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Reviewed by:
  • Fundamentals of Chinese Characters
  • Li Yu (bio)
John Jing-hua Yin. Fundamentals of Chinese Characters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006. xx, 401 pp. Paperback $45.00, isbn 0-300-10945-8.

For the Jesuit Joseph de Prémare (1666–1736), author of the first comprehensive grammar of Chinese to be written in either China or Europe, each Chinese character represented the divine wisdom associated with Christian theology. For example, the character 來 (to come) was a visual representation of Christ on the cross together with two "small persons" (thieves) who died with him. The character 午 (noontime) was so constructed because Christ was crucified at that time of the day. The numerals 一, 二, and 三, all composed of a single component, the horizontal line, indicated the divine trinity.1 Today's students and scholars of Chinese language would quickly laugh at these stories and easily dismiss them as fanciful imagination and wishful speculation.

Deep down, however, as David Porter has shown, Prémare's imagination and speculation was rooted in a European fascination with the form and function of Chinese characters dating back to the seventeenth century. For European readers following the footsteps of Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), Chinese characters possessed one key characteristic: a direct correspondence between things and words. As J. Marshall Unger has written, this notion that Chinese characters were "ideograms" was widely spread into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and had deep impact in the fields of linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, and even philosophy, in both the East and the West.2

Since the publication of the late John DeFrancis's Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, the Western scholarly circle has widely debunked this ideographic myth about how Chinese characters work.3 But the confusion caused by this myth still lives with us even today. In the popular realm and in the praxis of Chinese language teaching, traces of the ideographic myth and its variant forms can still be found. All too many Chinese-language teachers are eager to introduce characters as pictographic representations of things in the real world and happy to leave that permanent impression on their students. Popular books on Chinese characters abound, where characters are displayed side by side with exquisite drawings of real things they graphically represent.4

Fundamentals of Chinese Characters is probably the first character textbook published by a prestigious university press in the United States in which this popular method of introducing characters to beginning learners is enshrined. This textbook offers etymological knowledge of and writing guidelines for Chinese characters to adult learners who do not have any prior background in the language and those who do not even have an intention to learn the spoken form of the Chinese language. The author has a laudable goal to make character learning both enjoyable and accessible for true beginners. However, the pedagogical [End Page 579] approach he has adopted to achieve this goal conjures up the ghosts of the ideographic myth, which sinologists, historians, and linguists have worked hard to dispel in the past few decades.

The textbook introduces altogether 229 characters, of which only about two dozen are phonetic-semantic characters (xingsheng zi), termed "picto-phonetic characters" in the book. The majority of the characters presented are "pictographic characters" (xiangxing zi), "indicative character" (zhishi zi), and "associative characters" (huiyi zi), using Xu Shen's well-known categorization. Even in the three chapters where phonetic-semantic characters are introduced (chapters 12 to 14), the instructional priority is given to the semantic components rather than the phonetic components of the characters introduced. The author points out that phonetic-semantic characters constitute more than 90 percent of Chinese characters currently in use (p. 298). Furthermore, he claims that "Chinese characters started with the pictographic method as the major way of character construction and have ended up using more and more abstract symbols developed from pictographs as phonetic symbols in new characters" (p. 6). Nonetheless, he offers neither caveat nor any explanation as to why the textbook is focused on the less than 10 percent of the symbolic inventory of the Chinese writing system.

Maybe the underlining rationale is too self-evident to be explained. The intriguing...