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Review of Adrian van Amstel's Chinese Character Dictionary

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Heheh, thank you Mr H (and Balthazar, Lu, Luxi, realmayo, 艾墨本, and whoever else might upvote my review!).😍

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Very comprehensive review, well done.


As you mention you are interested in 

7 hours ago, Gharial said:

unusual and possibly innovative indexing systems


I wondered if you have come across the Tuttle Chinese Character Fast Finder?

This arranges characters based entirely on shape, no stroke counting and no radicals. You could use this with almost no knowledge of Chinese.

It lists 3,200 character including all HSK levels so very useful for the student.

This might not be your final reference but it helps you identify characters and allows you to do further research.

I found it very useful when I started and can still be very useful.

You can preview some pages here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mandarin-Chinese-Characters-Fast-Finder/dp/0804849099/ref=dp_ob_image_bk


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Hi Shelley, how's it hangin'? :)


I remember taking a looksie in certainly the Kanji Fast Finder back when I was in Japan, but reckoned it didn't have enough in it (it's not even a 字典 but just a bare-bones glossary really, and even 字典 become white elephants somewhat if one knows or can closely enough guess the readings necessary to simply jump straight into 词典 (that more Japanese general than kanji dictionaries had radical indexes just in case though! The only one I'm really aware of is the Langenscheidt, which IIRC only total-stroke-count indexes, and then for just the Jōyō)), plus it seemed rather indebted to Halpern's SKIP method (System of Kanji Indexing by Patterns, as used in the Kenkyusha~NTC New J-E Character Dictionary, and the Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary etc: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1B69FR745DVQ2 ), and with its (own) apparent inconsistencies (why for example from the CCFF preview pages are 双 and 水 considered acceptable left-right divisions but 从 and 兆 aren't?).


Ultimately isn't it just replacing the "pain" of conventional indexing with the "new" (albeit somewhat less intense if not prolonged) pain of scanning? Especially when one will probably need as you say to return to a dictionary proper to really learn enough LOL. And haven't smartphones with their high-tolerance handwriting input made whatever paper-based look-up methods (unless a method has something non-trivial and more widely applicable to say about character decomposition) kind of redundant anyway? 😱🤩

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Superbly comprehensive review! And I could read your prose all day.


As I read the original post I thought, @Gharial writes like someone who needs footnotes. At the bottom of the post, sure enough, the footnotes are there.


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@Gharial its not bad, thank you.


I wasn't advocating this method as a one fits all panacea. I merely wanted to enlighten you to a method that does not rely on stroke count OR radicals. As you appear to be perfectly aware of this style I feel as if I have tried to teach my Grandmother to suck eggs and she has explained to me all the intricate methods involved in sucking the perfect egg. :)


I would like to say that when I was a complete beginner and indeed even now at a more advanced level, I find it very useful. It can help when you aren't sure which component is the radical, especially when there are 2 components that could be radicals or are combined and are actually only one. I don't have a problem discerning which shape category a character falls in to for me this is very clear and straight forward.

Once I have found the pinyin and the tone I can look it up in any of the countless dictionaries I have at my disposal either electronic or paper and fill out my knowledge.


I also found your writing very readable not because of footnotes but because of the very liberal and much appreciated use of paragraphs:D


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@murrayjames Uh oh, I added a couple more footnotes, hope you don't mind :D


@ Shelley (I couldn't get the @ function to work as there are apparently quite a few Shelleys on C-Fs and your name didn't appear among the ones given): Your bearded new grandmother might give you a complimentary copy of his I mean her revolutionary new dictionary TM (once it's ready), provided you scrape all the floor fluff out of those broken eggs and make hers a nice strong eggnog. :P


Seriously though, that review took several hours per night over more than a week to finish, and there was a fair bit I decided to leave out (or gave up on working out. I'd be better putting the time into my own projects! 😎). And if money were no object I'd probably buy most of Matthews' books (even that one with all the quite involved mnemonics for character meanings and readings including tone).

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  • 1 month later...

For what it's worth there are actually a couple of academic reviews of the CCD, one by Zhang Xinming in the vol 2.1 issue (from 2016) of the journal Researching and Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (pdf available at http://journals.equinoxpub.com/index.php/RTCFL/article/viewFile/32920/pdf ), the other by Jonathan Webster (a Systemic-Functional linguist at the City University of Hong Kong) in the vol 47 no 1 issue (Jan 2019) of the Journal of Chinese Linguistics (one can find at least excerpts of this latter easily enough online).


Webster draws on a few of Zhang's observations but is more critical of the CCD, saying towards his conclusion that 'Van Amstel's priority in creating the CCD was clearly the arrangement of the characters, while the information about each character's meaning along with accompanying examples was clearly secondary in importance'.


The same or similar could be said about certainly the indexing system and indeed ordering (as with new methods these are usually one and the same!) in McGraw-Hill's Chinese Dictionary & Guide to 20,000 Essential Words: A New Method for Non-Native Speakers to Look Up the 2,000 Most Commonly Used Characters in Chinese (which I bought a copy of before it increases any more in price LOL).


That is, the "Broken Marks" method that it employs may well be the best thing since sliced bread to some (even though it often nearly doubles the count number required - for example, 了 is now 4 marks, presumably 一  丿  l  丶 given those are the only 4 prototypes presented generally, rather than as conventionally two strokes, the first akin to 乛 and the second a 亅 - and there is a lot of scanning involved to find characters when only the leftmost and/or highest mark is taken as the first, primary mark in any group of characters with the same number of total marks, and no explanation given of any possible subordering), but making it the actual means of arranging all the characters in the main body of the work (than making it simply just a featured index) consigns users to an eternal mark-based or (if one prefers and via the supplementary conventional, solely simplified* look-up radical index, or obviously most easily via the Pinyin index) a two-stage look-up process even when they already know the pronunciation of the character(s) involved. But hey, it obviously wouldn't do to have made the Pinyin alphabet the main ordering and the Broken Marks method merely supplementary eh, when the BM Newfangled Method is the whole raison d'etre for the creation and more importantly the marketing of the work.

It's not that this particular McGraw-Hill is a bad book - it's beautifully produced, with excellent-quality paper, a very interesting-looking English translation to Chinese supplementary index, and probably the clearest font I've ever seen (albeit not exactly hard given the A4-size pages! Ken Lunde and Miguel Sousa of Adobe helped with the formatting and developed a special font for especially the Pinyin), and the examples can be amusing (e.g. 孩子们要学习中文, 于是, 傻瓜就去买《汉语断笔码词典》 ShaGua's kids wanted to study Chinese, so he bought the 'Chinese Broken Marks Dictionary'. (ShaGua is a recurring character. Strangely, no Pinyin is provided for the examples, which surely limits the market for this supposedly easier-to-use dictionary! The same applies to the Related Words at the end of each entry, i.e. vocab in which the head character isn't initial, but this is similar to say Harbaugh, and this is probably the better vocab builder of the two)) or seek to impart 'unique cultural tidbits' (e.g. 中国的右翼是自由派, 左翼是保守派; 这与美国不同  In China the right wing is liberal but the left is conservative; this is different from America) - but that the editors disseminate a bit too much misinformation in the Preface to justify their venture.

For instance, the Kangxi (1716) was not 'the very first Chinese dictionary' (so let's not overstate the difficulty of compiling Chinese dictionaries), and there seems little point in saying that only two out of 300-plus students enrolled in Chinese courses at the Miami University of Ohio actively used a Chinese dictionary if it's possibly only paper dictionaries that were the focus of the survey (and what about any potential deficiencies or indeed potential pluses e.g. fantastic textbooks full of plenty of lexicogrammatical detail? of the instruction in the Chinese program there); then there is again the strict avoidance of mentioning any possibility of Pinyin alphabetical-ordered direct look-up or even using things like the 难检字笔画索引 ('Stroke Index for Difficult Characters', which goes by total stroke count) in dictionaries such as the Xinhua Dictionary with English Translation (Commercial Press International, 2000) to find e.g. the character 尹, the surname of three native Chinese with PhDs who'd been tasked by the BM's editors to look up said character by radical in the Xinhua. (They all needed several attempts, and one apparently almost gave up, but that is surely due more to the deficiencies of the decisions of the Xinhua's indexers than to radicals per se. Better and/or bigger conventional dictionaries can obviously opt to list 尹 under more or other than just 乙 and 尸 . To take an "extreme" example, the New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary allows the look up of a character by virtually any conceivable radical thanks to its Universal Radical Index).


Lastly, Unicode codes are provided for each simplified head character, e.g. 乡 U+4E61, but as there are only 2000 (i.e. pretty frequent) characters included and most people use IMEs etc there will probably not be much use for this feature generally.


I'm no defender of convention (well, not simply for convention's sake), but dictionaries like the CCD and this McGraw-Hill do little to help familiarize students with the vast range of established and useful printed, online and electronic resources. The CCD severely underestimates the difficulties involved in visually decomposing Chinese characters, while the McGraw-Hill severely overstates them, and both systems ironically limit easier access to their contents because they are too wedded to their grapheme-based means of arrangement, as if Chinese had never met or ever been married to an alphabet. All that being said, the McGraw-Hill is by far the easier to use and more comprehensively indexed of the two, which is one good thing at least! 😍


*There are however both simplified and traditional broken-marks indices supplied, though the simplified essentially reproduces the ordering of the main text and is thus somewhat superfluous.


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  • 3 weeks later...

Just thought I'd post a sample entry from the dictionary I'm writing, that aims to offer more than certainly the ones I reviewed above (and if I may say so myself, the parsing and indexing systems I've developed beat the pants off Van Amstel's, it's literally almost as easy as ABC), but it'll be at least a few years yet before any release.🤪


How many takers would there be though for a dictionary like this, that starts from the characters in the Oxford/Commercial Press Concise or Pocket and gives them the good ol' phonetic treatment and more, if priced at hmm...around £20-25? (I'll need to see quite what Createspace say might charge for A4 size and with colour for at least those search string headers).😋


If there's not much interest, no worries, I'll just produce it for my own reference and further research purposes! 😎🤣


Edit: Uploaded new (and tone-corrected!) screencap that gives each sense its own new line rather than packing them all into a block of text, but whether there'll be space to always do this in the finished product remains to be seen (the extra pages might raise printing costs a bit too much).



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@Gharial Just out of interest, in your screencap 平庸 is written with the pinyin 'pīngyōng'. is this an error or is this a literary reading I haven't studied yet?

(Amazing work on the dictionary, cant even comprehend...!)

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Thanks Shelley! Your feedback as a potential user is really appreciated.:) I'll now run that Cuba and Tom line by you though come publication time.🤩:P🤑


Ooh and thanks also, Tomsima! Keen-eyed corrections like that are really helpful. I guess there's something about the meaning of 平 that keeps throwing my grasp (if it can quite be called that!) of the tone off, even after I've been looking at entries for the compound with 庸. That, or the tone from the entry-focus of  庸 somehow transferred itself back across or something. In future I'll make 100% use of entering hanzi into and copying the resulting Pinyin back from Google than risk typing up the Pinyin myself (but even the Google output sometimes may need slight correcting regarding spacing/word segmentation at least).


The really hard work though was the parsing system and the instructions for it (and all the necessary decompositional analyses, possible redirects, etc etc etc), so compiling the actual entries is quite fun in comparison. A rather polysemous entry like 庸 takes about a day (or two, if all the sub-meanings are to cohere well and with a paleographically-motivated, overarching main meaning) to research and draft, but it'll hopefully get quicker as I settle on format, style etc, and there are enough quick entries like 鹌: 鹌鹑(的鹌) - not that I'd quite type it up like that LOL - that the speed sometimes evens out (speeds up) a bit!


Thanks again guys, your responses help keep me motivated!🤪

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  • 9 months later...

A short note from me, Adrian, the author or the Chinese Character Dictionary.

First of all I want to express my appreciation to reviewer Gharial for spending so much time and effort in reviewing my book. Reviews like these are priceless for an author, especially if they are self-publishing, because that means there is otherwise very little feedback on the quality of your publication. The same can probably be said for forum managers, for whom well researched reviews must be the life-blood, because what else would people taking part in these discussions talk about if they don't have a starting point like this. It would be like playing tennis without a ball (although even that can be of interest, mostly from an artistic point of view, as shown in the 1966 Antonioni film 'Blowup').


Most reviews begin with a sketch of the background of the book, and because the reviewer has omitted this, I would like to begin with a few words about that. As I have explained in the Introduction of the CCD, the book started after I got stuck in my study of Chinese in the winter of 1993-1994. The problem I had run into was that while trying to improve my reading skills, I was unable to find new characters quickly, or review those I had looked up before. With the help of T.K. Ann's 'Cracking the Chinese Puzzle' I managed to create an alternative system, consisting of some 3,500 characters, arranged in three levels: 1. components, consisting of 394 basic elements (356 for the Simplified edition) necessary to identify uniquely about 1800 phonetics; 2. phonetics; 3. characters. The 394 components were derived from the phonetics that Ann had listed in his book.


When confronted with the problem of arranging these 394 components in a certain order that would make it possible to locate each of them quickly, I decided to split them first into components featuring horizontal and vertical strokes vs. those with mainly slanting strokes. Then I proceeded with subdividing both halves further, based on some other characteristic feature, like components with a 'foot' bent to the left or right, square-shaped, like , , , , , etc.. Some components that did not show one of the 16 typical features very clearly were as much as possible allocated to the one that seemed to come closest, like and 𠬝, which were placed in category 5c (representative feature ), and , , , , , , , which were all placed in category 13 (representative feature ). The only feature this last group shares with the representative is obviously the central vertical stroke. It is expected, however, that users of the CCD will note this and probably have not too much difficulty in finding them back when needed.


After having created sixteen categories with each having a characteristic feature, and the last one, number 17, for about twenty rather irregular shapes, I went on with arranging the phonetics under the first of their (non-radical) components that could be found in the list, and finally I arranged the characters in series, with each series headed by a phonetic. These were more or less the same as Ann had already given in his book.


Anybody who understands the rationale behind the set-up of the book will be able to find any character. The rules do nothing else then summing up this arrangement.


The reviewer, however, does not, as he keeps wondering why this or that phonetic should be stripped of its radicals. As an example he mentions (or , , etc.), and wonders why is it necessary to strip off the top radical. It doesn't seem to make sense from a phonetic point of view, he says. But then he clearly fails to understand the point of splitting characters into components, which – as I pointed out above – is just to create a simple and straightforward system for locating a character between thousands of others, without needing any prior knowledge as to what a phonetic is or how to spot a radical. How can a beginning student of Chinese know that is a phonetic? S/he can't, so I give them a simple method to find the component (out of 394) under which they can find it (which in this case is '大'). Then they just have to check the list with phonetics of that component to find the phonetic of the character they're looking for, which is indeed 莫. Having found the phonetic, then they can easily find the series with all characters that share this phonetic, like , 慕, , etc..


Another example that the reviewer mentions as having had trouble with finding is , and in particular its components. As mentioned above,  and a few other components with a vertical line were placed at the end of category 13.


The reviewer mentions several other things about the book, that do not work well or should be improved. With some of these I agree, and already have, or will, take appropriate action to remedy them. With others I do not, but they may require better explanation in the book. In practical terms:


1. The Introduction has been partly rewritten, until the section titled 'Radicals'. Radicals are problematic, so they need special attention, and that section has not changed much in the latest update. Let me clarify this with an example:

in and in is a radical, but not in , in which it is part of a phonetic (more accurately, it is a compound ideograph), so an extra rule is needed to help the beginning user of the CCD with making the distinction. The rule is that if stands between diverging strokes, or below two other components, that it should be treated as a radical. This is not scientifically based, but more of a 'rule of thumb', which works well in most cases. The usual approach in standard dictionaries is that can  function as a radical in any position, and so , ,  and can all be found under it. Whether it really should be taken in such dictionaries as a radical in order to find the character involved is a different matter, and I have never found any rules other than the 'trial and error' approach most, including myself, would take when using standard dictionaries. For example, should not be taken as radical in , nor in . By the way, as some readers may have found out for themselves, between dictionaries there are also inconsistencies as to which component should be taken as radical.


Why are the rules as I have presented them necessary and important? The aim of the book is to create series with characters that share similar features (i.e. the phonetic), which helps to review characters. Some of the characters I had difficulty with when studying Chinese were , , , and , which are all more or less frequently used in Chinese newspapers. When encountering – say - , I would wonder in which other characters I had seen that same phonetic before, but was unable to find them on the same page in the dictionary where I had found . Another example that comes to mind are (qín, work hard), and (jĭn, careful). Again, both look very similar to a 3rd year student, but impossible to find on the same page in any dictionary, let alone to remember.


The classic solution to this problem is, as far as I know, not taught anymore. I found it described in the introduction of an early 20th century Chinese-English dictionary, it may have been Matthews' Chinese-English Dictionary. I remember reading that the author admitted that learning to locate a character was an arduous process. Learning to spot a radical, the author wrote - if I remember well -  consists of studying with a Chinese teacher for many months and learning how to recognize a radical in any arbitrarily given character. I set out in 1994, in my third (!) year of studying Chinese to design my own system, based on my experience as a database programmer, to relieve myself of the burden of breaking my head over how to spot a radical, and of the tediousness of counting strokes in the phonetic part of a character. I didn't know that much about Chinese characters, just that there were phonetics and radicals, and that most radicals are easy to spot, as they are almost always standing at the side, and in the same position: on top, bottom, etc.  of the phonetic. So I wanted to create a system consisting of series of characters, that only differ from others in the same series in having a different radical standing independently at the side of the phonetic, because in that way they are relatively easy to determine, and one can quickly decide which of the remaining components is the first in order.


Creating series with the same phonetic is however not a walk in the park, at least not for a part of the characters. It is easy for , , , and , but not for a character like , in which the radical does not stand at the side, though some might take as radical, which is not correct in this case. But there is a regularity also in this case, as the radical always stands in the lower left corner, and the rest forms the phonetic. Other characters with in the same series are 毂,彀,and 穀. If you want to avoid having users applying the trial and error method, or to have to study for several months with a Chinese teacher, then you will have to make a rule to guide them to the right series, and teach them that in this case should be taken as a radical, because how are they to know that it is a radical and not a regular component? The other alternative, not making a rule, and placing the character under the first component (i.e. ), would lead to making a special series with as header and as only member, which defeats the purpose of the book, which was to group characters with similar phonetics. You can't have your cake and eat it, reviewer, or create a rule, or have a messy system.


2. Errors have been corrected, like the component missing from the MCT. However, it would not prevent the user from finding it or one of the other characters in the Character Table headed by , like , or , because in all likelihood they – not seeing - would probably go to the Character Table of 𠃌, which is right in front of , and from there would without a doubt be able to find and the others. This is one of the advantages of this system, you will find your character eventually, just by using your intuition. In his haste to be critical the reviewer does not seem to be able – or willing – to recognize any advantages like these.


Let me finish by summarizing the basic principles and the main advantages of the book, as the reviewer does not have an eye for these:

Basic principle 1: the book aims at arranging characters in series, each series headed by the phonetic the series members have in common.

Basic principle 2: the rules governing the placement of characters into series were aimed at being both simple and straightforward. Many people who have used the book have said they can find most characters fairly quickly.

Main advantage 1: the book makes it possible for users to find any character by following a few simple rules, which can be summarized as: 1. detect the first component, 2. find the phonetic, 3. find the series. This makes for a fast, straightforward and elegant method.

Main advantage 2: the book makes it possible for users to review characters when looking up a new character. For example, if you look up ,it is easy to review , , , and .

The system employed in the book makes it possible to find most characters within 20-30 seconds, faster than with most other systems. With the recently published e-book even faster. See my website www.chinesecharacterdictionary.nl for details, or visit my Amazon author's page: amazon.com/author/adrianvan.

Any further suggestions for how to improve the book will be highly appreciated.

Thanks to everyone for reading this and for any comments.


Adrian van Amstel

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