A Christian missionary who studied Chinese in China in the beginning of the 19th century, wrote that his Chinese teacher used to place a ladies shoe on the table before the beginning of the lesson. The reason for this peculiar behaviour was, he explains, that if Chinese officials would enter the office unannounced they would surely assume that the missionary and his teacher were talking about trade, as studying Chinese by foreigners was prohibited by the government. The reason for which was that the Chinese language had to be kept a secret to the foreigners, so that they could not steal the ‘secrets of the country’.
Such hurdles as these for the study of the Chinese language are of course no longer in existence, but others remain. The way Chinese-English dictionaries are arranged was one massive hurdle for me when I started the study of the language first in Shanghai, and later in Beijing, in the early 90s.
The basic rules for looking up a character in a dictionary are simple enough though, basically consisting of determining an element that is called the radical and is fairly easy to detect in most characters, and that usually refers to its meaning. The next step is to count the number of strokes in the remaining part, which is usually called the phonetic part of the character, as it refers to the sound. With these two pieces of information the character and a page number can be found in a table, which will lead you to the page in the main body of the dictionary with the character, its pronunciation, and its meaning.
Although it was not hard to learn how to find a character in a dictionary, for me there was a serious problem with the actual arrangement of characters in the main body of the dictionary. In most Chinese-English dictionaries characters are arranged according to the sound as written in pinyin and on stroke count, with characters with sounds like ‘a’, ‘ai’, ‘ang’, et cetera at the beginning, and characters with sounds like ‘zou’, ‘zuo’, et cetera at the end. In purely Chinese dictionaries, the arrangement is often based on the radical part of the character. In all cases, however, the result is that characters that have the same phonetic part, and therefore look rather similar, are not grouped together.
For me as a visual learner, the way a Chinese character looks is mostly determined by the phonetic, which in most characters makes up the main and most prominent part of the character. In order to remember and spot differences in characters that look almost similar, it is for me important that they stand near one another. It happened frequently that I found myself looking up a new character that in my mind looked very similar to another that I had seen not long before, but was unable to remember which one or where I had seen it. I felt often like a performer I once saw who tried to keep a number of dishes spinning on their sides. As more and more dishes where added he had to run faster and faster to keep them all spinning.
In an attempt to clear up some of the confusion, I tried creating my own lists of phonetics, but soon found out that there were too many. Besides, I was not very sure which phonetics there actually were and decided to try to find out more about the structure of characters in general. When I found T.K. Ann’s (安子介) ‘Cracking the Chinese puzzle’ I thought that a solution was at hand. In his book professor Ann describes and explains the way characters are composed. The book begins with a description of about 200 basic components, followed by a sort of dictionary in which characters with the same phonetic are grouped together, exactly the kind of arrangement I had been looking for. Unfortunately, finding a particular character in the dictionary part was far from straightforward. The method employed by the author, the so-called four-corner indices method, seemed cumbersome. Besides, it did not make use of the phonetics, and for practical purposes I was still as far as before.
The problem of finding a better way to arrange and look up characters became more urgent when in the beginning of 1994 I decided to go to Taiwan to continue my study of Chinese and try to find work. Facing the challenge of having to deal with the traditional characters still in use in Taiwan, and the prospect of having to count the number of strokes in the rather complicated traditional characters, I decided to try to create my own system, based on the list of components in Ann’s book. I wondered whether it was possible to extend the list and use it as a complete index for all phonetics in the dictionary part. By analysing all these phonetics I managed to create a list of more than 400 components that were sufficient to uniquely identify all phonetics in the book. Then I arranged these components into a certain order based on some characteristic feature (see Tables 1 and 2 of the Introduction for details), and grouped Ann’s phonetics under the first of its components that could be found in the list. Finally I copied components, phonetics and characters into a notebook and within three months I had the dictionary that I had been looking for.
Of course, the 3,500-plus characters discussed in Ann’s book were by far not sufficient for a serious study of the Chinese language. And although the notebook worked reasonably well during my stay on Taiwan, I realised that it had to be extended and improved. One obvious problem was that many characters cannot simply be split into a phonetic and radical part, so I had to find a way to incorporate these as well (For this reason the term ‘phonetic’ is avoided as much as possible in the introduction. Instead the more inclusive term ‘series header’ is used).
During the following years I created a computerized database system based on standard dictionaries, and was able to print out my first version of the character dictionary in 1998 with about 6,000 characters.
Over the years the possibility of getting it published often crossed my mind, because in my opinion it was very likely that there were many others who struggled with remembering Chinese characters. But it took many years of experimenting with different ways of ordering components before a sort of best order was found. Finally, about ten years after the first printout of the dictionary I had created a version that in my eyes looked quite sophisticated. In order to get an independent opinion I sent it to a friend of mine, with whom I had studied Chinese in Beijing. He saw the potential of the new way of arranging characters, but also pointed out the difficulty of getting people to change from a system they are familiar with to a new system. As history has often shown, he said, people will only change to a new system if there are substantial advantages. Besides, doing away with the radicals – that I had discarded altogether in my desire for radical change and replaced with my own system – would not make things easier. After pondering these remarks and seeing that there was much truth in them, I decided to go on looking for ways to add to the functionality of the dictionary. I also reintroduced the radicals, although with a smaller set than used in standard dictionaries.
One obvious addition to the traditional character based system I had until then was to integrate simplified characters. By adding the simplified counterpart to traditional characters and also giving them their own entry, it was possible to create a system that works just as conveniently for people used to simplified characters as for those used to traditional ones. As basis for all traditional-simplified relations the 两岸现代汉语常用词典 (Straits’ Dictionary of Modern Common Chinese) proved to be a reliable guide.
Another substantial improvement to the system was the inclusion of etymological descriptions. The book that opened my eyes in this case was ‘Chinese characters’ by Leon Wieger, published for the first time in 1915. These days, there are several websites that discuss the etymology of characters, and it was not hard to supplement Wieger’s descriptions with descriptions for almost all phonetics/series headers. The next step was reviewing the meanings of every character explained in the book and adding example sentences and pinyin transliterations, a work which was completed recently. The basis for this was again the above mentioned 两岸- dictionary, besides websites such as nciku.com and baidu.com. After these improvements, I began to think that a successful publication might be possible, and started work on an introduction to the system. Finally, I enlisted the help of one of my former students, presently working as assistant-lawyer, for checking and correcting the book, especially the Chinese example words and phrases.
Guangzhou, summer 2016