Chinese Characters: Their history and cultural significance

Average: 5 (1 vote)

Review by Celeste Ryan
This review is for Symbols, Art, and Language from the Land of the Dragon by Ni Yibin (2009).
I teach four levels of French Language, grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 at South Williamsport Jr. /Sr. High School. I am also the adviser of Foreign Language Club, a co-curricular that explores world languages and cultures. This book will be used as a reference when introducing club members to Chinese characters.
The old adage, “One cannot judge a book by its cover,” is, most certainly, not applicable to this richly illustrated volume. The vibrant red fabric cover, inlaid with brilliant gold Chinese characters, is simply a foreshadowing of the exquisite design and compelling text found within. Symbols, Art, and Language from the Land of the Dragon is an aesthetically and intellectually pleasurable adventure.
The Introduction carefully unfolds the evolutionary process of Chinese characters, originally pictographs, to which meaning and the relationship to a spoken word were integrated. It explains how these forms were amended due to the demands of an expanding linguistic system, and how, with Emperor-regulations, the characters became standardized and stylized. The discussion of various script designs, celebration of Chinese calligraphy as fine art, and the elucidation of the calligrapher’s role conclude the Introduction.
The main body of the book showcases the origins, evolution, history, and cultural value of 100 Chinese characters. The characters are sorted into four categories: nature, mankind, objects, and qualities. Each is depicted in its modern form with a multi-paned graphic of its evolution from early pictograph to stylized shape. Every symbol is accompanied by its Pinyin term and a pertinent quotation in Chinese, both of which are translated into English. The companion text explains the evolutionary process of each character and, when applicable, the historical and political influences, as well as the cultural significance of the word. The book is embellished with quality images of historically significant Chinese calligraphy, paintings, fabrics, and carvings, as well as recent photographs of China.
This book is not simply a fascinating introduction to 100 Chinese characters, but a treatise on the intricate relationship between a culture and its language and how a culture will manipulate a language to suit its changing needs. Depending on one’s interest, this book could be enjoyed by anyone, ages 10 and up.