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The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Paperback)

The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Paperback)
Author/Publisher: John DeFrancis
Format: paperback
Emphasis: Introduction to Chinese
Level: Beginning
List Price: $21

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Detailed information

Product Details

  • Paperback: 342 pages
  • Publisher: University of Hawaii Press; Reprint edition (June 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 0824810686
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.0 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.0 pounds.
  • Average Customer Review: based on 10 reviews.

Spotlight Reviews

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful:

Academic and readable -- superb description of the issues., December 3, 1999

Reviewer: Larry L. Kistler "llkistler" (Belmont, California)

In struggling with some way to get a handle on how to learn Chinese characters in my first Mandarin course, I found Dr. Defrancis' wonderful text, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.

He had me hoodwinked and hornswoggled through the early part of the first chapter with only an inkling that something was not quite right. Great device for introducing a complex subject. I'm just now finishing the book and plan to re-read that first chapter now that I'm wearing a new set of evaluation tools.

Is the language at all phonetic? Somewhat phonetic...not at all phonetic? Was it sometime? Will some alphabetic system replace characters? What schemes have been tried in the recent past?

These are some of the questions that Dr. Defrancis tackles and worries over like a barnyard dog. Once he gets hold of an issue, he doesn't let go until he's examined every single aspect.

This is a really rewarding text if you're interested in the Chinese language. (Oh yes, what exactly is meant by 'language' anyway?...read the book for a great discussion.)


15 of 27 people found the following review helpful:

Care about a Chinese opinion?, August 3, 2005

Reviewer: Derek Law (Beijing China)

Typically I don't write reviews without reading the books. Though as a Chinese I feel compelled to just point out several points.

1. Based on the reviews, I think the author is right on many points about myths about the Chinese language(s) and the script. Yes, many dialects are mutually intelligible. Yes, many different words are used to describe the same things. Yes, it is more difficult to learn. True, the visuals of the script present probably more sound than meaning. And yes, the basic unit of Chinese language is evolving from a character to a phrase (i.e. multi-character, thus multi-syllable)

2. Now, is it a "good" or "useful" script? If your pre-conception is that a script ("the image") should truthfully represent a language ("the truth"), it probably is not a good one. If your pre-conception is that a script should be "democratic" (i.e. easy to learn by all in no time), Chinese script is not good. If your pre-conception is that a "good" script should be fast to write out, probably it is not a good script.

3. Now, what is the most efficient way for people of different tongues ("dialects" or "languages") to communicate in writing with each other, without forcing the different communities learn others' tongues? I'd argue that the Chinese script is VERY good at this. Essentially everyone who wants to communicate in writing make a higher fixed investment in learning the script. Once the investment is made, you can transmit info to people of vastly different dialects, and across very long time horizon. It is efficient in a different way.

4. So the counter-challenge to the alphabet users are these. By just knowing modern English, how much time is required for one to have a basic (maybe 50-60% comprehension) to read French, Spanish and German? How much time is required for one to be able to read Chaucer in the original; how about Latin and Greek? If you are writing a book, what script you should write in that has the highest probability of being comprehensible to a normal person 500 years from now?

5. As a native speaker of Cantonese, I learnt the Chinese script at school. With that background, I can comprehend about 50-60% of everything that is written by speakers of Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Mandarin and other dialects. I can comprehend as much about ancient Chinese text (depends on the period), and maybe slightly less in Japanese (because the grammatical portion of the language is written in kana). Jealous now? You shouldn't be. I happen to have made the right investment in learning a very USEFUL script.

6. BTW, the written Chinese language has a meaningful continuity since ~220BC, and it is used to describe a group of languages/ dialects that is spoken by about 1 billion people.

After learning the "abc", what other script would you ask your kids to learn?


Customer Reviews

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful:

An indispensible eyeopener, January 7, 2006

Reviewer: Michal Korzec (05-807 Podkowa Lesna, Poland)

Indispensible for a beginner. An eyeopener for a specialist.

Michal Korzec
Director China Research Center, prof. WSB-NLU, Institute of political Studies Polish Academy of Sciences.


5 of 16 people found the following review helpful:

A pompous ethnocentric piece infiltrated with western superiority, November 21, 2005

Reviewer: X. Li (Iowa City, IA) 

DeFrancis's voice is not new. He is complicit with the long existing alphabet literacy theory (pls refers to Paul Grosswiler's article "Dispelling the Alphabet Effect" on Canadian Journal of Communication, vol 29 (2004) 145-158) and its eurocentric gesture. Yes, democracy is good, science, rationality, progress are all good, anything exists that's different is inferior and is doomed to fail. We are already very familiar with this kind of ethnocentrism, however, a book with such an ideological bias cannot accurately reflect what the Chinese language really is. Language, as an indispensible cultural element that intertwines with other elements, refuses to be reduced to a pure systems of abstract symbols. The value of the Chinese language cannot be judged as being isolated from its people and its other cultural context.


5 of 7 people found the following review helpful:

Really an enlightening attack on the character writing system, October 22, 2005

Reviewer: Christopher Culver (Chicago, IL USA)

THE CHINESE LANGUAGE: Fact and Fantasy, by the legendary pedagogue of Chinese John DeFrancis, is an imprecisely titled book. What DeFrancis seeks to show here is that the Chinese character writing system is inefficient, unnecessary, and detrimental to mass literacy.

DeFrancis begins with an introductory essay (which he later revealed to be a joke) about a World War II committee of Asian scholars attempting to design a character-based writing system for Western peoples once they were subjugated by the unstoppable Japanese. After this brief piece, the reader will already see that characters are unsuitable for most of the world's languages.

The first part, the only portion of the book which is dedicated to the Chinese language in the sense of speech, elucidates the division language -> regionalect -> dialect. In the second part, DeFrancis tries to reach a conclusion on what exactly characters are, as diverse terminology from "pictograph" to "ideograph" has been used. The third part, "Demythifying Chinese Characters" is the real meat of the book. While hard to believe now, in previous centuries European intellectuals were enamoured with characters and even called them a universal writing system. DeFrancis slays the universality myth, and the closely related emulatability myth, mainly based on the fact that literacy is so hard to acheive, as well as on the fact that no phonetic information can be had. The idea that Chinese is monosyllabic is shown as a myth, since the spoken language has and depends upon polysyllabic constructions to avoid redundacy and only in the thoroughly artificial written language could one see monosyllabism. The myth that characters are indispensable is revealed, since pinyin works well once the spoken language is used as a basis for writing, and only the use of an artificial literary language hampers alphabetization. Students of Chinese will already understand this, for reading a transcript of a conversation in pinyin presents little confusion. Finally, if anyone out there really still believes that characters could be successul, DeFrancis shows how terrible their impact has been on mass literacy in China compared to Japan. An interesting aside in this chapter is that even Japanese literacy isn't what it's cracked up to be. The fourth and final part discusses historical steps for reform of the spoken and written languages.

Some knowledge of Chinese, ideally Mandarin (Putonghua) is necessary to fully enjoy this book, although DeFrancis tries hard to make it accessible to a general audience. DeFrancis was one of the great Western scholars of Chinese, and from a three-year sojourn in China in his youth he had a great love of the Chinese people and their culture. If he argues against the use of characters, his opinions are worth hearing out, and students and scholars of Chinese may be quite interested by this work.


0 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

Unforgetable!, September 12, 2005

Reviewer: Laerte Agnelli "LaoTse" (São Paulo, Sao Paulo SP Brazil)

What can one say about another masterpiece of Mr. DeFrancis ?
That it is a must for those interested in the chinese language?
That he really goes deep in his appreciation of the origins ( and future )of that language? The book is really fantastic, incredible !!!


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