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Outlier Semantic Components Poster: Review

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Shelley

If I had to pick a system of organising the posters I would pick stroke count. I think this makes the most sense, same as the way the 說文解字 is done.

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OneEye

The 說文解字 is neither a good source for character etymology nor organized by stroke count. :wink:

 

It's actually organized according to 陰陽五行 principles, a system of cosmology popular during the Han Dynasty when it was compiled. For instance, it had 540 radicals not because of any intrinsic characteristics of those 540 components, but because 540 was a special number of some sort in that system of thought. This is why you get some radicals in the Shuowen that make absolutely no sense.

 

I remember the 陰陽五行 thing very distinctly, because on my final exam in Palaeography 1 I wrote that the Shuowen was organized based on Daoist principles. That was the only thing I got wrong, which just barely kept me from getting the highest score in the class (much to the astonishment and chagrin of the ~50 Taiwanese students in the class).

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Gharial

I'd always wondered why the Shuowen had so many radicals (I'd assumed it was just due to runaway chickens scratching things), so thanks for that info, OneEye!

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Shelley

Ah, I admit to not reading my entire copy but it appears to be arranged in some sort of numerical order. Numbers feature highly in the section headings and that probably explains it.

 

Learn something new everyday, thank you.

 

So my mistake. I will have to investigate it further, but I admit it is a bit beyond me at the moment.
 

 

The 說文解字 is neither a good source for character etymology nor organized by stroke count. :wink:

 

Probably not, but I felt I should have a copy on my shelf as a "serious" student of chinese. :-?

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Hofmann

Any other discussion boards or anything reviewing these? I want to read them.

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Hofmann

I actually thought these were purely by frequency, and that's my recommendation. This is easy to understand, and a learner can then think "It will be most effective for me to learn these in the order presented."

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OneEye

Probably not, but I felt I should have a copy on my shelf as a "serious" student of chinese. :-?

 

Oh, definitely. I have 4 copies myself, and I have to admit I was surprised just now when I counted—only 4??? It's a very useful book, and we consult it constantly at Outlier. But it has serious problems. Even its system of analyzing characters, the "Six Categories" 六書, which has more or less been taken as gospel for the last 2000 years, is a result of 陰陽五行 numerology and traditionalist philosophy—6 was a special number (the "number of the earth"), so there needed to be six categories, and "Six Categories" were mentioned, but not defined, in the 周禮 so it was considered canonical.

 

As for the 540 radicals, it's 9 (the number of heaven) x 6 (earth) x 10 (the most complete number). But actually, that underscores the fact that we've been stressing since we first started talking about our system: the radicals are simply a system of indexing dictionaries. It doesn't matter if there are 540 of them, 214 of them, or whatever—they're just section headings and were never meant to have any other function.

 

Back to the Shuowen. One of the top palaeographers in the world, 劉釗, had this to say about it:

 

「從今天對古文字的掌握程度看,毫無誇張地說,凡是古文字中有的而《說文》對其形體進行過解說的字,80-90%是有問題的。」《古文字構形學》

 

Roughly, "of the characters for which we have palaeographic evidence and are listed in the Shuowen, it's not an exaggeration to say that 80-90% of the Shuowen's explanations are problematic."

 

But like I said, it still has its uses and we consult it all the time.

 

I actually had to copy all the character forms by hand—9933 of them—for a class on character corruption. The main textbook for the class was a book on corrupted forms in the Shuowen and the processes by which corruption occurrs. Incredibly interesting stuff, and that class (which Ash and I have both taken, albeit several years apart) formed one of the cornerstones of Outlier's research.

 

post-4442-0-94337600-1454209013_thumb.jpg

 

(forgive the blurriness and bad handwriting)

 

The same semester, my Palaeography 1 teacher had us go through and copy all 540 radical entries in their entirety—fanqie spelling, definitions, 古文 and 籀文 forms, everything. Palaeography 1 was basically an intro to the Shuowen and all the major research on it up to the 19th century. We also had to memorize the entire preface, along with several dozen entries. Our final exam was written entirely in seal script 小篆. I certainly had a leg up on the other students in the class—having copied all 9933 forms for the the corruption class, I was much more comfortable reading 小篆 than they were, since they had only copied the radicals.

 

post-4442-0-39757600-1454211666_thumb.jpg

 

The following semester, I took a class on reading cursive (行書 and 草書), and the teacher had us copy about half of the character forms in the Shuowen. Many cursive forms come from seal script so it was useful from that perspective, but by then I had had enough of copying the *[email protected]#%^ Shuowen Jiezi. Ash audited that class while I took it for a grade, and he found it really amusing that I was having to copy it yet again. I like to joke that this was the last straw that made me quit the degree and move to Japan, but I had already made that decision before taking the class.

 

Maybe that explains why I was surprised I only have 4 copies—I really thought it would be more. But I do have a whole shelf of books about the Shuowen and its problems, and I'm pretty sure the Outlier library has a dozen copies or so (different commentaries).

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Shelley

All I can say is wow. I am amazed you stuck at it so long. Mind you it does have a purpose unlike the useless copying out of lines as a punishment. 

 

I find it interesting that there are courses like the ones you took. I wonder how many other classes/courses there are that go into this depth and history of characters.

 

Makes me feel my efforts are not very important in the large scheme of things and far from being the "serious" student of chinese I was trying to be, I feel as if I am merely dabbling around the edges.

 

Never the less I will continue my studies and be glad that this sort of study is actually going on and that through your efforts with your dictionary and other help you have been giving I may glean some of this fantastic information you have spent time and effort learning. Thank you.

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Yang Chuanzhang
Seems like I'm a little late to the party but here is my review of the Simplified version of the poster:

 

Firstly, the posters look gorgeous, especially the characters themselves. Were these written with a brush and later vectorised?

 

Another great thing are the Chinese names of the components at the bottom (small nitpick here: using fonts of two different sizes such as in frame S34 doesn't look so good, maybe the non-italicised Roman font could be made a litte smaller?) which is extremely useful when describing characters to Chinese people.

 

Besides the details of the poster, I fully support Outliers crusade against radicals so I'm in favour of anything that talks about components instead, haha.

 

In terms of ideas to improve the poster, here is what I could come up with:

 

- As other reviewers have said before me, the frames are packed to the brink with information and feel somewhat busy. Maybe removing the stroke order for components where it's obvious and deemphasising the frame number could help with that.

 

- I'm not a big fan of the abbreviations "f", "m" and "w" for "component form", "component meaning" and "word meaning". Maybe they could be replaced with icons or colour coded in some way? Maybe throughout the entire dictionary, characters could be shown with every component coloured according to the function it has in that particular character. I remember you posted an example entry on your website a while ago that was colour coded like that, did you end up dropping that idea before the poster was made?

 

- Maybe this is already in planning but once you have all components ready, it would be very cool to have one combined poster that could be printed on A1.

 

- Perhaps the different semantic sections of the poster could be delineated more clearly with big, very light names as background for each section, similarly to how it says "Sample" or "Not for sale" on every page in some documents.

 

Making these components available in Pleco is a great idea, maybe you can even link from the character entries to the records all the components in the characters. It would be useful to see more general explanations of the components that make up each character.

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Hofmann

Were these written with a brush and later vectorised?

Yes. The vectorization smooths out a few of my wiggles and rough contours on the edges of strokes when writing with a less-than-saturated brush.

 

Of course, if anyone thinks something's ugly, it can be rewritten.

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歐博思

Here's my 2 cents on the traditional version of the poster:

 

Overall impression:
I would probably make the poster a required purchase for class if I were to become a Chinese teacher in the U.S. in the future. Having this semantic character information in one spot since starting studying Chinese would have made things more efficient in the early stages. Looking forward to seeing how Outlier Linguistic Solutions' upcoming poster-coordinated dictionary app gets on!

 

Initial impression from a few weeks ago:

—It's very convenient to have so much research compiled into one spot. The f,m,w are the most helpful part and I feel the information therein is the essence of the posters, yet I was feeling a bit lost around f,m,w even with the getting-started PDF; I wondered if color could be used to better effect to guide the eye.

 

—I was "testing" the names of some components by speaking them to a native speaker from China, and she didn't understand a few of them. Of course I'm using the traditional script poster and I take it the way of calling the components in speech was changed between simplified/traditional script posters to reflect the most common way called in the country using said script.

 

Second impression from today:

Finally read the blog and watched some videos as linked in the introduction PDF; these were really helpful in understanding and using the posters.

—Still thinking if and how different colors could boost learning efficiency; aesthetically, the current color scheme and overall arrangement I feel is pleasing to the eye.

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朱真明

@OneEye

I actually know a little bit about the 陰陽五行 system and I have never heard of 540 being an important number. 1~9 are considered complete numbers because every other number after that is made up of those fundamental 9. In the 黄帝内經 and 淮南子 I cannot remember seeing any numerical system in which 10 was taken as the base.

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archimon

Oneye - where is that you've been taking all of these courses on Paleography? I'm quite interested in acquiring at least a basic understanding of the issues surrounding Chinese Character etymology, but at my American university I've never had the opportunity to study anything of the sort (perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly!). If you have any book recommendations (preferably in English, since my Chinese is good enough to read anything academic just yet) I'd really appreciate some pointers!

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OneEye
I actually know a little bit about the 陰陽五行 system and I have never heard of 540 being an important number. 1~9 are considered complete numbers because every other number after that is made up of those fundamental 9. In the 黄帝内經 and 淮南子 I cannot remember seeing any numerical system in which 10 was taken as the base.

 

I could be wrong about that—I'm not a philosopher. I'm quoting my 文字學 teacher here. If you have evidence that he's wrong, let me know. The important point there isn't the numbers, but the fact that the 部首 system is pretty arbitrary. Xu Shen was influenced by 陰陽五行 philosophy in pretty much everything he did, from the selection of the radicals, to their ordering, to his analysis of character structure and the "Six Categories." It's not a stretch to imagine that the number of radicals is also related to that system of thought, especially considering there are 36 radicals in the 說文 which don't have any characters listed under them (i.e., no characters contain those radicals).

 

Oneye - where is that you've been taking all of these courses on Paleography? I'm quite interested in acquiring at least a basic understanding of the issues surrounding Chinese Character etymology, but at my American university I've never had the opportunity to study anything of the sort (perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly!). If you have any book recommendations (preferably in English, since my Chinese is good enough to read anything academic just yet) I'd really appreciate some pointers!

 

I did a year of grad school in the Chinese department (國文研究所) at National Taiwan Normal University (國立台灣師範大學). You won't find much in the States for palaeography—very few people have any formal training in it. You should definitely read Norman and Mattos's translation of Qiu Xigui's Chinese Writing (文字學概要). Then read it again in Chinese once your Chinese is good enough. Otherwise, Edward Shaughnessy, William Boltz, and William Baxter's books are great. But the vast majority of work in paleography is done in Chinese, even by western scholars.

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朱真明

@OneEye

I don't have any evidence to show that it wasn't I was just speaking from experience. My point was that just because there exists a system of thought based off numerals like the 陰陽五行 that doesn't necessarily mean that any piece of literature written in Ancient China that happens to seemingly correlate to the 陰陽五行 system mean that it actually correlates. Too often people are just aware of these so called philosophical ideas and make arbitrary connections without using any actual evidence. I'm not saying that you were doing such a thing but it is clear that some commenter's were influenced by your post seemingly without knowing much of anything about the 陰陽五行 system.

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OneEye

I see, and good point. I can say that there's no question that Xu Shen and the Shuowen were heavily influenced by 陰陽五行 thought—that's a well-documented and thoroughly-researched fact, and one he even claims himself.

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陳德聰

So perhaps I am a bit behind, but I have been trying to implement some of the ideas behind the Traditional Poster into teaching over the past couple of weeks and I have found it quite interesting. There have been some instances where I inferred an etymological connection that I hadn't thought of before, and found it to be correct when I got home and looked it up. However, I also have some nit-picky things that I see other people have touched on in their reviews. I will try to keep it to the point.

Aesthetic

I think the poster looks clean, despite clutter. It appears to be what it is trying to be, which makes sense. I think it is easy to understand what one would use this for without having to be told, which is certainly good. I can imagine having this posted up in a classroom and students knowing the drill. I found the clutter did not actually bother me from an aesthetic point of view precisely because of the way the colours were used. I was able to kind of "ignore" some of the text and it wasn't an issue.

So really my only qualm is the font. I personally don't like the font choice. I will note that my boyfriend thinks it looks nice. I am not really a font person in general (meaning I wouldn't be able to tell what font you used), but I prefer a less slanted and more "blocky" font for reference material. Maybe I am just picky, but I find the font a bit distracting as I am searching aimlessly (another issue altogether) for the component I need.

Ordering

This seems to have been a common comment from other reviewers. I have my own take on it. I personally tried to start using the posters without reading the explanation PDF provided to see how far I could get (thoughts on that in the next section). Something that this lead to was that I totally missed the frame numbers outright and was thoroughly confused when I started reading vertically and felt like "wow, this is a bizarre ordering". After I clued in and saw that the frames go left-to-right rather than top-to-bottom, I was still feeling a little bit lost on the ordering. I have since read the explanations from OneEye on the process behind choosing the order of appearance, and understand that there is no really "ideal" order considering how wide a span of components are being covered.

However, I don't think frequency is necessarily always the best way to make decisions about ordering. Personally, as someone who already reads and doesn't really catch on to the etymological connections that are present while doing so, I found it more intuitive to group by semantic similarity rather than either of form or frequency. In some cases I was thoroughly confused about why for example, 又 and 手 were so far away from each other, but an entire line was dedicated to 走,止,彳,行,辶 .

From what I would assume, this has to do with frequency as OneEye mentioned. However, I think that this and other instances are kind of interesting places to choose relative frequency over similarity in meaning, since as a person who doesn't really feel conscious of frequency, I would almost consider 又 more "common" than 手. Obviously this is not objectively true, but I am not sure the difference in frequency has much of an impact on learning when they are both pretty common. Also following on that logic, I wondered how come 攵 ended up so far away from both of those, since at least the 又 was proximal to the 手...

Another confusion along the lines of semantic similarity, I don't get why 酉 and 皿 are beside each other, but both are far away from 缶 and 斗 which are beside each other as well. I guess my feeling here was that there was some degree of semantic grouping already present, but that it was a bit scattered. I think I understand that the form can be crucial to deducing meaning in corrupted characters, but is this true for the majority of characters?

One quirk that I am a bit confused by is the choice to put 阜 and 邑 beside each other purely because of their form, in spite of their completely different meanings, whereas 禾 米 are nowhere near each other despite having similar forms and similar meanings. If there are more instances where there is a more direct connection between the semantic content of the component and the meaning of the character, then I think it would make more sense to group components by meaning or "semantic fields" or whatever it is that they're called.

I agree that there is always going to be a degree of arbitrariness in the order you choose, but I think there are some arbitrary orders which may actually be more likely to facilitate either ease of use (being able to find the components you're looking for) or ease of learning (being able to make the appropriate connections between different components). I favour the latter, but I think both are worthy of consideration.

General Thoughts on Accessibility / Design

I don't know much about design, but something I have been encountering a lot is the idea that you should have to explain as little as possible in order to have a successful design. That is part of my motivation to try to use the poster at first without reading the legend provided. I wanted to see how much was self-evident and how much was a bit confusing.

I think that the stroke order and the example characters where the component is used are 100% obvious so nothing really to comment on there.

Places where I needed to use a lifeline included what is listed as 10 and 11 on the handy reference guide, being the one-word meaning for the component and the name of the component or how to describe it. I was confused about 10 because I see that there is already a meaning portion right beside the "m" or "w", which I sneakily already knew the meanings of because I asked way back when. It was particularly confusing because I felt like sometimes it was something totally unexpected. Eg. T74 "Breathing", T73 "Hand", T40 "Plow" and so on. At some point I was confused because I wanted to know if this is referring to the "meaning" or the "form", and the handy reference guide says meaning, but I am not really convinced that T40 means plow so much as it means work or effort, because it is shaped like a plow. 11 is confusing for me because there are common names for the ones that are part of the gross radical system like X字旁, but then the rest are things like T58 "坐船的船的左邊" which feels particularly convoluted for 划龍舟的. I guess I think that it might be nice to specify when you are providing a non-official way to describe the component vs when it's actually the accepted name of the component? I just found this part kind of strange and although I recall trying to come up with ways to describe components to people, I am not sure if it serves the purpose of learning the characters or making connections between form and meaning.

At some point I felt that because the information in each frame is presented vertically, but the frames are ordered horizontally, I felt myself continuously trying to move my eyes downward to the next frame if I were to read them one after the other. I feel like this urge was compounded by the fact that there are solid border lines between columns and none between rows. The only visual indication that separates rows is the one red line in the bottom right corner of each frame.

As for 9 (important notes about the component), almost every single one is worded the same as "similar to ...". There must be a less cumbersome way to visually represent this connection than to take up space with more text. I don't know if I have a good suggestion for how to do so, but if you were okay with using letters like "f, m, w" and "v", couldn't you have used the empty space in the bottom left of each frame to put all the components that are similar in meaning or something? I just feel like I'm reading a teacher's corrections in red ink on it and it feels a bit ad hoc. I'm always very interested in creating a grouping of those components that are similar in meaning in my mind so that when I see them I can connect the dots, so it would be cool to see them visually alongside each other nearby the meaning that you have listed as 10 in the handy reference guide. I'm not sure if I'm making sense, but I just feel like this part is a pretty crucial part that is being treated as sort of write-off information.

Also just a minor thing that made me chuckle, T98's important note reads: "Actually, ..." I think it is perfectly reasonable to axe the "actually" here. Same with T80, "Though ..., most people are not aware of this" could have been condensed to "few people are aware of this pronunciation" or it may have been left out altogether considering there are a few other of the other components' pronunciations that are not really known/commonly used by people (eg. T77, T100).

Overall, I found the poster positively awesome. I do think that it is useful, mostly because of the wealth of information that is provided. I think that the information is immensely helpful in understanding characters, and I will continue to use this information with my students and probably some of it will now come up in conversations with friends. I look forward to seeing future versions!

HUGE Thank you to OneEye for being part of what I see as a monumental contribution to Chinese language learning.

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