MA course 2019-2020



Chinese writing & writing Chinese


Jeroen Wiedenhof



General information

e-Prospectus catalog number: 5174KCH45

For details see

Time and venue

Time: Second semester, Mondays, 11:15am - 1:00pm

Change of venue, starting Mon 17 Feb: Vrieshof 2, room 006B


Block 3

Week 1 (Mon 3 Feb 20)

Intro / Speaking and writing in China

Writing is – in most definitions – connected with language. But if language travels through sound waves and writing is a visual medium, then how do these two domains interact?

Writing systems displays intricate and diverse ways of mapping the sounds and meanings of language to a visual format.

Once written down, some elements from speech are preserved and some are lost. And vice versa: the visual signal may transmit components from the spoken original, but also features which are absent in spoken form.

In this first session, we will explore how language comes to us through the Chinese script – and how fast such modes can change.


Study suggestions

Time management: do not underestimate assignment #5 below. It may involve more reference checking than would seem at first glance.


Please make sure you prepare your answers to all questions & assignments in writing.

1.  Read the assigned chapter from Jerry Norman's Chinese.

In preparing this text, please check that you are familiar with

  • technical terms in English and in Mandarin (including the corresponding Chinese characters);

  • names and dates for dynasties, historical periods and historical figures;

  • geographical designations.

Note down any difficulties you may have in reading the text, and bring your notes to class.

2.  On p. 58, the origins of Chinese characters are outlined.

a.  In English, do you know a term for the study of writing systems? And in Mandarin?

b.  Can you name (at least) three families of scripts, i.e. writing systems of the world which (as far as we know) developed independently?

c.  Is the oracle bone script the undisputed precursor of the modern Chinese character script?

d.  Can you name (at least) seven different Sinitic languages?

Please give the English and in Mandarin names for each of these, as well as the Chinese characters (简体 & 繁體) for each name.

e.  What is the oldest Sinitic phase which has been reconstructed in phonological detail? Please give (approximate) dates.

f.  Is the language encoded by the oracle bone script the undisputed precursor of the modern Sinitic languages?

3.  The ideographic notion, i.e. the notion "that Chinese characters in some platonic fashion directly represent ideas rather than specific Chinese words" may be "patently absurd" (pp. 60-61), but it is immensely popular nonetheless.

Find a reference (in print or online) which clearly demonstrates, or is clearly based on, the ideographic notion.

a.  From this source, note down one specific statement or claim demonstrating this notion.

b.  Formulate a counter-argument against this specific statement or claim, basing yourself (at least in part) on the information in section 3.1.

4.  Pages 67-69 introduce the 說文解字.

In one or two sentences, summarize the significance of this work

  • for the study of the Chinese script; and

  • for Chinese lexicography.

5.  On p. 76, please study Table 3.6 carefully, including the notes on p. 77.

a.  Can you read all characters listed in the Table?

For your reference: see e.g.

b.  Can you give more recent examples of individual characters created in order to "adapt[...] the traditional script to the modern language" (p. 75)?

6.  In note 8 of p. 81, please define the term homophonous in your own words.

7.  In note 10 of p. 82, it is noted that "the alternation of words beginning with sh and r in a single phonetic series is unusual".

Find another example of this unusual type of alternation in the traditional character script.

8.  In the same note 10, consider the example of ràng 'to allow' again.

Note that "ràng" is italicized, but " 'to allow' " is placed within single quotation marks.

a.  In your own words, formulate the difference between these typographical conventions.

Which linguistic units do they represent?

b.  Can you list other typographical conventions, representing other linguistic units?

For each unit, give English and Mandarin names, as well as the Chinese characters (简体 & 繁體).

c.  Is there also a typographical convention which represents items as orthographic units, i.e. as the written forms of a script?

Week 2 (Mon 11 Feb 19)

Language and script (1):

The structure of Chinese characters

The Chinese script has been studied for millennia, both in and outside China, giving rise to a bewildering set of principles, approaches and perspectives.

This week, we are covering some groundwork in terms of data, units of analysis, methods and terminology.

We will also check on the logistics of this course: finding your way around the relevant catalogues, the course reserves shelves and the library collections.







9.  Individual items

Lianne: Your backlog assignments for week 1 (written answers to Assignments 1 through 7) are due this Friday, 7 Feb 20, at 1:00pm.


The assignments for this week's session are below.

A friendly reminder: make sure to prepare all your answers in writing, in English!


10.  Group efforts:

Next week (in session 3), we will be reading a text in Chinese.

For now, if you cannot read modern written Chinese:

  • Prepare to buddy up!
  • Please make sure to contact classmates now, and to set a date & time to prepare next week's text together.
  • If needed, make use of the Blackboard "Course Tools" option to send group emails.

On Chao (1968):

11.  Bibliography

On the basis of the University Library catalogues, inventorize all editions of Y.R. Chao's Grammar of spoken Chinese. For each title,

(a)  Note place & year of publication, name of the publisher and other relevant details;

(b)  Check which transcription for Mandarin has been used;

(c)  Check if the work is available on the Asian Library's open shelves;

(d)  If (c) = yes, find one example of an empty square representing a spoken expression without a character and note down the page number.

On Norman (1988) & Wiedenhof (2018):

12.  Review

of last week's assignment #8

On Dougherty e.a. (1963):

13.  Read the text, note down any difficulties you may have in reading the text, and bring your notes to class.

14.  In the Preface, check which personal names ring familiar.

15.  On p. ix/L,

a.  What is meant by "the standard pronunciation(s)"?

b.  What is the difference between transcription, "transliterations systems" and "romanization"?

16.  On p. x/R, in Figure 2, check and see if you are missing any details.

17.  On p. xi/L, character #5536 is shown twice in Figure 3.

Now compare character #1788.1 in Figure 2.

What is the reason that this character is not shown twice?

18.  Make sure you are familiar with the calligraphic terminology on pp. xi/R-xii/L.

In one sentence, describe the relevance of these terms are in this context; also compare assigment #19 below.

19.  Check the Rules on pp. xix-xxi and the Concordance on pp. xxii-xxix. And/or look up any online resource on the Gwoyeu Romatzyh transcription.

On the basis of this information, see if you can read (pronounce & translate) the Chinese book titles listed on p. xxx.

Be prepared to cite these titles by reading them out aloud in class.

20.  On the basis of your reading of this Introduction, can you formulate a technical definition for the term Chinese character as implied here?

Week 3 (Mon 17 Feb 20)

 Please note: CHANGE OF VENUE for this class, starting 17 Feb 

Corresponding with Heaven: The early scribes

At the dawn of history, humans were fully modern in the anatomical and in the neurological sense. Their brains, and their languages, were as complex and as diverse as they are today. There were just fewer speakers.

Even at this early stage, the world must have been teeming with linguists. We know nothing about their theories, but their legacy remains with us today, for they created the first writing systems.

The art of writing was invented more than once, and the puzzle how to represent sound and meaning in graphs has been solved in very different ways. The Chinese case offers us a rare insight in the tenacity of some cultural artefacts.

This week, we will:

  • study the material culture which produced a script whose characteristics have survived into the digital age;

  • consider the challenges of interdisciplinary studies; and

  • learn how to introduce a text dating back more than three millennia to a modern audience.

Interactive scans: Hi Res / Low Res
Source: Cambridge UL Oracle Bone CUL.52
Interactive scan by Sketchfab (2015)



NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, "Lunar eclipse essentials"

Development notes: For future runs of this course

Sources to be considered

On oracle-bone texts:

Ken-Ichi Takashima, A Little Primer of Chinese Oracle-Bone Inscriptions with Some Exercises. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, second revised edition, 2019. First published 2015.

On the sexagesimal cycle:

Michel Ferlus, "The sexagesimal cycle, from China to Southeast Asia , from China to Southeast Asia". 23rd Annual Conference of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, May 2013, Bangkok.

Reading notes

21.  In case you need help with the Wade-Giles spelling:

– For systematic guidelines & conversion, see Appendix D in A grammar of Mandarin; or

– For ad-hoc conversion, see e.g. the Chinese Text Project's transcription-conversion tool.

– And while your at it, check out the same tool for the Gwoyeu Romatzyh spelling (cf. assignment #19 above)

 Given its name: what are the Pinyin equivalents for <Ro> and <ma> in <Gwoyeu Romatzyh>? 

22.  In case you need help with the sexagesimal cycle:

– for systematic guidelines & conversion, see Tables 9.3 & 9.4 in A grammar of Mandarin; or

– for ad-hoc conversion, see e.g. Wikipedia's Stem, Branch and Stem-Branch tables.

23.  "Wu Ting's reign" (Keightley 1985: 1):

Wikipedia has a list of Shang Kings.


– Keightley (1985):

24.  Read the assigned texts from David Keightley's Sources.

In preparing this text, please check that you are familiar with

  • technical terms in English and in Mandarin, including the corresponding Chinese characters,
  • – e.g. "hsin-wei, eighth day of the week";
  • names and dates for dynasties, historical periods and historical figures

    – e.g. "Wu Ting";

  • geographical designations

    – e.g. "the powerful Ho".

For hints and suggestions, please consult the Reading notes.

Note down any difficulties you may have in reading the text, and bring your notes to class.

25.  In the interactive scan and in the illustration above, please identify the "series of hollows" (Keightley 1985: 18) and "the characteristic pu 卜-shaped crack" (ibid.).

26.  On p. 50, it is explained that "[a]s a rule, the inscriptions appear to have been carved above, or to the side of, the pu cracks and on the side of the crack which lacked the transverse branch".

Can you confirm this general rule for our "月㞢食" text?

– Lǐ (1989):

27.  On the basis of 李圃 Lí Pǔ's helpful notes, read and prepare an English translation of the oracle bone text "月㞢食".

Please note down any difficulties encountered in Lǐ's commentary.

28.  Oracular text, line 4, character 2:

In your own words, define the relationship between the character 㞢 and the character 有.

You should minimally formulate what you know on the basis of Pǔ's comments, combined with your own experience.

In this connection, also compare the comments on character adaptations from our first session.

For more background, you may consult Djamouri (1992).



...and the encore

29.  Please translate & comment!

–Thanks to Marc Gilbert for contributing this example






30.  Some more Covid-19-inspired sinographic creativity...

–Thanks to Fresco Sam-Sin for contributing this example







Week 4 (Mon 24 Feb 20)

Hàn grammatology

In Session 3, we saw how the invention of writing was embedded in technological and economic change.

This week, we will explore early advances in Chinese lexicography and grammatology against the backdrop of philosophical and political developments In Qín 秦 and Hàn 漢 times.

We welcome David Uher (Univerzita Palackého, Olomouc) to conduct today's guest session.



 ––– Gentle reminder: Practice your sexy sexagesimals! 

Hand-in Assignment #1

Imagine that:

  • the five fragments pieced together to form last week's oracle bone were shown in a museum exhibition, and

  • you were asked to write the accompanying object label, intended for an English-speaking museum audience.

On the basis of your work for last week's assignments, prepare a text which could serve as that object label. This text should minimally include:

  • information about the age and the provenance of the object;
  • short remarks about the type of text, and the language of the inscription;
  • a full translation of the "月㞢食" text.

Hand in your work, printed on paper, at the beginning of class on 24 February, or in my pigeonhole beforehand.

Please note the format requirements.

Small is beautiful: maximally one page (A4).

Guest session

by David Uher

Univerzita Palackého, Olomouc


In the 3rd century BC, significant qualitative changes in Chinese language triggered the emergence of Chinese traditional linguistics. In the first stages of its development, the historical lexicology was booming.

As consequence to the scholarly discussion over the authenticity of the Confucian Canon, grammatology was constituted in the 1st century AD. In its very beginnings, this linguistic discipline focused on analysing the concepts of liùshū 六書 the six categories of xiǎozhuàn 小篆 Minor Script, bùshǒu 部首 determinatives and chóngwén 重文 allograms.

The results of this research were generalized by Xǔ Shèn's 許慎 (?54–?125) colossal monograph Shuō wén jiě zì 說文解字 the Structure Analysis of Primary Characters and Meaning Explanation of Secondary Characters (Shuo Wen for short) in 121 AD.

Minimal attentions are given to the reasons of its establishment, beginnings of its history, analysis of its successes in research and the summary of its further development, especially between 1735 and 1820 in relevant Western Sinological literature.

Nevertheless, it is doubly true that understanding of traditional Chinese culture must necessarily be based on a solid lexicological and grammatological analysis of the original texts and the Shuo Wen is undoubtedly the key to the Confucian Canon.

However, in the western history of world linguistics, the question of Chinese linguistics has been disproportionately simplified to enumerate the production of dictionaries. Therefore, this session concentrates on argumentation how these approaches can be misleading.


  • Uher (2012)

    The following three sections (available in Blackboard as separate PDF files)

    • "The Postscript to the Structure analysis of primary characters and meaning explanation of secondary characters" (pp. 114-122, shuowen_1.pdf)
    • 《说文解字·叙》——许学理论基础 "Shuō wén jiě zì Xù: Xǔxué lǐlùn jīchǔ" [The postscript to the Shuō wén jiě zì: Basic tenets of Xǔology] (pp. 13-29, shuowen_2.pdf)
    • 《说文解字》与结构主义的关系 "Shuō wén jiě zì yǔ jiégòuzhǔyì de guānxi" [Relationships between the Shuō wén jiě zì and structuralism] (pp. 34-39, shuowen_3.pdf)


  • David Uher, Výklad významu obrysových a rozbor struktury odvozených znaku: Teorie, etymologie a kultura /《说文解字》学说、字源、文化 [Shuō Wén Jiě Zì: Xuéshuō, zìyuán, wénhuà, The structure analysis of primary characters and meaning explanation of secondary characters: Theory, etymology and culture].

    PhD dissertation, Univerzita Palackého v Olomouci, 2012


31.  Read the text shuowen_1.pdf.

Be sure that you understand:

  • The crucial concepts (marked by capital letters in the text, e.g. contour and derived characters, Six categories of Minor Script, Ductus etc.)
  • Proper names
  • Titles of the books

32.  Briefly read the text shuowen_02.pdf.

Concentrate on: Terms of grammatology equivalence (English-Chinese)

  • Do not try to understand the text fully (it is not worth of it:-), but try to grasp its core
  • The beginnings of the paragraphs will (mostly) be very helpful

33.  Try to understand connections between the text and the diagram (p. 39; shuowen_03.pdf)

34.  In accordance (mainly) to these three texts (i.e. other sources are not prohibited) try to answer following questions:

(a) Introduction  

  • Have you ever seen Shōgun (1980 miniseries)? Have you read the book of James Clavell as well? What impresssions you have?
  • Where one can see differences between Sinology and Chinese Studies?
  • Do you know in which city is located Henan University (one of the topest places to study Han Grammatology)?

(b) Han philology  

  • Who was Dǒng Zhòngshū 董仲舒?
  • Who was Sīmǎ Xiàngrú 司馬相如 and what is his connection with grammatology?
  • Which books are included into so-called “Six Books”

(c) Han grammatology  

  • Do you know (diachronically) how many Chinese languages we have? And synchronically?
  • What was the crucial disagreements between the New and Old Texts Schools?
  • What are the graphic differences between Minor and Official (lishu) Scripts? Try to describe it in accordance to the term “graphic field.” Also, please do mention the beginnings and ends of the strokes

(d) Xu Shen and Shuo Wen  

  • Who were the emperors during Xu Shen’s life?
  • Try to find what is the name of Xu Shen’s hometown nowadays.
  • Why Shuo Wen is divided into 540 determinatives? Help: it has something to do with Yin, Yang and the Five Elements…

(e) Conclusions  

What was the most advanced disciplines within linguistics in Old India, Greece and China? Why?

Suggested background reading:

Writing & scripts in general

  • Coulmas, Florian: The Writing Systems of the World. Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1989, ix + 302 p.
  • Coulmas, Florian: The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell 1999, 603 p.
  • Coulmas, Florian: Writing Systems. An Introduction to their Linguistic Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003, xix + 270 p.
  • Diringer, David: The Alphabet: A Key To The History Of Mankind. London: Hutchinson 1968, xxi + 473 + 452 p.
  • Gelb, Ignace Jay: A Study of Writing. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press 1969, xix + 319 p.
  • Wáng Yuánlù 王元鹿: Pǔtōng Wénzìxué Gàilùn《普通文字学概论》Guìyáng: Guìzhōu Rénmín Chūbǎnshè 1996, 186 p.

Chinese writing & writing Chinese:

  • DeFrancis, John: The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 1984, 330 p.
  • Dǒng Xīqiān 董希谦: Xǔshèn yǔ Shuō Wén Jiě Zì Yánjiū《许慎与说文解字研究》. Kāifēng: Hénán Dàxué Chūbǎnshè 1988, 227 p.
  • Jiǎng Shànguó 蒋善国: Shuō Wén Jiě Zì Jiǎnggǎo《说文解字讲稿》Běi jīng: Yǔwén Chūbǎnshè 1988, 162 p.
  • Lù Zōngdá 陆宗达: Shuō Wén Jiě Zì Tōnglùn《说文解字通论》Běijīng: Běijīng Chūbǎnshè 1981, 232 p.
  • Tāng Kějìng 湯可敬: Shuō Wén Jiě Zì Jīn Shì《說文解字今釋》Chángshā: Yuèlù Shūshè 1997, 2468 p.
  • Yáo Xiàosuì 姚孝遂: Xǔ Shèn yǔ Shuō Wén Jiě Zì《許慎與說文解字》Běijīng: Zhōnghuá Shūjú 1983, 89 p.

Suggested background reading

Writing & scripts in general

Chinese writing & writing Chinese

Chinese character reference toolbox



Traditional texts online

Linguistic toolbox


 Languages of the world

 Proofreading symbols


 Linguistic transcription

 Writing on language

 IPA home

 IPA sounds & videos


Updated 18 February 2020