A new way to learn Chi­nese goes back to pic­to­graphic roots

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By CHRIS DAVIS in New York chris­davis@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

The much bal­ly­hooed Chi­nese lan­guage bar­rier may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Just ask Tai­wan-born Shao Lan, who has in­vented a new way around it, one that is be­yond the rig­ors of rote mem­o­riza­tion and in­stead ex­plores the an­cient art­ful roots of Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy. It’s called Chineasy and the book is just out.

“Chi­nese is not the eas­i­est lan­guage, for sure,” she said. “But at the same time it’s not as hard as people think.”

She in­sists that the lan­guage bar­rier is “over­rated”.

“How many lan­guages are there in the world whose an­cient forms are sim­i­lar to their mod­ern forms?” Shao Lan asked dur­ing an in­ter­view over tea in New York re­cently. Chi­nese seems to be the only one (not count­ing Greek and San­skrit, of course).

“Why can it last for such a long time and why can 1.3 bil­lion people learn it and the rest of the world can’t? I don’t be­lieve it,” she in­sisted. Any lan­guage with that kind of legs and stay­ing power “has to be so easy that it can be car­ried on and used and mod­i­fied”, she ar­gued.

Shao Lan, who stud­ied chem­istry and busi­ness in Tai­wan, in­ter­na­tional stud­ies at Cam­bridge and now lives in Lon­don, said Chineasy all started when she re­al­ized that her Bri­tish-born chil­dren were not all that en­thused about learn­ing Chi­nese. She tried sev­eral es­tab­lished meth­ods, found them all want­ing, so she de­cided to do it her­self.

Shao Lan’s mother was a cal­lig­ra­pher and as a child grow­ing up Shao Lan had al­ways found the char­ac­ters beau­ti­ful and mys­te­ri­ous. An­a­lyt­i­cal by na­ture, she was also deeply in­ter­ested Chi­nese cul­ture — his­tory, lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture and art — so it was only nat­u­ral for her to sleuth out why the in­trigu­ing char­ac­ters came to look as they do.

“When I see things I see pat­terns,” she said. “When I see Chi­nese char­ac­ters, I try to iden­tify the pat­terns.”

In Lon­don, she started to break down the char­ac­ters — which are com­posed of one to four or five “build­ing block” com­po­nents — by the thou­sands, first on paper and even­tu­ally on a com­puter as the task grew ge­o­met­ri­cally.

What evolved was a kind of three-di­men­sional in­ter­ac­tive ma­trix that looks like some­thing out of a sci­ence fic­tion movie. Key in on one el­e­ment — like the char­ac­ter for “per­son” — and ra­di­at­ing from it are dozens of other char­ac­ters where it is also ap­pears.

“So you can see that each char­ac­ter is made of many other com­po­nents,” she ex­plained. “Once you un­der­stand the cor­re­la­tion, it is ac­tu­ally much eas­ier.”

If you take a com­pli­cated Leggo con­struc­tion like a fire en­gine and take it apart, it could be made of only 10 kinds of bricks. “It’s the same with Chi­nese char­ac­ters,” she said. “That’s how I see it.”

For ex­am­ple, the char­ac­ter for “burn­ing” is made of one “fire” and two “trees”. Put “fire” be­fore “moun­tain” and you get “vol­cano”.

The char­ac­ters “woman” and “mouth” to­gether means “obey”. “Again it says a lot about Chi­nese his­tory and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence,” Shao Lan said.

“Per­son” and “moun­tain” to­gether means “im­mor­tal”, be­cause in an­cient China it was a very Taoist thing for people to go to the moun­tains for their spir­i­tual or re­li­gious prac­tice. Com­bine that char­ac­ter with “woman” and you have “fairy”.

The ori­gins of most char­ac­ters are well es­tab­lished, but sev­eral are still a mat­ter of schol­arly con­tro­versy, which Chineasy avoids. “We just try to take a view, be­cause even the schol­ars don’t agree with each other.”

Given the con­straints of the book’s sim­ple and di­rect for­mat, it is wise not to get into it.

Chineasy’s web­site and Face­book page go into great de­tail on the ori­gin of each char­ac­ter, but not all of ori­gins can be au­then­ti­cated. The char­ac­ter for “id­iot” is a good ex­am­ple. “I sim­ply could not find why a ‘mouth’ on top of a ‘tree’ means ‘id­iot’,” she said.

When this hap­pens, Shao Lan of­fers light­hearted sug­ges­tions that are plainly jokes — maybe a talk­ing tree sounds very id­i­otic, or if you open your mouth wide to try and swal­low a tree, that looks very id­i­otic.

Char­ac­ter ori­gins can also be­tray cul­tural her­itage. The char­ac­ter for “woman” tra­di­tion­ally is the out­line of a fig­ure kneel­ing on the floor, show­ing sub­servience. “I am very frus­trated by the ori­gin of this char­ac­ter!” she com­ments in the book, but in an in­ter­view added that it was “not so much a Chi­nese thing as a global thing — gen­der in­equal­ity. In an­cient Europe it was the same”.

Put two “woman” char­ac­ters to­gether and it means “ar­gu­ment”. “By Chi­nese tra­di­tion, even nowa­days, a lot of fam­i­lies have three or four gen­er­a­tions liv­ing un­der the same roof. And be­cause only sons are im­por­tant, daugh­ters are not, ev­ery fam­ily wants to pre­serve their lin­eage and the moth­erin-law will al­ways con­sider the daugh­ter-in-law some­one who wants to steal their chil­dren away from them. So in­evitably there’s al­ways a lit­tle con­flict in the fam­ily.”

“My great-great grand­fa­ther had four wives, and ev­ery wife had their own chil­dren, and they all lived to­gether un­der the same roof,” she said. “It is al­ways some­thing in­ter­est­ing to see the do­mes­tic pol­i­tics.”

Shao Lan said she re­cently held a press con­fer­ence in Tai­wan where all of the re­porters were na­tive Chi­nese speak­ers and when she ex­plained the ori­gin of the char­ac­ter — “Tra­di­tion­ally two women were be­lieved to be un­able to be in the same room with­out ar­gu­ing” — “they were fas­ci­nated,” she said, “be­cause this is not how we were taught”.

Two “women” for ar­gu­ment is not used very of­ten, but prac­ti­cal util­ity is not Chineasy’s goal. “I’m try­ing to put some­thing to­gether that is lit­er­a­ture, cul­ture, so­cial, his­tory, art. I’m not here to serve the pur­pose of like Se­same Street or Rosetta Stone. They have done a great job if people want to learn how to say all the usual day to day con­ver­sa­tion, they should go to them. I’m not here to serve that pur­pose.” Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­lyusa.com.

JACK FREIFELDER / CHINA DAILY

From left: Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Corn­ing Mu­seum of Glass, El­iz­a­beth Duane and Sally Berry, pose for a photo at an event in New York on Thurs­day. The mu­seum in up­state New York has seen Chi­nese vis­i­tor vol­ume rise to 38 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum’s lat­est data on an­nual visi­ta­tion fig­ures.

LIAN LIU / CHINA DAILY

Tai­wan-born Lon­don res­i­dent Shao Lan in New York City re­cently talk­ing about her new book Chineasy:TheNew Way­toRead­Chi­nese, which teaches the lan­guage by de­con­struct­ing its cal­li­graphic char­ac­ters.

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