Illustrated Account of Chinese Characters

Illustrated Account of Chinese Characters
by Guanghui Xie
Joint Publishing (HK) Co. Ltd.
2003, 670 pages, 9.3 x 7.3 x 1.4 inches

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Illustrated account of Chinese Characters explores where Chinese characters come from, how they are structured, and how they have evolved. Through illustrations and descriptions you can further understand frequently used Chinese characters.

The book opens with a great introduction to understanding the composition of Chinese characters by explaining the Liu Shu system of categorisation. Liu Shu defines six categories of Chinese characters: pictographs, indicatives, ideographs, phonetic compounds, mutual explanatories, and phonetic loans. Understanding these categorisations isn’t essential to enjoy the book, but knowing them will help you understand the development of the characters more, which is what this book is about – understanding Chinese characters through their development and evolution.

The characters in the book aren’t organised by the Liu Shu categorisations, but rather into semantic categories such as animals, architecture, geography, human body, nature etc. Several indices are provided for finding characters – semantic category, Pinyin, and stroke order. Interestingly, the Pinyin index lists the characters alphabetically by their Pinyin pronunciation, but does not actually list the Pinyin for each character, so you need to know what you’re looking for. That shouldn’t hinder using the book too much, since it’s all about the visual nature of Chinese characters – you’ll most likely have a character in mind that you want to learn more about.

Each character page contains the following information:

  • Character and any variation
  • Pinyin pronunciation
  • Ancient writing forms where relevant (Oracle-Bone, Bronze,Later Seal, Stone Drum, Ancient Seal)
  • An illustration to help clarify the character form
  • An explanation of the character (in both Traditional Chinese and English)
  • Example words (for most characters)

Two notable omissions are an English keyword, and also the Simplified version of the character where applicable. It would have been nice to have a modern keyword at the top of the page next to each character, but the definition is included in the explanation. The exclusion of the Simplified version is a shame as this really is another branch of evolution for some characters. The differences are limited, though, and sometimes the variant characters cover Simplified, such as 屍 and 尸, but then other characters such as 歲 do not show the Simplified version.

The illustrations are good, but I wouldn’t say they were great. Though they serve their purpose of expounding on the ancient writing forms by providing a more relate-able depiction of the situation or object being portrayed in the character. Another book, that is along similar lines but with better illustrations, is Fun with Chinese Characters.

The purpose of Illustrated Account of Chinese Characters is to explain why characters are formed the way they are. In this respect the book is a huge success. If you ever see a Chinese character and wonder – why is this character made up of these radicals? or What’s the point of this element in the character? (which I’m sure is all learners of Chinese) then this book is for you.

Even with the few flaws mentioned above, if you’re learning Chinese then this book is an essential addition to your book shelf. It’s perfect for supplementary study and even for flicking through when you’re bored or need motivation in your studies.

The introduction explains that most of the characters featured in the book are pictographs, indicatives, and ideographs, or phonetic compound if they are a development of one of the former.

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Purchase on Amazon.com
Also available on Amazon.co.uk