Swedish Sinologist tells of love for Chinese character
When a friend, a middle-aged Chinese man from Xi’an, heard that I was going to meet Cecilia Lindqvist in Beijing last month, he told me to thank her because both his children grew up reading Characters Kingdom.
The 84-year-old Swedish Sinologist was in Beijing to receive the Special Book Award of China.
In Sweden, Lindqvist’s books on China have also won book awards.
Both Characters Kingdom, published in 1989, and Qin, published in 2006, have won the August Award.
And her latest book Another World, published last year, won the Strindberg Award.
Characters Kingdom has been translated into 14 languages, including Chinese.
A new edition specifically for children came out recently, the eighth one since it was first published in China in 1998. And a new edition of Qin will reportedly to come out soon.
Another World, based on her life in Beijing in the early 1960s, has also been translated into Chinese.
Although she now uses a walking stick due to knee surgery, and was exhausted by a long and tight schedule when she was in Beijing recently, she was full of passion when speaking at an event about Chinese characters in her book, the guqin (a seven-stringed plucked instrument similar to the zither) and her other experiences in China.
One of the written Chinese characters she spoke about was (bamboo).
First, she mimicked the sound that is created when a strong wind blows through bamboo.
Later, she says: “Bamboo is very strong. When the wind blows, the bamboo just leans. But big trees like oak fall because they fight the wind. Bamboo does not. The Chinese say when times are difficult, lie low and wait, and better times will come.”
Lindqvist, who spoke mainly English peppered withsome Chinese, apologized to her listeners that she could not speak Chinese as fluently as before because it was a long time since she had spoken the language.
Lindqvist’s interest in China was first sparked at the age of 5 or 6, when her mother showed her an oiled-paper umbrella brought to Sweden by a friend from the Far East.
Later, during a nine-year period spent at university, she attended lectures by famous Swedish Sinologist Bernhard Karlgren on ancient Chinese philosophers, such as Confucius and Laozi.
Karlgren often showed his students how a Chinese character was written on oracle bones and bronze ware in ancient times, and how the characters had developed through history.
Karlgren’s strong interest in the structure of characters influenced Lindqvist greatly.
So, in 1961, when Lindqvist’s husband was posted at the Swedish embassy in China, she traveled along and enrolled in Peking University.
At the university, her Chinese teachers told her tomemorize everything, instead of telling her why, so she tried to seek solutions herself.
However, her life changed when she started learning to play the guqin at the Beijing Guqin Research Association in a courtyard beside theHuguo Temple.
There were 11 masters there and she was the only student because at that time the guqin was seen as outdated.
Recalling those masters, she says: “They were the most elegant and cultured people I’ve ever met.”
In 1962, Lindqvist returned to Sweden as her husband’s posting in China ended.
But, before she left — in order to continue studying the guqin in Sweden— she bought a recorder from Hong Kong and the 11 teachers recorded 23 pieces of guqin music for her.
They also gave her a guqin from the Ming Dynasty (13681683) because it was impossible to buy one anywhere.
In 1971, Linqvist started teaching Chinese at a high school in Sweden.
Like her teacher, Karlgren, she told the students about the origin, development and structure of Chinese characters by showing them pictures of oracle bones and bronze scripts.
But during her teaching stint she often found the existing material was very limited and could not answer many of her questions. So she kept a close eye on the new archeological discoveries then being made in China.
In the 1970s and 1980s, China was on a building spree, and many archeological sites were being discovered as the ground was being excavated for the newstructures.
Lindqvist then returned to China to visit some of the sites to see how the newdiscoveries related to her studies.
She also traveled extensively to discover the origins of characters.
In the course of her travels, she even went to a silk factory in Suzhou, the hometown of silk, and saw women there producing silk fiber from silkworm cocoons that were immersed in water.
Recalling her visit, she says: “I saw then how the ancient character silk had evolved.”
Speaking about how the idea of writing Characters Kingdom developed, she says that, at first, she wanted to write an academic book about characters. “I thought I had found an interesting topic.” But gradually she found that academic circles did not really “appreciate what you’ve done. They just criticized what you got wrong.”
So, she — based on her teaching experience— wrote a book about 266 Chinese characters with more than 500 pictures to show the origin and development of the characters.
A great storyteller, she began the book with people, people’s faces and bodies, and then the places where they lived, the natural surroundings like mountains, rivers and forests. From there, she moved on to animals, wild and domesticated, such as dogs, sheep and horses.
The characters included in the book range from those related to clothes and vehicles to architecture.
“I chose characters that interested me, and through them I can tell a lot about Chinese culture and people’s lives,” she says.
Sometimes, she explains the structures of characters from a modern Western perspective, like in the cases of (slave) and (angry).
“consists of a woman and a hand, possibly implying the woman has to do a lot of work at home. And , with a on a heart could reflect the reaction of women to the life they were forced to live,” she writes in the book.
Lindqvist, who took 15 years to write the book, visited China more than 50 times for research.
She saw Chinese characters everywhere. “All through, it was wonderful for me. It took a long time. But it has become some kind of a way of living,” she says.
I chose characters that interested me, and through them I can tell a lot about Chinese culture and people’s lives.” Cecilia Lindqvist, Swedish Sinologist
Swedish Sinologist Cecilia Lindqvist’s CharactersKingdom explores Chinese characters and their development. The book has been translated into 14 languages, and a new Chinese edition (above) specifically for children came out recently.