A character, a picture, a story
劉墉 Yung Liu
Most people who learned to write Chinese characters when they were young, remember it as a difficult task.
And difficult it certainly was! Alphabetic writing systems can be learned in a logical way; if you can pronounce it, you can probably write it. But Chinese characters are drawn one by one, stroke by stroke, like miniature paintings. Though it seems laborious, if we follow this line of thought and let children treat Chinese as a drawing game, wouldn’t it make the whole task of learning much more fun?
For example, first draw a box frame, then draw a little girl inside. That is the character 「囡」, which means “a little girl”. But if inside the frame you draw an adult person「人」, the character 「囚」means “a prisoner.”
The sun 「日」in the middle of double doors 「門」makes 「間」which means “between.” If you change that sun to a person, it makes 「閃」, meaning “a flash.” You can imagine a person appearing in the doorway in a flash.
The moon has not disappeared, but the sun has already risen from beyond the grassy slope: that is the character “朝” which means “dawn.” When the sun not only falls into the grass, but continues to fall, appearing as two suns in a double image, it becomes “暮”, meaning “dusk.”
From the "mouth"「口」onto “earth"「土」makes「吐」meaning “to spit”; from "the sky"「天」into “mouth” makes「吞」, which means “swallow".
Some characters are also abstractly expressive. For example, if you write “middle”「中」on top with a hand on the bottom grasping the vertical stroke of the 中, it makes 「史」which means “history.” A hand writing something that is “balanced and impartial,” that seems to suggest the ideal of historical writing. If you write「中」and put a heart under it, that yields the character 「忠」which means “loyalty.” You can think of it as “loyalty is where you put your heart at the center.”
Let’s look at a more complex character, such as 「莽」. Although the character has many strokes, it is actually very simple when you think about it as a picture: there grass is above, there is grass below, and a dog「犬」is running between the grass. Is it not a very “wild,” “grassy” image?
There is also the character for flea 「蚤」, which seems quite complicated at first glance. In fact, just draw a hand and two small dots like fleas between the fingers, then add the radical for insect 「虫」below, and there you have it! As for the character "flow" 「流」, draw three splashes of water on the left side, three strokes resembling long hair on the right side, and a "child" 「子」with his head down, as if swimming in the water.
These are the Chinese characters introduced in this book. They have been selected by me so that children and foreigners who are learning Chinese can quickly enter the land of imagery and imagination. This entry is very important. If a person learns characters this way from the start, it can influence the rest of the learning process. Chinese characters that are rote memorized are dull, but Chinese characters learned from imagery come alive. It’s like getting to know a new friend. At first you only know his name, but if one day, the person invites you to his home, and you learn about his family and his life story, next time when you see him again, even though he still looks the same and you call him the same name, he will feel "friendly" to your heart.
This book is a collaboration with my children. My son Xuan lived in the United States since his early years, and my Yvonne daughter was born there. In order to educate them on their roots and culture, I insisted on teaching them Chinese myself. My son had his early education in Taiwan, so he already had the fundamentals, but my daughter was a different story. In the American environment, for her to accept learning Chinese characters, I had to design a system that taught her the characters as a set of pictures, from drawings to sketches to text, with the addition of photos from real life. And in order to let her know how Chinese characters have evolved into what they are today, I wrote out the oracle bone, big and small seal, clerical, semi-cursive and cursive versions of the scripts, all the way to the present-day regular script. And to make sure she truly understood, I always asked her to translate my explanations into English. I even encouraged her efforts by saying “one day, we can publish this as a book!”
Today, more than twenty years later, my promise has finally come true. Because Yvonne was younger when she did the original English translation, I also asked Xuan to make the final edits. He said it was a good opportunity to refresh the material. My wife Weiwei did the proofreading and corresponded with the publishing house. It was a true family effort.
The editorial work of this book was mainly done in Taipei this summer. In order to shoot suitable photos for the characters, I often had to venture out with my camera in the hot noon sun. My son who was on vacation in Australia, and my daughter who is working full time in New York, have also been “drafted” by me on short notice to complete this manuscript. Finally, we have decided as a family to donate all the royalties from the first Taiwan edition for social benefit, as gratitude for the many years of love and support we have received from readers like you. Thank you all!
Yung Liu, July 2018