Preface：Every word is an enchanted story／Yung Liu
My daughter landed her first job in Beijing straight out of college. People often remark how impressive her Chinese is, considering that she was born and raised in the US. Not only is she fluent in both speaking and writing, but she is equally comfortable with traditional and simplified characters, and knows how to use the pinyin and zhuyin systems. Many think that this must have been the result of countless hours of toil and struggle, but actually it’s been no more than one or two hours of lessons per week since she was a child.
Looking back, I believe the lessons are more efficient because I made character learning as fun as possible. Art and literature are my personal and professional passions, and I used to teach East Asian art studies in an American university, so I have always approached Chinese characters as an art form. Chinese Hanzi characters originated as pictographs, and still retains much of their pictorial past; words such as sun and moon, water and fire, boat and cart, insect and fish, are still just like pictures that can be readily explained to any young child. There is no reason why we should let children think these words are abstract and difficult to learn.
For example, if you draw a horizontal line representing the horizon, and add a circle on top as a rising sun, what do you think it would mean? The resulting character「旦」means exactly what it looks like: dawn! Or if you draw a pointed rooftop, and add a character for woman（女）under it, the resulting character「安」means“safe”. Put a woman and a child（子）together, and you get「好」, which means“good.” One hand pushing is not enough; add a helping hand, and you get「友」, which means“friend.” Modern words echo the values of the past.
Still, having evolved through the centuries, modern Chinese characters can be markedly different from its original form. So, each word is presented first as a picture, then in its earliest written form on oracle bone shells, then as it was carved on early bronzeware, later as ‘small seal script’ used in the Qin Dynasty, followed by ‘clerical script’ developed for (obviously) clerical work, ‘cursive script’ used by artists and literati, to the structurally balanced and complex ‘regular script’. Arranged in sequence, it allows one to see how ancient Chinese people observed nature, created the words, and how it evolved through time. One can feel like an archeologist or a cryptographer, and knowing how the characters once looked thousands of years ago can certainly add to the appreciation of reading them today.
As another example, the character 采 is a drawing of a hand on a plant, and later another “hand” was added on the left as a radical, forming the character 採, which means “to pick”.
If you draw a straight line as the trunk of a tree, horizontal lines as branches and slanting downward lines as roots, then add another small line near the base of the trunk, and the resulting character 本 means “source” or “root”.
To bridge the connection of written word and illustration even closer, I also depict the illustration as a silhouette; simplified into black and white, the pictures look more like the characters they became. For example, the character 犬 is of a dog lifting one front paw. As an illustration, it’s not that obvious, but through the silhouette process, you can see much more readily how the picture becomes the word.
Of course, the written word is a tool, and beginning learners should make use of it in daily life as much as possible for it to stick. Back when I taught my children, I would have them identify characters whenever we see them, whether it’s on a street sign or a restaurant menu. My son couldn’t read simplified Chinese at first, but after a month long trip through mainland China, he was able to learn it by reading all the signs.
So in this book, I also use this method to teach character recognition, by taking photographs of Chinese characters throughout the world. In my experience, every child and beginning learner loves to hunt for the words they just learned in photographs and surroundings. Even if they only know a few characters, it’s very exciting for them to spot these words in life, and it certainly enhances their memory.
Society in the future is ever more global, so I believe it’s best to develop proficiency in more than one language as early as possible. When teaching Chinese to my children and my students, I sometimes use English to explain. My children now are the ones who did the English translation for this book. I believe it can be a useful tool not only for English readers wishing to learn Chinese, but can work the other way around as well.
In addition, I believe in learning both the traditional and simplified characters together, and I have taught my children to use both the pinyin and zhuyin phonetic systems. Although simplified characters are the norm for the majority of Chinese, the traditional (also known as ‘complex’) script is a cultural heritage in itself. They may have many more strokes and take longer to write, but it’s still worthwhile to study and appreciate them.
In this sequence of learning a word through pictures, silhouettes, symbols to text, I believe that the impression will be deeper, and beginning learners can naturally begin to appreciate the beauty of calligraphy as well. I truly believe that if everyone can learn Chinese characters by studying their source, the written language itself will come alive.
All of the illustrations and calligraphy in this book were done by yours truly. I could have sampled from reference books or computer fonts, but still decided to write them by hand, so the reader can more fully feel their organic beauty. Since they were done over different periods of time, their quality may be slightly different, and I apologize for their imperfection.
The English translation of the text was first done by my daughter. At the time of the first draft, she was still quite young, and her prose not so polished, but as this is a book meant for beginning learners and children, I thought it best to keep the language simple. My son later did some editing, but mostly kept the translations as they were.
This book is not big, but has been a long time coming. I worked on it as a family project, all the way until my daughter left for college. In the meantime I kept busy with other things, and some of the material had to be more fully researched, causing further delays that almost stalled the project completely. Luckily, my grandchildren are now at the age to learn Chinese characters for the first time, which motivated me to pick up where I left off, and I now humbly present this work to you. I sincerely welcome your comments, and hope that learners of Chinese everywhere, young and old, may enjoy and benefit from this book!