will be mentioned later, I actually wrote my book completely from the bottom up, designing everything myself, and didn't look at any other books for inspiration when it comes to the layout. 

Now that I think about it, I've seen several Chinese character books with a similar layout. I guess since there is only a limited number information clusters for each Chinese character entry (the character itself, pronunciation, meaning, past versions etc.) there is thus also only a limited number of ways you can organize them on a page and the layouts are bound to be similar.

Apart from the similarity in layout though (and the presence of a character evolution bar), I would say the two books are fundamentally different.

Key features of my book:

1) Rigorous scientific research on Chinese character etymology presented without the scientific clutter, systematically reduced to very functional and minimal character entry pages. I tried to base everything on the principle "you read a page once quickly and you understand/master the information on it immediately".

The rigorous academic research is almost never present, not even in the background, when it comes to popular books about Chinese characters, making them too inaccurate and essentially useless. In specialized scientific publications the academic research is naturally too academic and cluttery. 

2) Stress on the phonetic aspect of Chinese characters and phonetic series - the core and prevailing element of the Chinese writing system as a whole. 

The concept can be well seen on series like this for example, as will be explained later:
青 請 清 情 晴 精 
兌 脫 說 銳 稅 悅 閱  

3) Color coding.

4) Choosing only meanings and pronunciations for each character entry which an adult educated speaker of Chinese finds useful.

5) Introductory part which in itself is a small book, but again based on the principle: rigorous academic research without the academic clutter, reduced to a functional and minimal text (you read once quickly and you understand everything immediately).

6) A more modern division of Chinese characters.

7) A slightly more accurate pronunciation guide.

8) A logical system in which the characters are introduced from the simplest to the most complex ones.

9) Design pleasant to the eye.

10) Book written from the bottom up.

11) Characters in the book chosen based on personally crafted frequency lists with the final 200 characters hand-picked to represent the 200 most useful Chinese characters for a beginner student. 

12) Minor detail: The character evolution bar at the bottom of each page only shows the absolute functional minimum number of previous versions of the character in question necessary to understand immediately what the modern character means and how it is written today.

The above were actually features that were something I was missing very much when I was looking for a good reference book when learning Chinese and I basically wrote a book that I would have loved buying as a student. 

The above 12 points in more detail:

1) My book is completely based on heavy scientific research, silently humming in the background, which was systematically reduced to only the most essential and functional information so that:

A) you have accurate scientific information about the structure and history of each character 


B) you are not flooded with information and only see that what is essential helping you understand why the character you are looking at is written the way it is.

Look at 为,民,表 or any character in my book and you will see a very short description of its structure, and if you look at the character or how the character evolved, I made sure that you will understand exactly why the character today is written the way it is, why it is pronounced the way it is and why it means what it means (where applicable). 

Other books just don't do this, or do it only in a very limited way with obvious characters like 人,刀,月,山 etc. For characters that are obscure or more complex, or require a lot more research which often has never been done, they might provide you with an artificial mnemonic picture to remember the character better but the picture is not related to the actual structure of the character which is just wrong. 

One of the friends, who offered her kind help and opinion when I was working on this book was Yanjaa Wintersoul, a world record holder in several memory disciplines. She told me that from a memorization point of view, it is always better to have an organic/intrinsic mnemonic, such as the real etymology of a given Chinese character and understanding its structure well, rather than an artificially developed one (e.g.: creating an artificial story to help you remember the character better). This is why I say that using artificial pictures as mnemonics for Chinese characters when you have real etymology to help you out is just wrong. Following is an example of real etymology helping you remember a character (page from my book about the 为 character):

I also tried to make sure that a layman as well as an expert both would find the book useful which is a very difficult thing to do. I believe beginners can benefit from this book because it is simple yet based on rigorous research, with handpicked characters based on several frequency studies. Experts might benefit from this book because some of the research we've done I've never seen published anywhere else and believe me and my friends came with correct answers so several common characters that weren't presented anywhere yet.

Additionally, in order to make it look as simple, minimal and functional as possible it took me and my friends 5 years of coming up with the information design used in the book, tweaking, adjusting and testing so that a complete layman as well as an expert would understand every page after reading it only once, with all information necessary, to completely master the character structure and meaning. 

Most other Chinese character books unfortunately only "lump" information on the student. They present the character, several pronunciations, several meanings, example words, stroke order and several past versions of the character. Then maybe add a picture which will help students remember the character but, as mentioned, the picture is often not related to the actual structure of the character and no systematic effort has been taken to accurately explain the structure of the character in question and its relation to the modern meaning and pronunciation. 

The reason is that it is a very very hard thing to do. For instance it took us almost a month to correctly research only this one following character and I still am not 100% sure we got it right:

法 fa3 "law, rule" is usually interpreted as 氵 "water" + 去 "to go" = "to go with the flow, to follow the rule" and then later the meaning "rule, law" was isolated which is what 法 means today. As a rule of thumb, all poetic interpretations like this are usually incorrect. To prove it ,sometimes just a little research is necessary, sometimes as in this case it took almost a month:

法 was originally written as 灋 as can be seen on the page from my book. We know this, because we can find this character in old character lists as a variant character for 法. Characters were often simplified in history in irregular ways which is the case of 法 as well as will be explained below so structurally 灋 was simplified to 法. Now to the original 灋 is slightly irregularly divided into 𣿕 over 去 and not left and right as is usually the case with 氵 present in characters into 氵 and (廌 over 去). We know this because 1) there is no (廌 over 去) character in any of the historical or modern lists to be found 2) there is a 𣿕 character and 3) because with a lot of historical comparative phonetic research we can prove that 法/灋 has a lost pronunciation or pronunciation variant which would lead to the modern he2 pronunciation and equally 𣿕 which is the theorized phonetic element in 灋 also has a pronunciation variant which would lead to the modern he2. The hypothesis then is that since 法/灋 = he2 and 𣿕 = he2, 𣿕 he2 thus can be the phonetic element in 灋 he2 and all there is left to check is whether 去 can be the semantic element in 灋. We know that 去 originally meant "cooking pot" and 灋 originally meant "casting form" so everything fits. 灋 was then later irregularly simplified to 法 similarly to how 時 was simplified to 时 for instance.

This kind of research is very tiring, time consuming and demanding, because you not only need to speak a modern Chinese language like Mandarin very well (because a lot of the scientific literature is in Mandarin), you also need to read Classical Chinese very well and be able to do independent and creative detective-style semantic, phonetic and visual cross comparisons 2000 years back in time. 

I was also often working with Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hokkien, Cantonese and other pronunciations of the characters I was researching as well as extensively reading ancient texts to see how these characters were used and look for previous meanings of these character and looked at the presence of these characters in other characters to see what function they had there etc. I also worked with seemingly endless charts and scans of very old texts to see what individual characters looked like 2200+ years ago before they were standardized to look for clues helping me understand their modern structure. All in all it is extremely exciting and interesting and rewarding but tiring and time consuming too. 

2) My book also heavily works with the concept that more than 95% of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds, which means that characters also have a sound component not only a meaning component. This in turn means that when you look at the majority of Chinese characters, based on their structure, you should know how to read them, not only what they mean. Apart from the logical necessity to approach the Chinese writing system this way, I wanted to base my book around this concept also to finally start systematically eradicating the misconception that Chinese characters are pictures.

I see this particular point is "sort of" addressed in other books, but very few other books are actually built around this system. From a certain point of view, Chinese characters almost employ something like an alphabet to help you read them and I think it's very useful to look at them this way. I think I've only seen one book completely based on the system of this 'alphabet' (phonetic elements/phonetic series) and it is almost 100 years old written by the legendary Karlgren:

It is amazing what he was able to put together such a long time ago but the information is unfortunately outdated today and has many other limitations and building on his shoulders I decided to write something more modern.

This is what he and I are trying to explain:

青 qing1 "green, blue" is the phonetic element in a whole series of characters (below showing only 4), telling you how to read them:

清 qing1 - clear
請 qing3 - to ask
情 qing2 - emotion
晴 qing2 - clear weather

The little character on the left roughly tells you what the character means:

氵 water
言 words
忄 heart
日 sun

This is a super frequent feature in Chinese characters. More than 95% of Chinese characters work like this so it's safe to say that the Chinese writing system works (mostly) like this. These series however are not always as clear cut, regular and easy to follow as the above one. Some are phonetically irregular:

兌 dui4

脫 tuo1
說 shuo1/shui4 
銳 rui4
稅 shui4
閱 yue4
悅 yue4

Some phono-semantic characters are visually fused beyond recognition:

For instance the character 年 nian2 means "year" and was actually originally written as 秊 with the top element 禾 he2 "grain" pointing to the original meaning "to harvest grain" and the bottom 千 qian1 phonetic element pointing to the pronunciation nian2. We know this by reading ancient dictionaries like 說文解字 for instance where it is clearly stated that 年 means "to harvest grain". In similar dictionaries we also see that 年 had a variant character which was 秊 and from there the research is easy.

The challenge was to take all this information and present it, as mentioned, in a minimal, functional and visually pleasant way based on the famous principle "see once and understand immediately":

3) Color coding. Apart from helping you remember individual characters better, color coding is very important especially in characters where original character elements were fused and are not recognizable anymore as the 年 example mentioned above. Color coding helps understand the transition of these elements between the past and modern versions of the character and help you see what the remnants of these elements in modern characters are. See 年,表,出,民,重 ,東 or any other fused character in my book for instance.

Again, this is not easy at all. Both understanding phonetic series thoroughly and being able to color-code characters as is shown above requires years of research and a very deep understanding of how Chinese characters work. The research was also necessary to 1) be able to accurately explain the structure of these complicated fused characters and B) make it look as simple and straightforward as you see on the pictures above. 

As mentioned, most other Chinese character books only compile all information the authors have seen in other sources previously (all meanings, all pronunciations, all previous versions, no etymology), rearranging it slightly, adding some more information and the pages are flooded with unnecessary stuff.

If authors work with etymology, they are usually publishing scientific books not intended for the everyday student and naturally work with even more information clutter.  In some specialized books about Chinese characters, the entry page for 重 would be several pages long (some character entries maybe up to 30 pages long). My intention, as I mentioned, was to have a quick reference book based on the "you read once and understand immediately" principle.

4) Most books that I've seen just slam each page with many meanings, pronunciations and even example words of the character not really thinking about this step too much. In my book, me and friends who helped me went over each character and took special care to choose only those pronunciations and meanings for each character which an adult educated speaker of Chinese should generally know and find useful. 

It might not seem important but for a beginner student this is crucial. There is really no need to flood the page with all possible meanings and pronunciations of a given character which will only confuse the student when native educated speakers of Chinese themselves see no use for them.

5) Introductory part (which took us about a year and a half to write) based on years and years of research, writing and re-writing and testing with about 25 test-readers so that we achieved the same thing again: most up-to-date, rigorous academic research reduced into a minimal, easy to understand functional text without any clutter. 

6) Most Chinese character books traditionally divide Chinese characters into 6 types (pictograms, semantic compounds, sound loans, simple indicative characters, phono-semantic compounds, and derived characters). Objectively, not too many authors of these books take their time to think about this step too much. This division however essentially comes from the 说文解字 dictionary which is ~2000 years old and with modern research we can categorize these characters much better which is what we did in my book.

7) In my opinion a better pronunciation guide.

8) The order in which the characters appear has also been something that we worked on for a few months. I'm not saying it's better or worse than the ones used in other books, but my aim was to order up the characters from the least to the most complex ones AND from the most regular to the least regular ones when it comes to phono-semantic compounds. For instance:

清 qing1 is a super regular phono-semantic character because the phonetic element 青 is pronounced qing1, which matches the pronunciation of 清 qing1 perfectly including the tone.

請 qing3 is less regular because 青 qing1 doesn't match the tone of 請 qing3.

On the irregular far end we would have 他 ta1 which is heavily irregular because its phonetic element 也 is pronounced ye3. However, based on rigorous research we can prove that 也 really is the phonetic element in 他 which is what my book is all about. And because it's such a difficult thing to do very few books work with etymological research like this and the few that do are either too scientific or in Chinese or both.

9) Hopefully a design which is pleasant to the eye.

10) My book is written from the bottom up. We designed absolutely everything ourselves from the concept of the book itself, research, information design, pictures all the way to the layout and spaces between individual letters.

In the end, one of the goals I had while writing this book was, that my information design should be almost invisible. That is, you don't notice what is making each page functional, you only absorb the information necessary to understand and master each character as quickly as possible (again the now very famous "read once and understand immediately" principle), based on real data and complicated science.

11) About 10 years ago I used to extensively work on character frequency lists and conducted my own research and did a lot of thinking that probably should have been spent otherwise to figure out 1) which characters are really the most essential ones for beginner students of Chinese and 2) what the order of learning words in a foreign language in general should be. I conducted my own research, worked with a computer scientist friend and developed programs to learn about Chinese character and Chinese word frequency better. I also compiled several word lists when I was learning Farsi, Polish and Serbian from scratch to see the order in which words would appear organically in my language learning process and ran several analyses on these lists as well. The characters in this book have been hand picked based on all of this information.

12) Character evolution bar for each character entry at the bottom of the page is showing only the absolute minimum functional number of previous versions of the character and not all or several previous versions of the character. This is a minor detail, but actually reduces the clutter, confusion and decision fatigue of the reader by a LOT.

Finally, if you'd like to buy the book, you can find it here: I truly believe this book is very good and if nothing I would love for the message that it brings to be spread. Especially shattering the misconception that Chinese characters are pictures or that every character has a poetic story behind it, where in fact 99.9% of the time it is just a very simple, straightforward and functional unit of sound and meaning.

No comments:

Post a Comment