In a recent post, Deconstructing the Chinese Character Creativity of Japan, I highlighted some creative work with Chinese characters by Japanese artists. What I didn’t say at the time was, “I wish the Chinese themselves would do more stuff like this.” Well, they are, and just recently I saw some great examples of it, first sent in by reader, and then later on Kaixin Wang (China’s Facebook).
I’m not going to deconstruct them like last time, because these are just way too complex. Just keep in mind that the squares and circles framing many of them are not actually a part of the characters like they were in the Japanese designs.
Pink Tentacle recently did a post showcasing Japanese town logos which make prominent use of kanji (Chinese characters in the Japanese written language). These designs totally blew my mind. I love seeing creative manipulation of Chinese characters, so this stuff was pure gold.
Be warned, though; some of these are a bit hard to make out if (1) you don’t know what character(s) you’re supposed to be looking at, and (2) you don’t have significant experience with Chinese characters. Below I’ll explain a few of the designs to make them a bit more accessible.
I’ll start easy. This one is cool because it’s not hard to make out, and it has an easily recognized source of inspiration:
This next one is actually two characters, but both are fairly easy to recognize (they’re just a bit chubbier than usual), and they have the added benefit of resembling a Japanese robot! Nice.
Two characters again (八 returns!), but this time a decidedly asymmetrical character is forced into a symmetrical design, with interesting results.
Now we’re getting a little crazy. This very stylized logo turns a line into a circle and a box into a triangle. It takes a bit of mind-bending to see it.
There’s a Firefox add-on called Characterizer (originally Kanjilish, for Japanese) which replaces parts of words with Chinese characters. My initial reaction was that it was just gimmick without much real value, but I’m starting to wonder.
In the screenshot above, the characters are for Japanese; for simplified Chinese they would probably appear as:
> 读ead 练ractice 学earn
Unfortunately the add-on only works for older versions of Firefox, so I can’t try it out. The concept, as stated by the author, is:
> As a busy professional, I don’t always have time to practice Japanese as much as I like. I developed this add-on so that I could keep kanji characters fresh in my mind, even when I wasn’t reading Japanese.
So the idea is to semi-passively reinforce characters already learned. Makes sense.
One part that intrigues me about the add-on, though, is the missing letter. Every time your brain encounters a word with its first letter replaced by a Chinese character, for just that split second, it kind of freaks out, but then recovers gracefully. I feel that my brain, however, is definitely focused on decoding the proper English word, treating the mildly horrific character-letter hybrid as a sort of captchaesque nuisance blocking its way to comprehension. The characters are just mentally swept away by this process.
Actually, I find the whole mental process very much like the now-famousmessage below:
> Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a tatol mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.
What I really wonder, though, is: what effect would prolonged exposure to character-letter hybrids have on someone who has never studied the characters? Would they eventually start to form associations between words and characters?
The process needn’t be exactly like Characterizer does it. Here’s an alternate example by syllable:
The longer ones definitely seem to work better. If you don’t read Chinese, how many of the place names above can you read?
Here’s another list (version 1):
– 姚ao 明ing
– 章hang 子i怡i
– 巩ong 俐i
– 张hang 艺i谋ou
– 葛e 优ou
– 周hou 立i波o
– 大a 山han
– 毛ao 向iang辉ui
Same list (version 2):
– 姚ao Ming
– 章hang Ziyi
– 巩ong Li
– 张hang Yimou
– 葛e You
– 周hou Libo
– 大a Shan
– 毛ao Xianghui
How did you fare in the two lists above? Was version 1 a lot harder? How about 2- versus 3-character names? The names are roughly in “fame order.” Did it get harder as you went along?
You could take the concept in a lot of directions. Definitely worth exploring some more.
Taking advantage of his current popularity, Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) has swiftly published a book on Shanghainese expressions called 诙词典 (something like “Comedic Dictionary”).
The book isn’t exactly a dictionary, but it groups a whole bunch of Shanghainese expressions by common themes or elements, then explains them entry by entry in Mandarin, followed by a usage example from Zhou Libo’s stand-up acts for each entry.
What’s interesting (and a bit annoying) is that Shanghainese sentences are written out in Chinese characters, and then followed by a Mandarin translation in parentheses. Here’s an example of such a sentence:
> [Translation: “That remark of his was scathing. I had no comeback for that.”]
The book is peppered with sentences like this, and as a learner, I have some issues with them:
1. If you read the Shanghainese sentences according to their Mandarin readings, they sound ridiculous and make no sense (a lot of the time) in either Mandarin or Shanghainese.
2. Unless you’re Shanghainese, you will have no clue as to how to pronounce the Shanghainese words in the sentences properly (so what’s the point?).
3. I find myself really wondering how the editors chose the characters they used to represent the Shanghainese words.
To point #3 above, I know there are cases where the “correct character” can be “deduced” due to Shanghainese’s similarities to Mandarin. To use the example above, the Shanghainese “闷脱” can be rendered in Mandarin as “闷掉.” Then why 脱 instead of 掉? Well, 掉 has a different pronunciation in Shanghainese, and it’s not used in the same way as it is in Mandarin. The 脱 in “闷脱,” however, in Shanghainese is the same 脱 as in “脱衣服” in Mandarin (which is “脱衣裳” in Shanghainese). It seems like this game of “chasing the characters” from Mandarin to Shanghainese might be ultimately circular in some cases, but I can’t really judge.
The other point is that some of Shanghainese’s basic function words, pronouns, and other common words don’t correspond to Mandarin’s at all, and the characters used certainly seem like standard transliterations. An example from the sentence above would be the Shanghainese “迪” standing in for Mandarin’s “这,” or (not from above), the Shanghainese “格” for Mandarin’s “的.”
So how do you know which characters are “deductions” (these are kind of cool and can point to interesting historical changes in language), and which ones are mere transliterations? Well, research would help. I don’t have much time these days for such an endeavor, but I do know some Shanghainese professors of Chinese at East China Normal University who could point me to the right resources.
Lack of a standard romanization system is a problem that has plagued students of Shanghainese forever. Some favor IPA, but most find it a bit too cryptic. The problem is there is still no clearly superior solution that has become standard.
Zhou Libo’s book doesn’t make any headway in the romanization department. Headwords are given a “Shanghainese pronunciation” using a sort of “modified pinyin” with no tones. This is definitely more helpful than nothing, but it’s another reason why this book doesn’t make much of a learner’s resource for Shanghainese. Where the romanization diverges from pinyin, you’re not sure how to pronounce it (“sö” anyone?), and where it matches pinyin, it’s often not really the same as pinyin.
I just recently had the pleasure of trying out the beta version of the new Pleco iPhone app. In case you’re not aware, Pleco is the software company behind what is regarded as the best electronic learner’s Chinese dictionary for any mobile device (and possibly the desktop as well). Given the dearth of really good Chinese dictionaries for the iPhone, Chinese learners have been eagerly awaiting the release of this iPhone app for quite some time. The wait has not been in vain; Pleco for iPhone is an outstanding app.
The Video Demo
Michael Love, Pleco founder, has made a two-part video of the new Pleco iPhone app:
I’ve never owned a device running Windows Mobile or Palm OS, so I’ve never been able to own Pleco before, but I’m familiar enough with previous versions to make basic comparisons.
The Pleco user interface received a much-needed makeover for the iPhone. While older versions of Pleco squeezed a plethora of buttons and options onto the screen (you have your stylus, after all), this iPhone Pleco had to find ways to increase buttons to tappable sizes and limit button clutter by hiding options on screens where you don’t need them all. Compare (Windows Mobile on the left, iPhone on the right):
Oh, and by the way, in this instance, Google Wave wins, 65% to 35%, making it part of an exclusive club of things harder to understand than Google Wave, which also includes “women, Scientology, the United States Tax code, Chinese telegraph code, Microsoft Visio 2004, and Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.”
My recent post on the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project prompted Mark of Toshuo.com to decry the relative dearth of traditional characters being added to the project. To this, David on Formosa reminded Mark that there are also a large number of characters shared by the traditional and simplified character sets.
At this point I’ll interject a visual aid (gotta love them Venn diagrams!):
All this got me thinking about the following question: If “s” represents the characters in the simplified set not shared with the traditional set, while “t” represents the characters in the traditional set not shared with the simplified set, and “u” represents the characters shared by the two sets, then what are the number of characters belonging to groups s, t, and u, respectively?
It seems like a simple enough question, but it’s actually quite tricky for a number of reasons.
First, the total number of Chinese characters in existence varies according to source, and largely depends on how many non-standard variants you want to include in your total set. You can be reasonably certain the total number is less than 50,000, but that’s still a pretty ridiculously large number, when most Chinese people regularly use less than 5000. For basic purposes of comparison, it makes sense to limit your set to a certain number of commonly used characters, but which set? One from the PRC? From Taiwan? From Hong Kong? From Unicode?
Second, you might be tempted to think that s = t, because simplified characters were “simplified from” traditional characters. This isn’t true, however, because in many cases multiple traditional forms were conflated into one simplified form. To give a very common example, traditional characters 干, 幹, and 乾 are all written 干 in simplified. So adding these three characters adds 1 to u, 2 to t, and 0 to s. There are lots of similar cases, so clearly t is going to be significantly larger than s. But by how many characters?
I’d be very interested to see a concrete answer to this question, regardless of the character limit used. I also wonder how the proportions of s, t, and u vary as the character limit is increased, and more and more low-frequency characters are included.
If you’ve got an answer, I’d love to hear from you!
If you’ve checked out many online Chinese dictionaries or websites on learning Chinese, you’ve seen a variety of ways to present characters’ proper stroke order. Animated GIFs are a favorite, but they often fall flat in one important respect: they display each stroke in a single frame, often leaving the direction of the stroke somewhat unclear.
This is where the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project impresses me: not only are the animated GIFs large and attractive, but they fluidly demonstrate the direction of each stroke. A nice example:
> Hello, and welcome to the Commons Stroke Order Project. This project aims to create a complete set of high quality and free illustrations to clearly show the stroke order of East Asian characters (hanzi, kanji, kana, hantu, and hanja). The project was started as there was none like it in terms of quality and it seems that it is the only one working on all three schools of Han character stroke order; simplified and traditional Chinese, and Japanese.
> You are free to use the graphics we’ve made and welcomed to join us and contribute to our progress. It’s easy, you just have to follow the simple steps stated in our graphics guidelines.
At 378 total characters, the project is still far from a complete set, but it’s off to a nice start!
I do, wonder, though, what kind of stroke order information is freely available out there that could speed the process along. I’ve seen enough separate sets of animated characters to make me suspect many have been automatically generated. (Anyone have info on this?) I’m also curious how the project is going to deal with the annoying issue of variable stroke orders.
> I hope that my system gives a context, even for non-visual learners, for distinguishing between the four tones in Mandarin and providing a mnemonic system to help them remember which tone goes with a particular word.
From the moment I first heard of this idea, I was intrigued by it. Associating tones with colors does open up a lot of possibilities. Once the system is internalized, you can drop tone marks and tone numbers altogether, and you can tone-code the Chinese characters themselves using color. (The best non-color approximation to this would be writing the tone marks above the characters, which you will find in some textbooks and programs.) So I was very receptive to this idea.
Despite being very open to the concept, when I saw the actual colors chosen to represent each tone, they just felt wrong to me. The pairings Dummitt chose were:
Why would these colors feel wrong to me? How could the tone-color associations be anything but arbitrary?
The reason that the colors felt wrong to me was that I had already thought about the relationships between the tones and my own perceptions of those tones. I had even (briefly) considered color when I sketched my “Perceptual Tone Contours” idea:
Specifically, I felt that first and fourth tone feel similar, and that second and third tone feel similar. I believe that perceived similarity is strong enough that it affects both listening comprehension and production. This is why I purposely colored first and fourth tone red in my diagram, and second and third tone blue.
An Alternate Color Scheme
OK, so now we’re getting down to the point of my post. As a thought exercise I asked myself: If I had to assign colors to the four tones, which colors would I use?
In answering this question, one has to believe that there are underlying principles which, when followed, might produce better results. Otherwise, arbitrary assignment is fine. So what are the principles? I have two:
1. The colors need to have a high degree of contrast so that they will stand out on a white background and not be confused with each other.
2. The colors chosen need to reflect the appropriate perceptual similarities.
There are other considerations you might take into account if you want to be super-thorough, of course. From an Amazon reviewer of Dummitt’s book:
> If a person was going to design a color code tone system they would probably want to avoid using red and green in the same color scheme. Red – green color blindness causes an inability to discriminate differences in red and green. Hence the testing when you get your driver’s license. 5 to 8 percent of males have this color blindness.
> Using red and orange in the same scheme is also not very bright. Much language learning is done on buses, trains, planes and their attendant stations. Lighting is sub-optimal in all these situations and much worse in China. Low light intensity impairs the ability to discriminate red from orange.
These points have some merit, I suppose, but I’m not sure what colors they leave. I’m sticking to the two principles I listed above. I don’t see how you’re going to avoid either red or orange altogether if you need easily distinguishable, high-contrast colors.
Regarding the principle of high contrast, I can’t disagree with Dummitt’s choices. You can’t choose yellow, and the ones he chose are easy to distinguish quickly.
As for perceptual similarities, I would reflect these similarities by grouping the four tones into two warm and two cool colors. In my Chinese studies over the years, I have often associated fourth tone with aggression or anger, both concepts which I would associate with the color red. Red = fourth tone is the strongest association I have, but from there, all the others fall into place. You can’t use yellow (poor contrast), so orange is your other warm color, going to first tone. My diagram has fourth tone and second tone diametrically opposed (falling versus rising), and green is directly opposite red on the color wheel, so I would go with green for second tone. That makes third tone blue.
The comic says that the character 明 actually derives, not from 日 and 月 as is commonly taught, but from 囧 and 月. This etymology seems to confirm it. So one of the earliest character etymologies we learn (sun + moon = bright) is either a lie, or actually just a bit more ambiguous than we were led to believe? Interesting!
“Reduplication, in linguistics, is a morphological process by which the root or stem of a word, or part of it, is repeated” (Wikipedia). You see reduplication in Chinese a lot, with verbs (看看, 试试), nouns (妈妈, 狗狗), and even adjectives (红红的, 漂漂亮亮).
You get reduplication is Japanese too (some of the coolest examples are mimetic), in words such as 時々 or 様々. As you can see, rather than writing the character twice, the Japanese use a cool little iteration mark: 々. Now if the Japanese learned to write from the Chinese, why don’t the Chinese use the same iteration mark?
According to Wikipedia, the Chinese sometimes use 々, but you don’t see it in print. This is true; what the Chinese use (only when writing shorthand) actually looks something like ㄣ. Ostensibly, because you never see 々 in print in China (or it never even existed in neat, printed form), it comes out a bit sloppily as ㄣ in Chinese handwritten form.
I recently read a cutesy Taiwanese comic called 兔出没，注意！！！ Rabbits Caution about the lives of two rabbits named 呵呵 and 可乐 and their owners. In the comic, the author took a rather “mathematical” approach to reduplication. Look for 宝宝 and 玩玩 in this one:
Look for 看看 and 谢谢 in this one (and don’t be confused by the 回 in 回家):
In this frame, even “bye-bye” gets the treatment:
While cute, I figured this representation of reduplication was not likely original. I was quite surprised, however, to see an almost identical representation on Wikipedia dating back to 900 B.C.! The quote:
The bronzeware script on the bronze pot of the Zhou Dynasty, shown right, ends with “子二孫二寶用”, where the small 二 (two) is used as iteration marks to mean “子子孫孫寶用”.
Well, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and history repeats itself. The weird thing is that 2 and 々 even sort of look alike, in the way that 々 and ㄣ do. 2 is 々 without the first stroke, and ㄣ is 々 without the last stroke. Meanwhile, the ancient Chinese iteration mark 二 bears a striking resemblance to the modern “ditto mark” used in modern English! (I’ll leave those for the orthographical conspiracy theorists among you to chew on.)
I had a great time interacting with other teachers at ACTFL 2008. Yes, what we do at Praxis Language is quite different from what the teachers in the trenches do, but it’s important to connect with them, to hear about how the classroom is changing, how the students are changing, and maybe even about how we might converge in some areas.
I sat in on some particularly interesting talks on CFL (Chinese as a Foreign Language). Only half a year after I finished my own thesis, I felt I really needed to be reminded of the wide world of academic pursuits… some of the research was quite fascinating. I’m planning to revisit some of the topics here in my blog in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, I’d just like to draw my readers’ attention to a cool product I ran into at ACTFL: Skritter [China-friendly link]. It’s a really well-executed online system for practicing character writing, and it has built-in support for Integrated Chinese. Check it out.
I started learning Japanese in 1996. When I began learning Mandarin in 1998, I already had a foundation in Chinese characters, thanks to my Japanese studies. Learning the two languages at the same time, I was frequently annoyed by little discrepancies such as 歩 and 步, 別 and 别, 氷 and 冰, etc. Those little character details caught my attention, though. I ended up writing my senior thesis on how and why the Chinese characters of the Chinese and Japanese writing systems ended up diverging.
One little detail that always nagged at me, though, was stroke order. The truth is, stroke order of Chinese characters is not consistent across Japanese and Chinese. I was reminded of this recently by Tae Kim’s blog entry entitled, What’s the stroke order of 【龜】? Who cares? He brought up the stroke order of the character 必 as an example of a “weird character.” This character just happens to be one of the ones whose correct stroke order has been ever so slightly bugging me all these years.
必 is a great example, because it shows up in plenty of relatively simple words in both languages, like 必要 (necessary) and 必须 (must) in Chinese, and 必ず (without fail) and 必要 (necessary) in Japanese.
Now let’s take a look at the stroke order of this simple character. I’ll have to assign letters to each stroke so that we can keep the different stroke orders straight:
– Ocrat, MDBG, and Wenlin all say A-B-C-D-E.
– Learn to Write Characters (click on 必), maintained by Dr. Tim Xie, says A-B-C-E-D.
– A-B-C-E-D makes a lot of sense to me, because the character’s radical is 心 (but that doesn’t necessarily matter at all).
– Remember that Chinese has the added excitement of the simplified/traditional divide, as well as other regional differences in the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
– If you have more to add to this (especially from more authoritative sources). please leave a comment!
– WWWJDIC, Kawatsu, Kodansha, and Gakken all agree on the bizarre C-D-B-A-E.
– It’s almost as is they’re writing 义 first, then adding “wings,” but no, the radical here is 心 as well. (We can see why Tae calls it weird.)
Hmmm, that’s a lot of inconsistency. Gives you more respect for the people that can create good Chinese handwriting recognition software, doesn’t it?
But wait! It doesn’t end there. An even simpler character — 出 — behaves inconsistently as well. I’ll spare you all the details and jump to a diagram taken from a very interesting tool I found illustrating various stroke order differences:
Note that aside from the incredibly common 出, the heart radical 忄 — a component of tons of very common characters — is also among the ambiguously stroke-ordered. Notice too that the Japanese-only variants are not included in this list.
So what’s my point? Well, it’s not any of the following:
– Chinese is really hard
– Chinese characters are really complex
– Chinese characters are hard to learn
– Chinese character stroke order is fun!
Chinese is not semi-mystical. Chinese characters were created by people a really long time ago, and thus it is an amazingly imperfect, inconsistent system. East Asian brains aren’t semi-mystical either; with all these differences going on you can bet that the Chinese and Japanese get mixed up too. In fact, armed with the chart above you’ll find it really easy to spark debates with very literate Chinese over the “correct stroke order.”
Like me, you may be bugged by these inconsistencies. You may feel compelled to seek out some underlying pattern or just memorize a big list of exceptions. Don’t do it! Be satisfied with a quick look over the chart above. Just get the non-exceptional stroke order basics down and you’ll be fine, trust me. Don’t obsess over perfect stroke order and all the exceptions, because it’s an imperfect system. The deck is stacked against you. Learn to read and use characters to communicate, and you win.
Thinking about it now, I find it strange that I’ve never written about James W. Heisig and his landmark work, Remembering the Kanji.
It was in 1997 while I was studying in Japan that I came across the book. I was still in this “I must write every new character a million times every day” frame of mind until I came upon this system, and after discovering it I abandoned the traditional approach forever. The book ignited my imagination and unleashed its energy on Chinese characters. Heisig’s system ensnared me immediately, but surprisingly, the more I studied the method, the more I found myself dissatisfied with Heisig’s mnemonics and devising my own. I bought a copy and wrote all over it, “correcting” it for myself. Personalizing it, you might say. Heisig would have approved.
I didn’t stay with the system forever. I never learned a mnemonic for every last character. There just came a point when everything sort of “clicked,” and memorizing characters wasn’t difficult anymore. Sure, I would forget characters (and I still do), but every time I’d forget one and have to look it up, those old mnemonics returned to me and helped lock that character back in my memory. The important thing is that I never had to write characters over and over again. I’ve passed various written Chinese tests without ever having to do that. I have been able to make better use of my time and of my mind.
Occasionally I would come upon a character that resolutely defied my memory. If the character mattered to me, it would get “special attention.” That meant setting aside some time to deconstruct the character, research the etymology (sometimes, but not always, a helpful practice), and apply some imagination. It might take as long as 20-30 minutes for just that one character, but eventually I would come up with a memorable story mnemonic involving the character components, tailor-made for me. And then I would not forget the character again.
In short, Heisig’s book totally changed the way I approach characters. It’s a triumph of imagination over rote learning. I am very grateful to him for that. If you’re trying to learn Japanese or Chinese, I strongly recommend you get Remembering the Kanji.
Language Log recently published a post by Victor Mair entitled How to learn to read Chinese, in which Dr. Mair talks about a Chinese language newspaper with pinyin accompanying each character called Guoyu Ribao (国语日报). He hails it as a great way to pick up characters.
This is all well and good, but I was quite surprised by this paragraph (bold mine):
> Guoyu Ribao was a godsend in that it enabled me to learn Chinese characters passively and painlessly. By assimilating massive amounts of publications from the Guoyu Ribao people, before long I was able to read texts without phonetic annotation. Slowly, with practice, I also became capable of writing in characters as well.
While I agree that overloading new students of Chinese with character memorization is a bad idea, the words passively and painlessly in regards to learning Chinese characters just don’t seem right. (Does Dr. Mair know Dr. David Moser?) Interesting material goes a long way toward motivating students to learn, but no matter how you slice it, there’s quite a bit of work involved in becoming literate in Chinese. Yeah, it’s a bit painful, and yeah, it’s active work. While Dr. Moser exaggerates for fun, Dr. Mair seems to give pinyin a bit too much credit.
Sam explains how net-savvy Chinese have re-appropriated the character 囧, using it for what it looks like (a distraught face), rather than for what it originally meant (“bright,” apparently). Sam explains various dimensions of the phenomenon on his blog, but this is really cool for linguistic reasons. It’s not often that a non-pictographic character (with a rather abstract meaning) is reenlisted as a pictographic character and used on a relatively large scale!