Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Etymology of Chinese Characters

I put up a post previously on how hard it is to learn an Asian language. Recently the noted sinologist Victor Mair posted an article about a computer programmer named Richard Sears who wanted to teach himself Chinese, and along the way created what may be the world's most extensive website on the etymology of Chinese characters. Prof Mair's post may be read in full here. An excerpt is below.

A 04: "An American guy makes China's sinologues embarrassed"
Richard Sears might be a nobody in the US, but he has certainly made a name for himself among the Chinese netizens. The guy spent 20 years creating a website that allows users to trace Chinese characters to their ancient shapes, helping users to see what a given character looked like when they were carved on animal bones and oracles or written on silk two or three thousand years ago.
Nobody in China, not even the professors who wrote so many books and made so much money, had created anything as remotely convenient for ancient Chinese researchers as he did.

This brief article also was published in a number of other newspapers in China, some with a picture of Richard Sears and sample illustrations from his website.

The website referred to by the article is Sears' "Chinese Etymology".

The Chinese article about Sears elicited a huge response on the Internet.  Sears told me, in a phone interview, that shortly after the article appeared his site received 600,000 page views in 24 hours, whereas before that he had been getting about 15,000 per day, half of them from Taiwan and China.  By yesterday, the page views had leveled off at around 150,000 per day.  After the Chinese article appeared, his e-mail spiked from a mere trickle to over a thousand in the last few days.  The comments on Chinese blogs that I have seen are spirited, with many of them expressing astonishment and shame at what Sears has accomplished ("How could a foreigner do all of this??!!"  "We Chinese are only interested in making money."  And so forth and so on.)

Sears' work, both in China and abroad, is widely recognized as being very useful, and he has invested an enormous amount of time and effort in it.  Indeed, Sears has labored for more than two decades to assemble and present the massive amount of data that is available on his site.  It is truly remarkable that one man could have done nearly all of this by himself.  The only help he received was from someone whom he hired to scan thousands of pages for him.  The conceptualization, design, programming, entry, and everything else, including much of the scanning, is entirely Sears' own handiwork.  For about 10-15 years, Sears had a good job in Silicon Valley, and that is how he could afford to pay for the scanning.

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