Most widely used textbooks for learning *characters*?

Hi, very specific question here directed at me from a professor:

What are the most widely used textbooks for learning Chinese characters? (Such as those used in college courses)

(I started a new thread because the topic is so specific – not what you use or like, but what do you understand to be the most widely used ones; and not learning Chinese, but rather Chinese characters (with or without accompanying reading materials).)

If you can provide the following info it would also be helpful: exact title, author, publisher, and date.
Also, if you can answer whether the textbook teaches anything at all about the origins of those characters and their family-tree-like relationships to other characters, it would be extremely valuable. I’m guessing the answer to the latter is ‘no’ for all the widely used college textbooks.

I’m trying to compile a list by mid-week, so prompt replies would be greatly appreciated! :notworthy:

EDIT: This will be used in writing a grant application for funding to produce a series of three textbooks for the purpose of teaching characters with an emphasis on etymology and organized in a genealogical structure somewhat akin to Harbaugh’s work.

Charater Text for Beginning Chinese: Second Edition by John DeFrancis (Yale Language Series)


[quote=“Somewhere else, Dragonbones”]Please [color=red]avoid[/color] the following, though, as the content is in large part crap:
Harbaugh, Rick (1998). Chinese Characters: a Genealogy and Dictionary ( )[/quote]

So what’s it to be? Will your books have useful mnemonics based on flimsy premises or “real” genealogical info that is perhaps not so useful for language acquisition? Don’t get me wrong, I take Harbaugh’s character explanations with a large pinch of salt, but sometimes it is handy to remember a false derivation of a character, as long as you are aware it’s just an aide-memoire. But I can’t imagine you being involved with a project like this, so would you essentially be teaching two things at once (characters and character genealogy)?

Tell me more about this project…

I believe that Dragonbones idea is to produce a reliable academic-quality work for scholars, students, and others who want to know the straight dope about current research into what is knownb about the development of Chinese characters.

The folk etymology in, say, Harbaughs book or the series “Fun with Chinese Characters” is great for mnemonics, but its not factual.

:laughing:Organized” like Harbaugh’s printed book, i.e., when you learn 潘 pan1, you see the derivation from 番 fan1, and also see the connections to 藩 fan2, 審shen3, and 瀋 shen3 as in 瀋陽 Shen3yang2, capital of Liaoning.

Harbaugh’s strength is his organization, showing the family tree of character groups with shared phonetic or semantic elements; his weakness is the etymological content being excessiverly terse BS. Thus his book is suitable only for convenient character lookups and mnemonics. And he lists graphs as related (e.g., 豆 – 壴 ) even when there’s no etymological link between the two.

We want to teach the etymological family tree of characters, so that students can more readily see for example how 雚 guan4 is in 觀 guan1, 歡 huan1, and quan2 權 to name a few. The idea is that by understanding how the characters are interrelated and where they come from, they become more interesting, and perhaps easier to memorize. In large part, however, the etymological explanations accompanying this are intended to debunk the content of books like Harbaugh’s, Fun With Chinese Characters, Wieger, and so on. The accuracy of the etymology will be ensured by the inclusion of three Academia Sinica experts among the authors. The layout will not be quite the same as Harbaugh’s, but the notion of a genealogy of graphs is shared.

The latter, although we hope that teaching, for example that 豆 is a modern graph representing two different ancient graphs will help students understand why it is phonetic in both a dou/tou series and a zhu/chu/shu series. I believe that will be helpful for language acquisition.

Yes, with genealogy predominant. The emphasis is etymology, the organization is genealogical, and one of the goals is also to teach characters. Think of this as a replacement for Wieger, if you like. The initial project is to produce a core, 3-volume body of etymological content. After that we plan to convert it into elementary and advanced versions in both Chinese and English.

Do you intend to include the ancient pronunciations (according to modern research) of the characters (e.g. Old or Middle Chinese)?

We’ll be discussing that choice-point. On the one hand, students may find it hard to understand how a graph now pronounced dou1 (都) can be phonetic in zhu1 (諸) unless they have some grasp of the kinds of phonetic change which have occurred. On the other, the notations of the phonetic reconstructions are really difficult to read and therefore of limited use unless you become an expert in the area. We’re more likely to comment, say, that the ancient pronunciation of 壴 (simplified 豆) (now pronounced zhu3 or zhu4) is ancestral to the chu/shu/zhu group, and then give examples.

I think this needs to be separated from “learning the Chinese language”.

Are you talking about “learning to recognize and produce characters” or “knowing information about Chinese characters such as their origins, etc.”? IMHO the two should be separated for the most part, as their goals and methods are totally different.

IMHO any learning of characters should be preceded by a period of learning the language itself, and characters introduced incrementally and only after the words in question are solidly mastered. Then we are teaching reading, not characters per se. Reading is how to recognize the written form of language you already have in your head (or it should be, in most cases). And for this purpose, useful mnemonics – preferably way-out-there and not necessarily based on fact or truth – are more effective than actual etymological information in most cases. The more way-out-there the mnemonic, the less chance a student who wants to go on to learn the etymologies of the characters will confuse the pedagogical tool with the separate discipline of the origins of characters.

Somehow there is such a fascination with the art component, the historical component, the cultural component, or whatever, that students are not coming out of a language class with the ability to use the language. I’m not saying that art, culture, and history aren’t important, but you don’t see such an emphasis on them in classes on other languages. There are additional challenges to learning Chinese as opposed to, say, Spanish, but then again there are compensating areas where Chinese is actually easier (such as the lack of conjugations, number, gender, etc.). My take on it is let’s teach students competence in the language first (four skills). It’s fine to mention things in passing like "This radical is ‘female’ " or something, but personally as a teacher I would not choose a book that focused too much on scholarly aspects of the writing system until my students were at a fairly advanced stage of learning the language.

I think it would be great to have such a book, don’t get me wrong – just please don’t aim it at beginners. They have other fish to fry.

I was really hoping to get some answers on the question “What are the most widely used textbooks for learning Chinese characters? (Such as those used in college courses)”. I don’t mind discussing the other off-topic issues, but… how 'bout coughing up some textbook names? :smiley: Anybody? Is anyone aware of what, say, major universities are using? What did you use in your college course?

OK: here’s what we used in my beginning college Chinese class:

Practical Chinese Reader I. It came with the supplementary book for studying characters: Chinese Character Exercise Book: For Practical Chinese Reader I. The books are published by the Beijing Language Institute.

Gotta love Gubo and Palanka!!

Just for the record, when I took beginning Chinese, we learned pronunciation, Pinyin and characters concurrently. I thought it went very well.

Thanks, Chris! Anyone else?

Primarily the latter – but in the process of reading about the origins of characters they do know, like, say, 歡, they would become exposed to the whole family of related graphs, including among others 觀 歡 and 權, containing in this case a shared phonetic 雚 guan4. It is unlikely they will know all the graphs in the family, so this presentation should, IMO, facilitate the learning of those additional characters. Even if they do know them, our materials should light up a few bulbs, helping explain why elements are shared, and helping put a meaning and verbal label on those elements. For me, having meaning and a name for an element really helps break characters down into digestible parts, and facilitates recognition and recall. In other words, in teaching etymology, we fully expect to reinforce knowledge of poorly known characters, and expose readers to new ones, some of which they should be able to retain with the assistance of the mnemonic framework which the family tree of characters provides. This is why I say “primarily” the latter.

I agree. I consciously chose to learn Chinese this way, through intensive verbal immersion for a number of years before really beginning to learn to read. It worked quite well. (But I don’t know whether everyone has the luxury of so much time on their hands.)

I have nothing against mnemonics explicitly presented as such. I’ve used outlandish self-invented mnemonics myself, with great success. But when you look at Harbaugh, his tiny disclaimer in his foreword is ineffectual, and we get posters here on Forumosa citing as a source of etymology – ha! People use the information in Harbaugh, Wieger, Peng etc. for mnemonic purposes, but in the process fail to understand the difference between mnemonics and etymology, and the authors are largely to blame for this. So in response, let me propose that actual etymological information can be mnemonic too, and that it causes less damage.

I don’t disagree. This wouldn’t be primarily designed as an introduction to Chinese writing textbook. I imagine that after a year or two of learning characters, this would be supplementary material – or it might be a textbook for an etymology class for juniors or seniors. However, a child-friendly cartoon-infested version to compete with Peng might be one of the final products. If there are people out there misrepresenting mnemonics AS ETYMOLOGICAL FACT in books designed to teach writing, I see nothing wrong with countering their fraud with accurate information presented to the same target audience. :wink:

Let me know when you publish your book, DB. You have a guaranteed customer in me!

I don’t know how often it is used in college classes as a compulsory text, but I certainly know more than a handful of people who have recommended William McNaughton & Li Ying, Reading & Writing Chinese, Revised Ed. (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1999) to me & I’ve seen in referenced in numerous syllabi for Chinese classes at the collegiate level in the States.

I’m merely a beginning student who puts more emphasis on reading than speaking, for a few reasons that I won’t detail as I have a feeling you won’t care. :wink: But I’ve still found this book to be terribly useful & I can see why it’s used in Chinese courses. For instance, entry 38 is yan2. Entry 39 is zhui1. Entry 40 is … shei2 (the entry states that “this character is probably a sound-meaning compound”). I’ve noticed that even the oft used Practical Audio Visual Chinese books try to do this (grouping similar characters), but it’s not in any sort of well-defined pattern and I think it’s practically useless from that standpoint. Reading and Writing Chinese, however … I find myself going back to it constantly to look characters and their various parts up.

They tend to put more emphasis on “The student should learn to differentiate X character from Y,” but they do put in notes fairly frequently (ie, “This is a sound loan from Y, meaning derived from Z”) I think it helps. A lot. Being able to link characters in my head helps me remember them & showing how characters are related really helps me cement the meanings (or pronunciations, or both) in my head. I’m not sure that a more seriously detailed explanation would be useful for me, though. Perhaps for more advanced students?

This book is also pretty clear on stating when some derivations are just neat mnemonics, not etymological fact - my favorite entry is for xiao4: “one scholar says, ‘When bamboo takes the wind, it leans back gently like a man who laughs.’ That is probably more useful as a mnemonic for the character than it is as a real explanation.”

Well, DB, we can list the books that are used to teach Chinese, but frankly I don’t think there is much attention being paid to teaching reading/characters as separate from the mass of “learning Chinese” as a whole. I guess that’s the source of my reluctance to list books. AFAIK there are no books that really focus on reading – they all present characters concurrently with whatever else is being taught, and since most books take a fairly (or what they think is a) topical approach to “chapters” or “lessons” (“We’re on the Post Office lesson”, that kind of thing) there’s little opportunity to meaningfully explore the kind of things you’re talking about.

I would not venture to say that “Practically Chinese Reader” (sorry, I was condemned to have to teach it in the US) or DeFrancis or the Audio-Visual series or whatever is a book to teach characters; they are intended for good or for bad as integrated texts. Any “reading” is more like “decoding” as the amount of repetition of written items is far from sufficient to allow mastery.

In fact there’s a growing market segment in the States today – heritage speakers of Chinese, who need to learn to read and write and perhaps polish up a few points, but who don’t need to acquire the basic patterns and vocabulary of the language. I’m not sure that market segment is as yet large enough to have attracted the attention of a good textbook writer. But then there is so much more money in (and it is much easier to write) beginner’s books that anything above that has been ill-served to date.

Anyway, that’s what I think. But I’m known as a curmudgeon in these matters. :slight_smile:

Gawd, this is difficult.

Practical Chinese Reader I.
Practical Chinese Reader II

The standard Taiwan books: erh . .
Guoyu something or other, a Taiwanese high school Chinese text. I thought it particularly good, not a word of English in it.
Tales from Chinese history.
A Taiwanese high school (or was it lower?) poetry book. Obviously a good source for character learning.

Shi Da’s Taiwan Radio plays: A great book for spoken language in Taiwan and a good hit of new characters.
Advanced Reader of Modern Chinese: China’s own critics. Tends to baby advanced readers.
Selected classical texts (not a book, rather photocopies from an extensive library at the whim of my classical Chinese lecturer. By far the biggest jolt to learning charcters and their various and shifting meanings.

Those San Min publishing (?) classical texts with bai hua. Brilliant!


There’s the Read Chinese series, which is admittedly pretty old (first published in the early '60s). But the “introduction” is to grammatical structures & then they toss you in to the characters, sentences, and reading. There’s no grammatical explanation in the chapters beyond what part of speech the characters are. Obviously chapter 19’s sentences are much more complex and involved than chapter one’s … I think the logic of introducing characters falls more to topical approach than logical grouping of characters, but it’s presented in a very different way from, say, the ShiDa textbooks. I’d be very surprised if people used it as a core textbook, though, since emphasis is placed so heavily on a “speaking-reading-writing” approach in all modern foreign language courses I’ve taken. Sort of makes me long for my Latin and Greek days. :s

言 + 隹 = 誰 is certainly useful as a building block approach; it’s also useful to be told what 隹 is, so that you have a name & meaning peg to hang it on in your brain when you encounter it as a component of other graphs. And knowing its pronunciation should help explain its presence in graphs pronounced zhui, shui, wei, hui, dui, tui and sui.

In terms of what to put in the average Mandarin textbook, I agree. This won’t be for everyone. It’s not that we think everyone learning characters needs to know etymology, but rather, that those who do want to learn etymology have few good resources at their disposal.

:sunglasses: Would that more books did that!

At least it’s nice and poetic – the funny thing is that it was put forth by a scholar as a real explanation, not a mnemonic!

It was wrong as an explanation (very wrong), and it’s not even a very good mnemonic, at least not for modern students – by which I mean, other than the bamboo semantic at the top, what does this have to do with the wind, or leaning back gently? This mnemonic requires one to understand the reference to leaning back gently, and I seriously doubt the average person would. Being the nutcase that I am :help: , I’ll explain it for you, though:

Xŭ Shèn, author of the etymological dictionary Shuōwén Jiézì, misinterpreted 夭 yāo as 屈也, qu1, to bend. The scholar responsible for the above quote had studied Shuowen, you see. His name was 李陽冰 Lĭ Yángbīng, and he’s cited by 段育裁 Duàn Yùcái (probably the most famous annotater of Shuōwén) as saying 竹得風其體夭屈如人之笑 zhú dé fēng, qí tĭ yāoqū rú rén zhī xiào – roughly “(when) [color=blue]bamboo [/color]takes wind, its body [color=blue]bends [/color]like person laughing”. Li was trying to explain 笑 as a 會意 hui4yi4 (a category of compound graph in which the elements interact to provide the meaning of the whole graph). Its elements, based on a reading of the erroneous Shuowen definition of yao1 as ‘bend’, are thus ‘bamboo’ and ‘bend’, which I’ve highlighted in blue in his definition above.

BTW, nowadays yāo means ‘to die young’, although it originally meant ‘to walk quickly, run’. (It can be found in that meaning as the top of 走 zou3 ‘walk’, but it has become corrupted to resemble 土 tu3 ‘earth’.) People looking for a mnemonic based on the current meaning should thus try to build one from [color=blue]bamboo [/color]plus [color=blue]die [/color] (laughing). :wink:

As for the real etymology of 笑, it’s quite a nightmare and I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say that leading theories include 1) phonetic loan from 芺 ao3, which was the name for a bitter medicinal herb, and 2) phonetic loan (or perhaps semantic extension) from a meaning of ‘bamboo flute’ (as in 簫 xiao1, bamboo flute); I personally suspect it was a simplified variant of the latter, and was then borrowed phonetically for ‘laugh’. There is no scholarly consensus on the etymology of this graph.

[color=blue]Thanks everybody, for the book names! That’s all I needed! :notworthy: [/color]

In terms of what to put in the average Mandarin textbook, I agree. This won’t be for everyone. It’s not that we think everyone learning characters needs to know etymology, but rather, that those who do want to learn etymology have few good resources at their disposal. [/quote][/quote]

For many learners, learning about etymology can only confude the learner; others, like me, are etymology geeks and can’t get enough of it, finding it helpful in our studies of a language.

When I was stydying Spanish, it helped me to know that “hablar” comes from Latin “fabulare” (to tell a tale), “estar” comes from “stare” (to stand) and “ser” comes from “esse” (to be), especially since I had studied Latin years before. It fascinates me that “muerte” is a cognate of Russian “smiert” and Sanskrit “mrta”.

A book like this wuld be great for learners who love etymology.

I wonder if there are any books for rapid reading acquisition. The only one I have is Rapid Literacy in Chinese from Sinolingua. It seems ok though I haven’t used it much. I remember there’s at least one book for French that was kinda of decent.

I’m only starting out so I haven’t had a chance to see what books are available. Plus I’m in the US for the moment so looking for books is a bit more difficult. At least I have the option of looking for books in English or French. I could try other languages too, why not.

Good topic!
Friends say book stores sell ‘frequency lists’ of characters.
(They say they are from A.p.T., a journal from N T U)
Fenn (sp?) 's five thousand… is a classic.