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Breakthrough in learning Characters?


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It seems obvious that the 4 dots can't represent legs on the horse since those same dots appear in the symbol for fire and fish and birds which neither have four legs. Can anyone offer any proof for that meaning of the 4 dots--as legs?

Looking into the history of 鱼 and 鸟 it looks that the 4 dots occurred somewhat by accident but do have some relation to the animal. For 鱼 the 4 dots are the tips of the upper and lower fins and the two tips of the rear fins (dorsal, anal, and caudal fins to be technical). The fin tips got pushed to the bottom of the character over time. There is a

showing this. Wenlin has an even clearer example but I don't have the image online anywhere handy.

For 鸟 the dots are a combination of clawtips and the tail. No real logic on why it ended up at four, probably to make it look like other animal characters. There is a

of that too.
In my plan above, I'm stuck on the very first, most popular character. What does a ladel in the (rising) sun have to do with genitive as well as simple and composed adjectives? It appears I will need help in connecting characters ideas into the meaning especially in the case of abstract ideas.

That's the trouble with this sort of system. It works on enough characters to make it look plausible, but in a lot of cases you are back to plain memorization, or come up with elaborate stories like the one about the magic spoon. Use these tricks where you can, but understand that in most cases the components of the characters don't supply a whole lot of meaning. One of the first illusions broken when learning Chinese is when you find out that most characters aren't pictures of anything. Next is when you discover that most characters aren't formed on meaning, but rather are something akin to a rebus. Then you find that the rebuses were done a long time ago when characters were pronounced differently. This doesn't mean that you can't take advantage of the more pictographic characters, or the ones that have meaningful components or the ones that provide good sound clues. You just can't expect there to be a system based on these that will work everywhere.

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And when you look at the characters 量liáng, 查chá and 昼zhoù, all of which have the 旦 component, you can see how useful this approach is.

Interesting topic!

It's shape follows 木 and it's pronounciation follows 且 in ancient. So it's lower part 旦 is just an evolved form. (By <<说文解字>>)

Someone may ask me why 查 is pronounced as 'Cha2' instead of 'Qie 且'.This deal with the ancient chinese pronounciations. The ancient chinese has more than 4 tones.

In ancient China, 查/阻/咀 have the same pronounciation.

I am an English learner. My english is not good. Hope you can understand.

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  • 3 weeks later...

There are two new books on this principle, by Matthews and Matthews and by Heisig and Richardson.

The Heisig book (which has not appeared yet) is the subject of its own thread in this forum.

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  • 1 month later...

I went to Professor Tienzen Gong's site: http://www.chinese-word-roots.org/

This describes the book which began this entire discussion. It is back in print.

Here is what especially got my attention. The ordering info:

Buy now (paper back) $400, new edition, 305 pages. (No return)

I sent him an e mail asking how he arrived at this price.

Any substantive comments? Has anyone actually used this book?

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  • 9 months later...

I just stumbled onto this forum topic.

Has anyone got this book, and do you think that the cost of $400 is worth the money?

Any feedback would be appreciated.


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I own the book.

It is not worth $400 in my estimation.

The author gave copies to many university libraries. Had I known this I would have searched for and copied one of these.

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See also the discussion here and here, which is talking about the same system.

Volapuk49, would you be able to provide a more detailed review of what you liked/disliked about the book and the system it uses?

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Tien zen ( Jeh-tween) Gong is a Taiwanese scientist living in California. He has self-published several paperbacks related to Traditional Chinese culture, philosophy and language.

Most of his offerings are priced at several hundred dollars. In personal correspondence he informed me that he charges based on his perceived value of the information in the books.

He is very friendly and willing to correspond. I believe him to be very intelligent, knowledgeable and dedicated to his studies. I also have the impression that this is very much a hobby and that he doesn't need or want the money he is charging. He alludes to the fact that he teaches most of his stuff to Chinese-speakers in Chinese and that is where his major emphasis lies.

Here is what he writes about the book, Chinese Etymology.

Chinese Etymology, by Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong, 2007, East-West Press, Los Angeles. Third edition, 305 pages.

This book is for a beginner who knows not a single Chinese word, and it has three objectives.

This is a self study book for someone who knows not a single Chinese written word, that is, the reader needs no tutor in order to study this textbook.

There are only 220 ideograph root words. They can be learned similar to recognizing 220 faces. Of course, the meaning of each ideograph is provided in English.

There are only 300 sound roots (modules). Their pronunciations are indicated with Taiwan pin-ying, and the meanings of those modules are also given in English.

This is a two hundred hour course which can be easily scheduled as a six month course. At the end of this 200 hours, the reader who knows not a single Chinese written word at the beginning should be able to read Chinese newspaper.

Note: Money back warranty: if a reader has truly mastered the material in this book while is unable to read Chinese newspaper, the money will be returned, and the reader can keep the book.

At the end of this course, a reader has acquired a foundation much, much stronger than native Chinese college graduates. For those who did not study this course, every new word is as new as the first word they ever learned. For the readers of this book, every new word can be decoded from its face right the way.


I have this book.

The book has long lists of material to be memorized. I found many of the elements of the lists confusing and not too helpful. The romanization is a Taiwanese system of pin yin which is not explained in the book. There are exercises to test one's knowledge but an answer key is not provided. You have to pay extra ( a lot extra) for it. The author's written English is often unclear and frustratingly difficult to understand.

I suspect that the author is on to something valuable but unfortunately, at this point in my studies, I am not willing to make the effort to decipher what I consider a poorly written text.

If you can find a copy in a university and wish to make the effort then take a look. I doubt that you will pay $400 for a copy.

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  • 4 months later...

FYI, I purchased the book and agree with Volapuk49 with one additional information...

Volupuk49 said, "I suspect that the author is on to something valuable but unfortunately, at this point in my studies, I am not willing to make the effort to decipher what I consider a poorly written text."

Now that I have the book, I have taken some time to figure out what is valuable (in spite of the poorly written text).

After discussing with several native Chinese, they agree the information is valuable in the following way:

Most Chinese recognize characters are composed of different other roots which often are standalone characters of which the meaning is commonly understood.

However, many characters have ideographic symbols included in them which, while repeated in other characters, never exist as standalone and the meaning has been lost to the average (even well educated) Chinese person.

Additionally, many symbols that exists as standalone characters and form parts of other characters had their meaning change over time so that the meaning is very different when included inside another character.

Note: My earlier post was incorrect in that the professor never said that all characters contain sounds. But he does include sound.

What the professor, (through email correspondence), has convinced us that he can do is really tell how the meaning and writing of a character evolved to what it is today.

for example, he is well versed in what was described earlier about the 4 marks representing legs or claws instead of fire in some characters.

What he successfully accomplished while personally teaching students in class is enough "critical mass" of understanding of etymology and the evolution of characters so that students can "decode" the meaning of a new characters they never saw before.

How is this useful to me....

I personally want to know all the symbols individually that can construct any characters. His list of 220 symbols has been proven to cover EVERY single character that exists.

In other words, once you learn the 220, you'll never see a character that looks completely foreign.

Plus, with some practice, (and support from Dr. Gong) you can get the "hang of" decoding characters based on these.

It seems, personally, that reading about ancient Chinese culture and habits helps a great deal to decoding characters.

For example the character for beautiful means includs big and sheep.

In an ancient society where herding sheep was of much greater importance, having large, healthy sheep was beautiful.

Additionally, learning the roots that related to Chi, (energy) like blocked Chi, unblock Chi, week Chi, etc. unlocks greater meaning from characters.

I'm personally creating a much more approachable beginners guide to how this all works. I have proposed to Professor Gong to collaborate. FYI, I'm trained language teacher and speak and teach French and Spanish as well as my native English.

I'm not interested in publishing anything but if the Professor will review and edit the work when complete, I'll let him have a copyright to include it in his commercial work.

Hey, would anyone else would like to join in this effort? If so, I can give you an outline of how I will approach it to make it easy and useful. And I would love ideas, input and feedback.

I will follow a style like the book Reading and Writing Chinese but with some major differences and an emphasis on teaching the roots primarily with enough examples and etymology so the beginner gets immediate satisfaction with understanding the compositions of popular characters.



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How many characters have you learned in the 1.5 years since you've discovered this system?

If you have covered enough to read a book, you can join us in reading this month's book of the month.

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No, I only just received his book last week and never attempted to learn any characters till now. I have been immersed in learning PinYin and simple conversation. The 1.5 years lapse in this thread was the time saving money to buy the book! *smile*

I'm now starting on creating, yet another, beginners guide to Chinese characters based on his research, if possible. I'm doing it as a personal learning exercise to document my work and later as a teaching aid when I begin teaching others.


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His list of 220 symbols has been proven to cover EVERY single character that exists.
Would these be the same 220 symbols that you find in the lookup index of practically every Chinese dictionary? It's a well known and well documented fact that Chinese characters are made of only a small number of component parts.

Since your last post, this system has also been discussed here. You might want to read that thread also, which raises some interesting points to consider.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Wayne, How are you getting along with your "beginners guide to Chinese characters." How many characters have you compiled? I am interested in collaborating.

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My point is, it's common knowledge that characters are made up of smaller parts. It's not some new breakthrough in learning Chinese.

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Just came across this interesting topic and have two comments:

1. my Japanese 漢和辞典 also usually gives explanations for 形聲 characters where the phonetic component is also understood to contribute to the meaning. I haven't systematically checked it, so I couldn't tell you if they came up with an explanation for every character, and on what this is based on. However, it would make sense to choose a phonetic component whose meaning as a stand-alone character is still similar in some way.

2. after all this is how 形聲 characters were created in the first place. Xu Shen's epochal work was written a long time after the creation of characters, so the 六書 represent his post facto analysis, not necessarily a correct description of how characters were created. Back when I was in college I remember reading a very interesting book by the American Sinologist William Boltz on the origin of the Chinese writing system where it was discussed that what we call radicals today were actually additions in later days. In the old days, characters followed the rebus principle, both phonetically and semantically, which makes it quite confusing.

--> semantically: 月 (of course didn't look the modern character) was used for "moon", "evening" and "bright". Later, these meanings were differentiated by changing the form of the character in the first case to 夕 and adding a radical in the second: 明

--> phonetically: if you've ever read a Classical text, you've certainly seen that a lot of grammatical words are written with characters whose pronunciation is similar but whose meaning is totally different, such as 夫,耳 I think even 之. The same principle btw applies to the word 的, which came up earlier on this thread: the word for the genetive (which according to Pulleyblank is etymologically the same as 之) came to sound like the word for "target" (where the ladle and sun story makes more sense I guess), and thus later written with the corresponding character. Some more frequent grammatical words such as 其, which was a character meaning "basket", but was then used to write a similarly sounding possessive marker. Later it was the word for basket that got an additional radical: 箕. But of course in the majority of cases the original character stayed the same, and the rebus variants received a radical.

Some scholars have even suggested that 會意 was a category created by Xu Shen. But of course the 六書 were applied for the characters that were created after his time..

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My point is, it's common knowledge that characters are made up of smaller parts. It's not some new breakthrough in learning Chinese.

The interest is presumably as to how good the particular list is.

  • Does it cover all characters, really?
  • Does it help in remembering the characters?
  • Does it help in learning the pronunciations?

Edited by m.ellison
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  • 11 months later...

How can someone who hasn't learned a thing about gravity and waves understand Einstein's theory of Relativity. To have a good model of these phenomena in your mind, you first must think about the roots of them in order to make links between them and see how the system works.

You posted a comment on Tienzen's book a week after you got it?!

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