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Chinese Characters (Paperback)

Chinese Characters (Paperback)
Author/Publisher: L. Wieger
Format: paperback
Emphasis: Chinese Characters
List Price: $24.95

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Detailed information
Editorial Reviews
Book Description
Rich analysis of 2,300 characters according to traditional systems into primitives. Also reference lexicon of 7,000 characters.

Product Details
  • Paperback: 820 pages
  • Publisher: Dover Publications (June 1, 1965)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 0486213218
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds.
  • Average Customer Review: based on 9 reviews.

Spotlight Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful:

Outdated, but useful, August 13, 2000

Reviewer: Richard A. Weaver (lawrenceville, GA United States)

If you're looking for a book giving the latest information on the history and development of Chinese characters, this is NOT the book you want to use.

Having said that, this book can still be very useful to you in learning Chinese characters. The vast majority of Chinese characters are NOT the charming "sun plus moon equals bright" type of pictographs. They are a two-part composite, with one character (the radical) carrying the general semantic meaning of the compound, and the other character giving an indication of the sound of the compound. (for an excellent discussion of this, see John DeFrancis' The Chinese Language - Fact and Fantasy.) What Wieger presents is a scheme of 858 phonetic series, and by learning the sound(s) associated with these series you get, in essence, multiple characters for the price of one.

So forget about his outdated etymologies, and use his information only when it's vivid and makes the character easy to remember. Otherwise, make up your own mnemonics. But the sound-carrying parts of characters - his "phonetic series" - repeat themselves over and over again in different compound characters. And being familiar with the more prolific phonetic series will make the memorization of new characters much easier.


19 of 29 people found the following review helpful:

Why is this still being published?, May 29, 2000

Reviewer: G. B. Talovich (Wulai, Taiwan, ROC)

I am amazed to see that this decrepit old book is still polluting the study of Chinese etymology. The work is shot through with errors that should be obvious to anyone with the slightest inkling of the Chinese scholarly contributions in this field over the last several centuries. It is not enough to say the book is out of date. When Wieger was writing, serious study of the oracle bones was well under way. Why did he show no familiarity with the work of the earlier Ching etymologists and the contemporary turtle bone scholars? Is ignorance an excuse? Since I began my study of Chinese etymology almost thirty years ago,I have been asked several times (always by Westerners) what I think of this book. My reply: open it at almost any page and you can find some ridiculous error. No wonder only Westerners consider Wieger an etymologist; he has no standing among Chinese scholars.

Of course the book is not totally without merit. The entire layout is visually pleasing, the kai calligraphy is excellent, and in particular the seal characters are very well done. But his discussion of the "old graphies" borders on the ludicrous. His approach reminds me of the early "Egyptologists" who claimed that hieroglyphics apprehended truth directly, and could be deciphered independently of orthographic convention. Wieger does score a few hits on simple characters. He provides workable descriptions of some later inscriptions, the kind you see in Pots and Pans 101, and that any first semester student should be able to read. Some of his ideas are surreal, though, totally untenable when held against the body of the written Chinese language. He presents a bronze plate, "dating probably from the 20th century BC... the oldest specimen known of Chinese writing." This statement, along with his introductory sketch of the character chun/prince through 45 centuries, shows that he had little of the historical sense so vital to an etymologist.

If you wish to learn about the origin, etymology, history, classification, and signification of Chinese characters, look elsewhere.


Customer Reviews


Dated but Valuable, March 25, 2006
Reviewer: Charles W. Strong (McMinnville, OR United States)

Some of the reviews of Wieger's book are unfair. Of course it is out of date: the second edition was published in 1927, the same year that the Academia Sinica began to protect the Shang sites at Anyang! Serious study of oracle bones had barely begun, and no-one can reasonably deride Wieger's failure to mention it as "ignorance."

About the year 200 CE, the Shuo-Wen was published, the great dictionary that dominated Chinese etymological thinking until the early 20th century. This was a remarkable intellectual achievement. Chalmers' 1881 book, "The Structure of Chinese Characters," introduces this Chinese etymology to English speakers, but it is extremely concise. Wieger is much more detailed, and in 1923 no less a person than Bernhard Karlgren said, "his work is up to now the best European work on the subject." A popular extension of Wieger's work "Analysis of Chinese Characters" by Wilder and Ingram was published in 1922. The authors make an illuminating remark, "[these etymologies] are the products of Chinese fancy and imagination and to some extent show the workings of the Chinese mind. Therefore they interest us who are students of Chinese thought."

As Karlgren notes, "the small seal of Li Si is in many cases an entirely new script." My point is simple: the etymologies derived from shells and bones are frequently irrelevant to the modern characters. The Shuo Wen's may often be erroneous guesses, but they were a part of the Chinese appreciation of their script for more than 1700 years, witness F.C. Hsu's "Chinese Words," published in 1976 and based primarily on the Shuo-Wen. So, buy Wieger and enjoy it. The mnemonic help it gives you in remembering the characters is deeply Chinese, and far more relevant than anything you can contrive for yourself.

I agree with the remarks Kent Suarez makes in his review and would also recommend Wang Hongyuan's book, though I, too, have reservations.


1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:

Not for beginners, July 1, 2005

Reviewer: kacewang

I'm not an etymologist by any means, but have an interest in understanding the poetry of the pictographs. There is a lot here to digest, and it would help if there were no doubts about its accuracy. How else would a beginner learn the correct things? The publisher has a responsibility to get a new revision.

In additon, there should be an update to hanyu pinyin, which is the official mainland China romanizaton. Wade-Giles is really out of date (I was brought up on this) and not helpful when trying to make sense of the new literature in China which may use HanyuPinyin together with the new attenuated pictographs.


3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

Grossly outdated, October 12, 2004

Reviewer: Kent M. Suarez (Taipei, Taiwan)

The understanding of the origins of Chinese characters has made huge leaps and bounds since the Anyang archaeological digs of oracle bones right around the time this book was published. As a result, Wieger's quaint, admittedly enjoyable work is terribly out of date and inaccurate, as anyone who has studied the works of Guo Moruo (Kuo Mojo), Li Xiaoding (Li Hsiaoting), Luo Zhenyu (Luo Chen-yu), Sun Haibo (Sun Hai-po), Takashima, Keightley, Tang Lan, Wang Guowei, (Wang Kuo-wei), etc. can tell you. Wieger's work is also badly indexed, and uses obsolete Wade-Giles romanization. It also fails to include many common characters.

Unfortunately, there is currently no updated version using this kind of lesson-by-lesson layout, which is probably why Wieger is still in print. However, I'd instead recommend that you learn about the REAL origins of characters, starting with the following items, all of which Amazon carries:

1. Sources of Shang History: The Oracle Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Campus, No 335) by David N. Keightley ISBN 0-486-21321-8. THE must-read introduction to oracle bones, the earliest significant corpus of Chinese writing. A very interesting work by a leading, highly esteemed scholar. Highly recommended.

2. The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China, Ca. 1200-1045 B.C (China Research Monographs,No 53) by David N. Keightley. An exploration of what the oracle bone divinations tell us about the environment, weather, geography, politics, foreign relations, religion and lives of the Shang.
Highly recommended.

3. Wang Hongyuan, (1993). The Origins of Chinese Characters, Sinolingua, Beijing, ISBN 7-80052-243-1. (I have reviewed this separately - recommended with caveats).


18 of 20 people found the following review helpful:

For Reference & Pleasure, January 1, 2002

Reviewer: solid oak "solidoak" (USA)

If you've heard of the excellent Zhongwen.com website, note that you can look up a word there and often find the corresponding Wieger lesson number in THIS book. Very helpful.
I bought this book in '96 and am still enjoying it. While I agree with many other reviewers who say this book is not for beginners, I was shocked to see reviews posted here that call it grossly out of date, or even useless.

If you have some experience with Chinese characters and would like to delve into their origins, Wieger's book provides hundreds of brief etymologies. Are they correct and accurate? Ahem, no comment. I'm not a linguist. But they have definitely helped me to remember characters' meanings when I see them later in a newspaper or a letter.

Nitty gritty:
+ You can find ancient forms next to the modern (merely 2000 years old?) forms here. Very interesting, and I have yet to find these forms on the Internet. Also, you may see more than one variation of a character.
+ The etymologies: Translated from French, which was translated from - i think - German, they have an archaic flavor. You might like that, and you might hate it. Still, the etyms are what this book is all about.
Printing: bad, but the paper hasn't yellowed, even in my humid climate.
Indexes --How do you FIND these tasty etymologies?:
- Radicals
- Phonetics (alphabetized) - the old k'ai, hsien & chou, not kai, xian and zhou.
- the 224 'Primitives'

Series: Aside from the indexes (indices) mentioned above, there are also "phonetic series", lists of words that have not the radical in common but instead...that other part. The phonetic clue. Not all the words in each series sound exactly alike. For example, you'll find ch'ing4, sheng1 and hsin1 together in one group. But, they all share the same phonetic clue, and are thus placed in the same lesson as well. Bottom line - if you fail to find a word, but then turn to a word that merely _reminds_ you of the former, and there's a good chance of finding the word you're actually looking for.

Final word on the etymologies: If you're a linguist, there must be better sources out there (and you probably have them). The angry reviewer from Wulai wants to see this book out of print, but until she posts the title of an alternative source, these snippets are USEFUL, at least in helping one memorize characters. They make this book one of my favorite sources of pleasure reading. How many language books can _You_ still call pleasure reading after 5 years?


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