The book titled “The Wisdom of Chinese Characters” is a cultural-historical manual dedicated to viewing the creation and development of the Chinese written language through a historical and archeological perspective. The target audience for this manual is the English-speaking students and people who wish to know more about Chinese history and culture without having to learn the language. The book is written in simple English, avoiding difficult words and long sentence structures that may be confusing to the readers who do not have English as their first language, making it an excellent studying tool for English classes as well. The book is aimed to serve as a bridge for further studies of the Chinese alphabet, as it explains the background and logic behind the construction of the letters and demonstrates its evolution from a simplistic system to the modern one. The book was written by a body of professors from Beijing Language and Culture University, with Shi Dingguo being the editor-in-chief.
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Structure of the Book
The book is divided into 10 chapters, each of which is then divided into several parts, usually from two to four. This is done to provide better clarity and structure to the text, as each part covers a specific historical period or a subject dedicated to the development of the Chinese language. This is very helpful, as it allows the reader to find specific information about the subject without having to browse through the entire book with approximate directions given from the name of the chapters. The topics covered in this book encompass everything – from history to culture, culinary, architecture, and folk mythology. I believe that due to the fact the book covers so many areas, none of them are truly studied in-depth, but this is not required, as the information provided is meant to serve as a stepping stone for higher and more dedicated learning.
Five Thousand Years of Chinese Characters
This chapter is dedicated to the history of the development of Chinese characters. Chinese writing is one of the oldest in the world, having existed for over five thousand years. There are several legends of how the Chinese alphabet was created. One of them states that it was developed from Bagua trigrams, with the main point being that the lines that make up the letters were written vertically and not horizontally. Another legend claims that Cangjie, who was an ancient Chinese historian, created the initial alphabet. According to the legend, he observed numerous animal footprints and considered how depending on the shape and size, they meant different things.
The first hieroglyphs used by Cangjie are reminiscent of bird footprints, consisting of straight lines and sticks. The language evolved over time, and so did the writing, as new characters were invented to describe different items, colors, and actions. At some point, the art of reading and writing became too difficult to teach en-masse, as some characters consisted of too many lines, and any mistake meant that others could not properly read the writing. Thus, it was simplified and streamlined, which provided quality of writing and understanding the text. What I found interesting when I read this chapter is the amount of imagery provided to support the point. Vases, pots, weaponry, all of them had some sort of writing on top of them. I think it is a nice touch, as it shows the readers how the archaeologists discovered ancient China.
The Structure of Chinese Characters
This chapter is dedicated to explaining the origins and the evolution of the writing from a practical perspective. Many readers, including myself, have had trouble guessing what the letters of the Chinese alphabet originally meant. They are supposed to resemble objects and things, but the modern version makes it very hard to guess the meaning without prior knowledge. The book illustrates many characters as they evolve from ancient times and into modernity. The pictures show that the initial letters were very close to the images of actual objects they represented and that the image distorted and changed over the years, to the point of being entirely unrecognizable. However, this was made for the purpose of streamlining the writing process with the application of basic strokes, which are mentioned in Part 3 of this chapter. The chapter itself has a good flow and continuity and provides plenty of illustrations and background information to prove the point.
Chinese Characters and Nature
As the name of the chapter suggests, it is dedicated to the symbols that were developed in connection with forces of nature and the peoples’ surroundings. The subsections of the chapter cover four fundamental areas from which the Chinese borrowed their inspirations for the alphabet. These are Geography, Astronomy, Plants, and Animals. The people always had a necessity of recording what they see, and thus new symbols emerged to describe what they want. Geography was important to study the land, whereas Astronomy was necessary to help grow crops and know the seasons. Sailors and merchants used stars to navigate. At the same time, encountering different plants and animals as part of everyday life for the average Chinese, so any characters were developed to describe those creatures. The chapter does a good job presenting how these characters were used historically and also shows the progression of the symbols as time passes. Although, I think that this chapter and the second chapter should be molded together and shortened, as this entire chapter simply elaborates on the subject started in Chapter 2.
Chinese Characters and the Human Body
Nature, land, and creatures were not the only things available for the observation of the early developers of the alphabet. The people themselves, their feelings, numbers, shapes, and forms inspired many characters. Due to the spiritual nature of the Chinese culture, the forms weren’t solely shaped by how people or their organs look, they also demonstrated a spiritual meaning of life, death, and rebirth, which was illustrated in the form and story behind the character “hua,” which represents changes in a person’s life and the cyclical nature of history. The chapter not only the relationship between the alphabet and the human body but also dedicates a part to discovering women and their influence on Chinese writing. I think this chapter does a good representation of the characters but lacks a bit of historical information, namely dates and time periods.
Chinese Characters and Everyday Life
One of the purposes of any alphabet is to help people describe everyday events as well as objects, tools, food, and other items they use and frequently encounter during the day. Some of these include clothes, food, transportation, colors, and any other aspects of life. This is, perhaps, the biggest category of characters, which is also more prone to change, as new items and colors are introduced, while some are being discarded and forgotten. This chapter also shows how characters have different meanings, depending on the subject that was written about. It is also said that the everyday part of the alphabet was most sought after by merchants, as they were the ones who sold the everyday items, whereas the majority of peasants did not know to read or write. What I like about this chapter and the book, in general, is that it is filled with numerous authentic pictures and photos of archeological finds, which helps the reader immersion.
Chinese Characters and Architecture
The building, architecture, and related professions have all benefitted enormously from the invention of the alphabet. It enabled ancient engineers to create more elaborate drafts, blueprints, and specifications, which are necessary for the construction and completion of more complex buildings and structures. After all, the process of construction is more than just laying down the bricks. The process of creation, procurement, and delivery of all required materials make up the biggest logistical challenge. Many characters that were developed for the purpose of describing and improving construction include the names of materials, tools, and processes involved in building. I think that including this part is very important to let the readers realize the power and importance of the Chinese alphabet, as its development is directly correlated with the construction of the Great Wall of China.
Chinese Characters and Folk Customs
Folk traditions and celebrations in China are deeply intertwined with its culture, as well as astronomy and the creation of the Chinese calendar. For a long period of time, China operated using its own calendar, and many new words were created to describe the seasons, the times of the year, months, and celebrations. Pottery and ceremonial items all had numerous signs on them, such as joy and happiness or something more related to the celebration at hand. This part of the book is very colorful as it tells us how the Chinese are having fun, the roots of their celebrations, and connect them with various characters in the alphabet. I like this part, as it is very informative and talks not only about the history of certain traditions but about the spiritual meaning of the characters.
Chinese Characters and Philosophy
China is rightfully named the cradle of Asian philosophy and has given birth to many thinkers and philosophers known throughout the world, such as Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu, Confucius, and others. Chinese culture and philosophy are very self-reflecting, gazing upon the beauty of the inner and out worlds and admiring them. The chapter is dedicated to characters that are associated with philosophy, religion, and orientation, as those were the important pillars upon which the Chinese culture was created. Although the premise for this chapter was solid, I feel that much of the material given in it does not have a clear connection with its name and thus should be put into another chapter, or the chapter itself should be renamed.
Chinese Characters and the Arts
Calligraphy used to be and still is a very popular form of art in China. The alphabet itself has a connection to art, as the first letters were small pictures and illustrations of whatever that the scribe wanted to write down. Thus, it is very important to realize that writing is as much of art as painting or sculpting. Many Chinese calligraphers were also great painters. This chapter is relatively short and tells us about ancient tools of calligraphy, such as brushes and scrubs used to take away ink before it could soak into the paper. I found the chapter enlightening regardless, as many techniques used in Chinese writing have evolved from using the brush to write and not a pen.
The Spread of Chinese Characters
Since China has always been a dominant country in its region and one of the first to develop writing and other technological marvels, it also influenced many countries around it. For example, Korean and Japanese writing and alphabet were developed under the heavy influence of China, and some of the Chinese religious texts also traveled into north-eastern and west-eastern countries such as Mongolia. Writings and the alphabet were the tools China used in order to spread its influence and power across many regions. Many words and expressions, as well as the general technique of writing characters, is borrowed from China. As I see it, this section serves as a closing chapter to the book and returns us to the history of the alphabet and the language. This is a good closing point for the book, as the story comes full circle. I found it very enlightening to read and learned many new things about the Chinese alphabet, its history, and its use. The book does an excellent job of representing its points both graphically and in writing, and the information, although relatively superficial, does not have any logical or temporal gaps and creates a solid field of knowledge upon which further studies could be built.