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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #33 (August 10, 2004), page 12.
Flawed but likable
Fun With Chinese Characters
The Straight Times Collection
Infini Press, 2004
Paperback, 176 pages, $14.95
By Josephine Bridges
Fun With Chinese Characters (Volume 1) is an odd little book packed with a staggering amount of information. According to the preface, this collection of 176 Chinese characters "introduces systematically the more commonly used radical elements and the compounds they build up, together with related or associated characters." The fun part is that thereís a cartoon accompanying every character.
The scholarly introduction that begins the book feels uncomfortably grafted on to the cartoons that follow. While the information included in the introduction is certainly useful, the dense writing reminded me of organic chemistry: if I read the assignment over and over enough times, I eventually comprehended some of it. Fortunately, the bulk of Fun With Chinese Characters is considerably more accessible.
A page is devoted to each of the characters included here, and each page contains: the modern character; any earlier forms of the character; a cartoon and explanatory paragraph that show and tell the characterís components and evolution over time; a step-by-step guide to writing the character; the pinyin pronunciation; the English meaning; related words and phrases containing the character; and a sentence illustrating the use of the character or one of its related words or phrases.
Sometimes it works wonder- fully.
The page devoted to chou, which means sad or melancholy, is my favorite. Here the character for "autumn" ó composed of the characters for "grain" and "fire" ó is placed above the character for "heart." (All of these component characters are introduced earlier in the collection.) The explanatory paragraph begins, "As the year declines, with each falling leaf signalling autumn, manís heart becomes weighed down with a nostalgic melancholy." The accompanying cartoon depicts sad people beneath a nearly leafless tree. Among the related phrases are chou chang, "pent-up feelings of sadness," and chou xu, "gloomy mood." The sentence Ta de lian chong man chou rong means, "She looks sorrowful." Itís clear and itís memorable.
Sometimes it doesnít work so well. The sentence accompanying da, "big," means "Xiao Ying is very conceited, so everyone dislikes her." Itís possible to puzzle out that da is an element of the Chinese for "conceited," but the reader gets no help with this. Thereís no index in which to look for "conceited" in English, or the character or pinyin preceding da in Chinese. The table of contents is useless unless youíre the kind of person who canít remember the pinyin or the written form of characters, but can remember page numbers.
Fun With Chinese Characters was originally a feature of The Straits Times Bilingual Page, and this probably accounts for the distracting multiplicity of fonts and type sizes included. Despite its flaws, I canít help but like this quirky little book. If youíre a sequential thinker, you can read from beginning to end and appreciate the relationships between characters. If youíre not, you can flip through it while youíre on hold or in a traffic jam. Visual learners in particular will find Fun With Chinese Characters instructive, and almost everyone will get a kick out of the cartoons.