The Chinese Language (3)

Despite the difficulty of learning to write and read Chinese, one of the reasons I love the language is its use of characters. All characters consist of two parts, the radical and the phonetic. The radical gives an indication of the meaning, the phonetic at least a hint of the pronunciation. But the language has developed over so many centuries that neither element is much help in understanding the modern written language. One has to simply memorize the character, its meaning, and its pronunciation and tone. According to the internet, altogether there are over 50,000 characters, though a comprehensive modern dictionary will rarely list over 20,000 in use. An educated Chinese person will know about 8,000 characters, but you will only need about 2-3,000 to be able to read a newspaper. I never mastered that many. I have several Chinese-English dictionaries, but the one I use most often is The Five Thousand Dictionary – Revised American Edition (Harvard University Press, 1960).

I spent many hours practicing writing characters when I was studying Chinese, but I never approached the facility of an average Chinese. To the educated traditional Chinese, drawing characters is an art that takes a lifetime to perfect. First of all, the characters are drawn with a paint brush, not with a pen. The strokes for each character must be done in the proper order, and a character of more than twenty strokes is not uncommon.

The Chinese Communist government long ago introduced simplified characters and a romanization system called Pin Yin. I can understand the need for dumbing down the writing system so that ordinary people can use it, but my love for the traditional characters and their history is as strong as ever.

As I age and my opportunities for physical recreation fade, I am more and more drawn to intellectual and artistic pursuits. The study of Chinese characters is both. Blessed with a fine collection of Chinese language books and dictionaries, I am free to investigate to my heart’s content and to enjoy the mental challenge and incredible beauty of the Chinese language.

One thought on “The Chinese Language (3)”

  1. I still have my Mathews Chinese dictionary. Carried it almost every day at UW-Madison. One on my General friends in Taiwan writes in the ancient style. I takes me a long time to sort out the character count and look up the words. I once ask the famous Wash Wong if I’d ever have been promoted to 15 as a “linguist”. He quickly said he doubted it. He and a man named Bill Mao brought me into the Agency, but by then I just could see me spending the rest of my life chained to a dictionary. Had computers matured back in 1968, I might have stayed with the language. However, I have enjoyed literature in translation ever since. I focus on Tang Dynasty poetry and really enjoy the books that display the poems in both languages, side by side. Living in Taiwan was a dream job for me. BTW, also really enjoy Japanese poetry, especially Basho.

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