Origins of Chinese Characters (Anglais) Poche – 1 janvier 1993
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Wang Hongyuan's text's content is organized by domains of human life (man, nature, hunting and agriculture, craftsmanship, etc.) that the concepts described by the Chinese characters relate to. It's a bit awkward at first for the western mind, oriented to linear alphabetical organization, to follow this method of organization; but since the written Chinese language developed around these domains, expressed as radicals, it's really a very logical and helpful way to organize this text. It allows the reader to view nearby entries which are related to the one being researched and develop a broader understanding of the character being studied and its place in related language. I found it to be quite an enjoyable book to use and selfishly wished that it could have contained even more characters to enjoy reading about. The book has two indices, one using pinyin and characters for each entry, and the other using English.
Each entry contains an incredible amount of helpful information if you take the time to look and explore it. In addition to the English explanation of the origin of the pictograph/character throughout thousands of years of history, related characters are presented which also use the same main component; but with other initial radical components. By using The Origins of Chinese Characters in conjunction with other less serious academic references it was possible to research and understand a fairly high percentage of the characters that I was exposed to in my two years of full-time Chinese language studies at Zhejiang University. Thank you Teacher Wang!
Wang, who lacks an academic background in etymology, avoids dealing with competing explanations, choosing his own favorites instead, and avoiding etymologically difficult characters. The pinyin and English indices are a welcome step forward which all authors of similar books should emulate, but unfortunately, his suffer from omissions, such as most of the numerals. The index has simplified characters only, but the etymologies in the text are usually for the traditional version, so the two are poorly matched: one must sometimes look up a simplified version in the index to find a traditional form in the text, so you have to know both. Despite its clear flaws, Wang's book is a convenient source for perusing the variety of historical structures, especially due to the lack of better books on this topic in English; and his addition of some historical illustrations such as those of Han dynasty drums which help explain a character structure is also very nice. However, this is not an entirely reliable source of etymology, and lacks both depth and comprehensiveness.
Unfortunately, there isn't much in the way of better English books on this topic on offer right now (although I'm trying hard to get some scholars to write one). For somewhat better etymology in a mass-market paperback, although still lacking in depth and references, readers might instead try Xie Guanghui's Composition of Common Chinese Characters: An Illustrated Account (Peking (sic) University Press; ISBN 7-301-03329-x; 1997).
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