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Cracking the Chinese Puzzles by TK Ann


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Cracking the Chinese Puzzles by TK Ann.

In case this is of interest to anyone ... I really like this book!

It was originally published in five hardback volumes, but there's a single-volume paperback abridged edition which I have (though I'm tempted to see if I can pick up the five-volume set sometime too).

I think they both have the same number of characters: my edition goes through around 5,800 characters, of which the most common 3,600 are presented in bold type (so you can ignore the less common ones if you want).

I would recommend it to anyone who likes to learn characters in bunches -- for example, a group of those which contain "我" as a component, or new characters that sound like foreign words and use the mouth-radical to indicate this.

I doubt it would be immediately suitable for anyone who wanted to learn characters in order of frequency, or directly alongside a learn-how-to-speak textbook.

But if you're already familiar with the basics of characters -- eg stroke order, the concept of radicals & other components, and could recognise, say, 250 or more characters -- and wanted a book to help you learn characters independent of any textbooks, I'd recommend having a look.

The main attraction is the grouping of characters. For example, early on there's a list of characters which use 我 as a component: 饿 hungry, 俄 suddenly/russian, 娥 pretty woman, 锇 Osmium, 蛾 moth, 峨 high, 鹅 goose, 哦 oh oh. Although these are very different characters, their radicals are helpful and it makes sense to learn them all in one go, not least because most of them are pronounced the same way. Admittedly, I'm not sure that Osmium, a chemical element apparently, is all that useful, but anyway.

There's more to the book than these kind of by-component-groupings, though: to take one example, there's a bunch of characters which turn into a different character by the addition of a single horizontal line.

And it is in no way a dry book of lists. The author constantly gives interesting reasons for why a character is built the way it is. Some of the etymological explanations for characters seem pretty standard; others may be a bit tenuous but nevertheless help you remember them. In this respect, perhaps, it's a bit like a more grown-up Heisig book :). The themed chapters (45-ish) are very readable too so one way to refresh your memory is just to flick through a chapter every day or so.

And above all ... it's a fun and quirky read.

Would be interested to know if anyone has used / enjoyed it?

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I own both the paperback and the 5 vol. hardcover edition since 1995. The books are worth every penny and fun to read and use. What I don't like: the paperback edition has no character index, and the hardcover edition has only a 4-corner index which is very unconvenient. A pinyin index would be very useful, but there is none.

A great book to learn and to remember characters.

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It's Puzzles with an S (my typo). Can search amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b/102-9306940-4268966?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Cracking+the+Chinese+Puzzles&x=0&y=0

... in the UK I've seen it available new at £25 per volume, there are five hardback volumes, that's why it's expensive. And yes they're out of print.

Though you can see via the link above that there's a single-volume paperback edition which appears to be the abridged edition which I have -- this is much cheaper, around £8 in the UK. I don't yet know how much value there is in buying the five-volumes versus the single, abridged paperback.

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realmayo wrote: "I don't yet know how much value there is in buying the five-volumes versus the single, abridged paperback."

The five-vol. version contains all characters with collocations, vol. 5 is the index. In my opinion the softcover version plus vol. 5 of the hard cover edition (as an index) is a good start.

paperback version ISBN 9627056146


index vol 5 hardcover ed. ISBN 9627056057


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I used this book in my second year of learning Chinese, in which my main goal was to get to the point where we could recognize roughly 3,000 characters. I think the book is great for that purpose, and I like Ann's style. My ability to recognize character went up dramatically (I think it's fair to say). However, due to my own poor strategy of making this book the bread and butter of my studying, I could recoginze a lot, if not almost all, characters when reading a newspaper, but I didn't know how they made up words, or how they functioned grammatically.

So, I'd still strongly recommend the book to self-learners, but I think it is best used while also using other learning materials that emphasize word acquisition, reading, listening, and other more well rounded skills.

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  • 6 months later...

I'm a newbie. I know about 500 characters.

I own the Ann series, which I've only just begun.

Cracking the Chinese Puzzles is distinguished from any other that I'm aware of, by the extent to which it attempts to identify and utilize *phonetic* components, *as such*, in addition to the usual breakdown by semantic components. (Is there anything else as comprehensive?)

It is very interesting to consider the consequences of this phenomenon: a creative mind can forcefully integrate an imagined semantic contribution from a component that was (according to some scholarship) intended to be merely phonetic. It seems to me that this has consequences that aren't often discussed, with regard to the integrity of one's total character-scholarship. (Long winded discussion snipped.) So, I'm devoted to this attempt at a scholarly semantic/phonetic breakdown. There remains only the question of whether or not the separation between those two in any given character is made correctly (or maybe pragmatically with regard to the systemization-scheme), because the dividing line is so often arguable. Having no other comparable resource, I'll trust Ann.

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Having no other comparable resource, I'll trust Ann.

I've got a feeling that Ann does say that lots of his stuff is not necessarily correct, with respect to the historical development of a character. But I've not got my books with me right now so I can't check.

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My post was about the attempt to systematize with respect to the phonetic components. I want this, and I don't know of any other source trying it on this scale. So, being inevitably dependent to some degree on someone else's etymological imagination, I choose this guy, for the sake of the rest of his monumental system. That's what I meant.

In case it wasn't clear, I was referring to *negative* consequences of wrongly semanticizing a component that should be simply phonetic. To avoid this, it is necessary to know which is which, and Ann's system tries to teach this.

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've got a feeling that Ann does say that lots of his stuff is not necessarily correct, with respect to the historical development of a character. But I've not got my books with me right now so I can't check.

He does say that. But he also says, if memory serves me, that his speculation has been proven right be scholars. in any case, his stories make things easy to understand, in my opinion.

My post was about the attempt to systematize with respect to the phonetic components. I want this, and I don't know of any other source trying it on this scale

I think you're probably right. That's another thing that makes this book good for people who want to be able to read fluently ASAP. Although, like I said (and like Ann would say, I'm sure) the book has its limits.

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  • 2 months later...

I used these books (5-volume version) religiously when I started to learn Chinese 18 years ago, when I did an undergrad degree in Chinese. I actually went through the frequency list from 0-2500, missing out characters I already new and writing out each character with a large felt pen, the pinyin below it, and the meaning + mnemonic next to it in a number of small notebooks.

It took quite a number of months to complete these notebooks, and when I was done I kept flicking through them over and over again for the following couple of years. Looking back I feel that the process of writing each character down, and also looking up the section in the book manually, thereby learning the related characters almost in passing was a very helpful process. I'm not sure students today would be so committed to using pen and paper, but something about writing versus typing actives some different part of the brain.

In our class of 50 students, I think I was the only one following this method. The others thought I was slightly mad.

Since then I have not made any real effort to learn characters, though I do enjoy flicking thru Ann's book from time to time.

I found that it is very true that just learning characters is not enough, and that learning words (duh) is their proper context is the key to useful language skills. Knowing the meanings of individual characters though meant that I could learn words very very quickly and could often guess the meaning if stuck (sometimes incorrectly, but often very close).

The experience of those few months gave me a good foundation to build my vocabulary, a foundation which I still slowly build on.

I also found that in contrast to some of my fellow students, I grew to really love looking at characters and not to be afraid of long complicated passages. At the very least I would play a game with myself trying to locate any characters that I did not recognize by scanning through before reading a text properly. I think this mental aspect is very important as now, almost 20 years later I still love learning Chinese.

I always recommend this book to anyone learning from scratch, but very few people go about this method. It looks too long and complicated and the foreigners in my circle are either Chinese scholars or have given up learning to read Chinese, which is a shame because most get very stuck at a rudimentary level despite living in China for a long time, I guess that just knowing pinyin makes it difficult to learn new vocab with so many homonyms.

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  • 1 year later...
  • 11 months later...


The publisher of Ann's books is Stockflows Ltd. in Hong Kong. I don't think that Ann's books can be bought in the PRC. Maybe only in Hong Kong. I would look for them in http://www.bookfinder.com


Wenlin does have etymology info, but not the stuff you will find in Ann's books.


Even if you don't learn the characters with this series, the books are great to read, to explore, to enjoy Chinese culture.

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  • 9 months later...

Interesting idea - sounds different from the Heisig type of idea about making up stories to help you remember words/characters which I seem to hear more and more about. Regarding the latter I personally don't find it so useful to separate knowing what a character means from how to pronounce the word, as at some point they need to all be tied together which this book seems to do (if I'm correct in understanding that it gives a group of similar characters with meanings and pronunciation at the same time). One thing I do seem to muddle up with writing atm is which radical with which phonetic component etc -perhaps due to lack of knowledge regarding the two- so it would seem that learning (and how to distinguish between) similar characters at the same time may go some way to helping with this process.

Might look into tracking down a copy but alas am in PRC atm so perhaps I'll have to put it off to a point when I'll have learned more characters the old fashioned way...

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