MA course 2019-2020



Chinese writing & writing Chinese


Jeroen Wiedenhof



Cramming jiázǐ 甲子


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

Leiden University's measures against the spread of the COVID-19 virus

For this course, this means:


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"

Uploaded to Youtube on 8 June 2011.

Redouane Djamouri, "Un emploi particulier de you (有) en chinois archaïque"

Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale, January 1992, Volume 21(2), pp. 231-289.

A PDF of this article is also available online at Persée.

Hugh Thurston, "The Chinese"

In: Hugh Thurston, Early astronomy. New York: Springer, 1994, pp. 84-109.

    Leiden University Library code: GORLAE ASTRON QB016 203.

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.

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, 南京大学 / Nanjing University, published at 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.

Week 5 (Mon 2 Mar 20)

"By far the largest corpus of early Chinese manuscripts available to us today is the huge cache found by Sir Aurel Stein and others at Dunhuang in far western China in the early years of the twentieth century."

Peter Kornicki, "Bluffing your way in Chinese" (2008: 2)

Diamonds from Sand City: Dūnhuáng's linguistic treasures

Since times immemorial, the desert trails connecting India with China were busily travelled by merchants and monks, artists and adventurers.

This week, we zoom in on the oasis town of Dūnhuáng 敦煌, a.k.a. 沙州 Shāzhōu 'Sand City', whose Mògāo 莫高 caves have been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1987.

One of the first scholars who realized that this site harbored a priceless linguistic time capsule was the Hungarian-born Briton Stein Márk Aurél, later Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943).

Initially attracted to Dūnhuáng by its Buddhist art, Stein chanced upon a cave full of manuscripts and prints in 1907. Today, the study of Dūnhuáng documents remains a fascinating multi-disciplinary field.



Susan Whitfield, "Stein's Silk Road legacy revisited".

In: Asian affairs, volume 40, no. 2, 2009, pp. 224-242.

Available as an e-publication from the Leiden University Library.


  • Volume II, Texts and

  • Volume IV, Plates

    Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E., Serindia: Detailed report of explorations in Central Asia and westernmost China

    Oxford: Clarendon, 1921.


    (1) Leiden University Library's Special Collections

    Due to their age, these two volumes are not accessible as "Course Reserve" items.

    You need to got to the Special Collections Reading Room to consult these works. This reading room is on the same floor as the Asian Library, but two corridors across.

    Special Collections are making these volumes available for students of this Sinographics course. Just show your library card at the desk and remind library staff that both volumes are reserved under my name.

    (2) Digital edition

    Toyo Bunko Rare Books

    Click on the large photo's on the left hand side to access each volume

"Writing on language"

Leiden: LIAS/LUCL, 2018


Reading notes

Whitfield (2009):

36.  The map shown on p. 225 is available online as a scalable color map from the British Library.


Susan Whitfield, Aurel Stein on the Silk Road

London: British Museum Press, 2004.

Published at the occasion of the British Library exhibition "The silk road: Trade, travel, war and faith".

Includes a glossary.

Available in the Leiden Asian Library: see the dedicated Course Shelf, number ALCRS052, for this course.

International Dunhuang Project, "Conserving the Diamond Sutra".

Uploaded on Youtube on 27 May 2009.

Fascinating footage on the multi-disciplinary challenges of preserving the world's oldest dated printed text.

More video's from the IDP are available at their Youtube channel


Peter Kornicki, "Bluffing your way in Chinese".

Sandars Lectures in Bibliography,

Cambridge University Library, 11 March 2008.


35.  Backlog items

We will first have a quick look at the "Encore" assignment of session 3.

36.  Individual items

Raphael: practice makes perfect...

Rehearse your Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches to the point where you call them out as 60 pairs, from memory.

(and Lianne: in class, I will rely on you to chime in when necessary ;-)

37.  Term paper preparation

By way of orientation, have a look at this introduction: Writing on language.

a.  Please note down any questions about or comments on the text.

b.  Document two or three individual observations that may serve as the basis of your term paper.

You may try to formulate one or two research questions on the basis of the obesrvation, but this is optional.

In other words: when in doubt, for now, please focus on the observation part of this task.

38.  Contextual items

(a)  Stein's Volume II: Text notices that the sutra scroll was "in excellent preservation and complete".

Elaborate conservation was undertaken in the years 2003-2010, as shown in a British Library video on the Conservation of the Diamond Sutra.

Now, compare Stein's original picture with the photo taken at the British Museum in the mid-1970s.

Can you point out what type(s) of restoration or conservation work had been performed by that time?

(b)  Aurel Stein was not only a trained philologist, but also a skilled archeologist, "recognizing the importance of careful excavation, of stratigraphy and of recording each find's location" (Whitfield 2004: 18).

In two or three sentences, describe the technique of stratigraphy. When did this technique originate?

(c)  There is a short Chinese text preceding the translation of the Diamond Sutra itself.

What does the first line say?

(d)  Among the Dunhuang manuscripts, there are detailed drawings of hands held in many different positions.

(a) Find one of these drawings in Stein's Volume IV: Plates.

(b) Do they depict hand positions or hand gestures? What was the purpose of such drawings?

(e)  What is the Chinese term for 'archeology'? And what does it literally mean – morpheme by morpheme?

39.  Read Whitfield (2009) [not to be confused with Whitfield (2004) above] and bring your reading notes to class.

We will discuss your questions and remarks on a page-by-page basis.

40.  Make a list of all language names mentioned in this text, restricting yourself to languages spoken natively in the areas explored by Stein.

For each of these languages, look up their genetic affiliation (language family, subgroup, branch etc).

For some assistance, try the Linguistic Toolbox at the bottom of this page.

41.  First, have a good look at Volumes II and IV of Aurel Stein's original work of 1921.

In Volume IV: Plates, check that you understand the page numbering system.

On page C of Volume IV: Plates, find the photo of the "printed roll" at the lower half of the page;

on the same page, find Stein's inventory number for this item;

and in Volume II: Text, under the same inventory number, find Stein's detailed description of the item.

Now, establish whether Stein himself realized the historical significance of this particular scroll.

42.  The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) has uploaded a high-resolution image of the same scroll, which contains the full Chinese text of the Diamond Sutra.

This webpage includes a digital facsimile edition of the scroll, along with a full English translation of the sutra.


On the IDP page, if you click on "NEXT IMAGE" once,

you will have reached the last line of the printed text, indicating its date of publication. (to see more details, click "LARGE IMAGE")

This line of text is lacking in the IDP translation, but you will find an English translation in the short but useful introduction to the Diamond Sutra by the Silkroad Foundation.

(a) Correct the Silkroad Foundation's English translation of the Chinese date.

(b) Find the name of the emperor ruling the Táng 唐 at the time of publication of this scroll.

(c) Use the Chinese-Western calendar converter provided by the Academia Sinica, Taiwan, to check if the Julian date give by the Silkroad Foundation is correct.

(d) Check if you can tell on what day of the Julian week this Chinese edition of the Diamond Sutra was published.

Week 6 (Mon 9 Mar 20)

Catching up and looking ahead: Linguistic approaches to sinographics

Over this first semester's block, we have been tackling an abundance of subjects from many different angles.

This calls for a moment of reflection; remember that reflection is one of the most powerful instruments in the toolbox of science.

This week, therefore, we will cover any outstanding issues from the first five sessions which you may wish to raise.

We will also be look ahead to the tasks before us, first and foremost: your term papers.



  • Tabel 9.3, "The ten stems and the twelve branches"

  • Table 9.4, "The sexagenary cycle"

Jeroen Wiedenhof, A grammar of Mandarin.

Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2015, p. 263.

Availability at Leiden:

  • from the Asian Library, on the linguistics handbooks shelves;
  • as an e-book, through the University Library catalogue

Annie Murphy Paul, "How to increase your powers of observation".

Time, 2 May 2016

Also compare the notes on memory techniques, below.





  • Ferlus (2014)

Michel Ferlus, "The sexagesimal cycle, from China to Southeast Asia"

23rd Annual Conference of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society,

Bangkok, May 2013

  • Smith (2010)

Adam Smith, "The Chinese sexagenary cycle and the ritual origins of the calendar"

Uncorrected article proof for

John M. Steele, ed., Calendars and years II: Astronomy and time in the ancient and medieval world

Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010

  • Lu & Aiken (2004)

Wei Lu & Max Aiken Smith, "Origins and evolution of Chinese writing systems and preliminary counting relationships"

Accounting history, Volume 9, No 3, pp. 25-51

Availability at Leiden:

as an e-article, through the University Library catalogue

  • Thurston (1994)

Hugh Thurston, "The Chinese"

In: Hugh Thurston, Early astronomy. New York: Springer, 1994, pp. 84-109.


Availability at Leiden:

Printed book, Library code: GORLAE ASTRON QB016 203.



43.  Individual items

Lianne: make sure to document your individual & original script observations.

For details, see under (37)b.

Please bring these to class: we will discuss these and compare notes in the current session.

– and (no pressure ;-) if you could mail me a sneak preview of your notes, this would work even better.

44.  We read and discussed "An introduction to linguistic transcription" in Session 2.

Now, apply your knowledge to the ten sentences under #4 "Exercises".

You will be asked to demonstrate these in class.

45.  Read Murphy Paul (2016) and bring your reading notes to class.

We will discuss your questions and remarks. (and observations...)

46.  We are returning to the subject of your term papers.

Check your notes and be prepared to report on your progress so far.

Assignments heads-up

On Monday, 23 March (Block 4, Session 1: after the semester break), a first draft of your term paper will be expected.

This draft will be assessed as Hand-in Assignment #2.

For general hints on linguistic writing, please consult Writing on language.

Two weeks later, on Monday, 6 April (Block 4, Session 3), you will be expected to deliver a (very short!) oral report on the subject of your term paper.

This report will be assessed as your Oral presentation.

As announced, in order to help you plan ahead, you can prepare draft versions of your term paper at any time:

  • I will return your work with my comments
  • This list of proofreaders' marks may assist you in reading my comments
  • In case you wish to discuss my comments, please make an appointment

Please allow two days between handing in any draft and your appointment.

47.  In session 5, we briefly discussed memorization techniques in the context of the Chinese sexagenary cycle.

a.  Some background on traditional counting and calendar systems is given in the sources given above.

I would be most grateful for further reading (or viewing?) suggestions that might be of interest.

b.  I have added some materials (texts & video) on memory techniques below.

Such techniques have been developed to fascinating levels across cultures. In fact, they are the most effective way to transmit culture in the absence of scripts.

Give that memorizing is such a basic skill, try and see how you can improve in the task set in assignment #36.




Crash course (in Dutch) | Reading contemporary Chinese handwriting


Martin Baasten, Geheugentechniek 02 (in Dutch, with English subtitles)

A class on memory techniques for students of Japanese

Leiden University, 11 April 2017

Note: Martin Baasten will be teaching memory techniques for students of Chinese

2. Foer (2011)

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein

London: Penguin, 2011

"[Joshua Foer] explores common mnemonic tools for improving memory: the techniques of Roman rhetoricians and the tannaim ("reciters") of Judea, the Major System and the PAO System for memorizing numbers and cards, and Mind Mapping, a note-taking technique developed by Tony Buzan. These methods are all a form of the method of loci, in which data is stored in a sequence of memorable images that can be translated back into their original form. He espouses deliberate practice as the path to expertise, and declares psychological barriers as the largest obstacles to improved human performance."

3. Memory games (2018)


...and the encore


48.  What is this?



Block 4

Leiden University's measures against the spread of the COVID-19 virus

For this course, this means:

Week 1 (23 Mar 20)

Language and script (2): Chinese writing and writing Chinese

Welcome back!

At the outset of Block 4, we will continue to explore the similarities and differences between language and script – especially as inspired by the progress made in your own coursework.

Also, as announced: it's assignment hand-in time again! Make sure to have your work ready and presentable, and to report any problems timely.



Wiedenhof (2015)

Wiedenhof (2005)


Hand-in Assignment #2

COVID-19 update: PDFs instead of paper

Write a short first draft of your term paper. Hand it in, in PDF format, at the beginning of class on 25 March, or in my email inbox beforehand.

Please note the format format requirements.

  • Maximum length: 2 sheets A4
  • Please do not not write text about your essay, but text for your essay

Please keep the scope of this version restricted – you can always elaborate later.

Make sure you hand in at least two more draft versions during term.

The more versions you hand in, the more feedback you will get. For general hints on linguistic writing, see Writing on language.

My email inbox is available for your work (in PDF format) at any time during term.

As mentioned in class: please feel free to discuss your plans and ideas, but do not wait until the last moment to make an appointment.

Bottomline: the preparations in Block 3 and the assignments of Block 4 are designed to turn the option of handing in your term paper by the last session in May (i.e. long before the official June deadline) into a realistic possibility.

– "Purpose and effect":

49.  Read the text and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.

50.  Section 2.1 mentions a modern (20th-century) instance of linguistic change in spoken Mandarin that is frequently overlooked.

In one or two sentences, write down how this situation came about.

– "The transcription of Mandarin":

51.  Read the text and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.

52.  In your own words, describe the difference between Character Pinyin and Linguistic Pinyin.

53.  The transcription dilemma mentioned at the bottom of p. 419 is also addressed in the "Purpose and effect" text, in Section 2.2.

Please summarize this dilemma in your own words, clearly distinguishing phonetic, phonological and transcription issues.

By way of orientation, consider ways of filling out the blanks in the following table.








'Good shot!'





















Chinese characters




Character Pinyin (CP)


Linguistic Pinyin (LP)



















Published last month:

Gina Anne Tam, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960

Cambridge University Press, 2020

ISBN: 9781108776400, DOI:

From the description:

Taking aim at the conventional narrative that standard, national languages transform 'peasants' into citizens, Gina Anne Tam centers the history of the Chinese nation and national identity on fangyan - languages like Shanghainese, Cantonese, and dozens of others that are categorically different from the Chinese national language, Mandarin.

She traces how, on the one hand, linguists, policy-makers, bureaucrats and workaday educators framed fangyan as non-standard 'variants' of the Chinese language, subsidiary in symbolic importance to standard Mandarin. She simultaneously highlights, on the other hand, the folksong collectors, playwrights, hip-hop artists and popular protestors who argued that fangyan were more authentic and representative of China's national culture and its history.

From the late Qing through the height of the Maoist period, these intertwined visions of the Chinese nation - one spoken in one voice, one spoken in many - interacted and shaped one another, and in the process, shaped the basis for national identity itself.

From the illustrations:

Source: T. P. Crawford, “A system of phonetic symbols for writing the dialects of China”  
Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal, 19, no. 3 (March, 1888), p. 103  
– reproduced in Tam (2020: 57, detail)  

54.  In Tam's text (p. 56) accompanying this illustration

we read:

"With a little editing, Crawford explained, he could adopt his system to different dialects. “Phonography does not require a separate sign for every shade of articulation, but only for those which distinguish words according to the perceptions – not of foreigners, but of natives.”65

65 Crawford, “A System of Phonetic Symbols,” 109.

Can you paraphrase Crawford's claim in modern linguistic terms?

...and the encores

55.  Check out this poster.

a.  How many syllables can we distinguish in the text


b.  The poster includes an incomplete, "subtitle-style" transcription for the first line.

Provide your full Pinyin transcription of the full text – i.e. the text quoted in (a) – as it would sound in Beijing Mandarin.


56.   In an earlier session, we had a look at the math lesson by 李尚達 Lǐ Shàngdá, introduced by Lianne.

In this video, Lí lǎoshī is using a number of Taiwanese Mandarin expressions.

a.  At 44'22", can you identify the measure word following sānshí sān 'thirty-three'?

b.  Using the Pinyin transcription, document the whole Taiwan Mandarin sentence (44'19" - 44'23") observed here.

c.  How would the expression in (a) fit in the analytic scheme proposed in assignment 53?


Week 2 (30 Mar 20)

Brushes with power: Script and society

This week, we are finding out some facts from the fifties and sixties which helped shape the Chinese script's current destiny.

After the Second World War (1940-1945), China continued to fight its own war, leading to the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. In the first two decades of the new state, social revolution went hand-in-hand with major script reforms.

We read Handel's (2013) essay on that legendary operation, which assesses its assumptions, results and reception. In Kraus' (1991) contribution, we learn about the many dilemmas surrounding the selection of a national script.

Internationally, too, these developments soon had a lasting effect. The example shown here is from Singapore, which not only recognizes Mandarin as one of its national languages, but has also adopted the simplified character script.

 NEWSFLASH  Script & society in pandemic times Encore.


Handel (2013)

Kraus (1991)

Wiedenhof (2015)

"Features of the Chinese script"

In: Jeroen Wiedenhof, A grammar of Mandarin.

Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015,

§ 12.3, pp. 365-384.

Availability at Leiden:

  • from the Asian Library, on the linguistics handbooks shelves;
  • as an e-book, through the University Library catalogue


57.  Left over from last week's session:

assignments 55(b) & 56.

58.  Read the three new texts and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.


– "Can a logographic script be simpli­fied?"

59.  We will discuss this article first, on a page-by-page basis, and on the basis of your remarks.


– "The failed assault on Chinese characters"

60.  On p. 75 of Kraus' text, he notes the Korean use of "a more clearly phonetic" script instead of characters.

a.  What is the name of this script? How and when did it come into being?

b.  How "clearly phonetic" is it?

c.  If the Chinese script is not "clearly phonetic", then how could it best be characterized?

d.  The phonetic nature of the native Korean script have engendered some enthousiasm about its qualities among linguists and educators.*)

For an example, see "In praise of: The world's best writing system, which states:

"it turns out that different writing systems are not all equally well equipped to capture the full range of a language’s grammar".

Give a concrete example of one grammatical feature, in a language of your choice, plus a writing system unequipped to capture that feature.


*) Apart from Korea's script, its language has likewise received distinguished praise, albeit by non-linguists, e.g. "Korean is, as a matter of fact, a very good language" in Kim Il Sung, "Problems related to the development of the Korean language", Works, Volume 18: January - December 1964, Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1984, p. 17. (in BB "Course Documents")


61.  Kraus' chapter repeatedly mentions John DeFrancis' work.

a.  If you are not familiar with John DeFrancis' name:

do look up some details about his life and work.

b.  On p. 78, Kraus states that "DeFrancis points out that..." without quoting a source.

Can you trace this citation?

c.  Kraus paraphrases DeFrancis' statement that in the 1950s, "no one in China was willing to appear to challenge Stalin on this point".

On what point, exactly?

62.  P. 81 shows a woodcut from a 1958 issue of the journal 中国妇女 Zhōngguó Fùnǚ "Women of China".

a.  Can you identify the characters in this illustration?

b.  Can you translate them? (A friendly reminder: prepare all your answers in writing)

63.  On p. 82, Kraus mentions a childhood memory from Chinese opera singer 新凤霞 Xīn Fèngxiá (1927-1998) featuring a "discarded cap of a fountain pen".

a.  When and where were fountain pens invented? What writing tool(s) where they meant to replace or supplement?

b.  When were they first used in China? What writing tool(s) did they replace, or supplement?


– "Features of the Chinese script"

64.  The first paragraph of p. 365 describes what characters "consist of".

What consequences can this phrase "consist of" have in terms of linguistic methodology?

65.  For each of the stroke-order principles in Table 12.5, try to find at least one exception.

66.  For native speakers of Mandarin:

in Table 12.10, compare these letter names with your own pronunciation, and note down any differences.

67.  In Table 12.11, can you think of punctuation marks which are missing?

68.  At the bottom of page 371, what do the slashes transcribe in "the sound /s/"?

Can you write these three examples – cent, sent and scent – using the same transcription?

69.  At the bottom of p. 372, please comment on the English translation "A book from the sky".

70.  The small text of p. 375, mentions a "danger of circularity".

Please formulate this danger in two or three sentences of your own.

71.  Some historical aspects of the character are mentioned on p. 377.

What linguistic terminology is available to describe the relationship between 'millet', 'harvest' and 'year' discussed here?

72.  Section 12.3.3 discusses the 六書 liù shū 'Six Categories of the Script'.

In his 2009 "Ludic writing" article, Wolfgang Behr proposes a highly original model for the analysis of the relationship written characters and linguistic signs.

This model, in his words (2009: 291)

"allows us to identify certain character structures beyond the coverage by the traditional “six scripts” (liùshū 六書) theory of the Hàn dynasty, [...] whose inadequacies have long been noted and discussed."

Can you give concrete examples (quoting individual characters) of such "inadequacies"?

73.  Table 12.14 illustrates the large propertion of infrequent characters.

Can you identify one or more social factors which have contributed to the survival of infrequent characters?



...and the encore

UK announces help for self-
employed hit by downturn


Slogans and scripts


74.  In light of today's focus on the interplay between script and society, let us check out some similarities and differences across cultures, and across time.

  • On the left, a UK government press briefing, last week.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was announcing help for the self-employed hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in a BBC News live stream on 26 March 2020.

  • On the right, the official launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, in 1979.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's (李光耀 Lǐ Guāngyào) speech announcing the 讲华语运动 Jiǎng Huáyǔ Yùndòng took place on 7 September 1979, the first of many national campaigns to boost the status of Mandarin in Singapore.

Observe and comment: for both photo's, write dwon what strikes you

a.  in terms of the content of the written messages surrounding the speaker?

b.  and in terms of script and typography?

Week 3 (6 Apr 20)

Term-paper presentations

Today's session will consist of three parts:

  • Oral presentations:

    Short overviews of your term papers.

  • Discussion of these presentations:

    Feedback on research quesions, methodology, presentation styles and further prospects.

  • Features of the Chinese script:

    Your comments, and the remaining assignments from last week.

Oral presentation

On 6 April, as announced, a short oral presentation will be expected of you about the subject of your term paper.


  • Your presentation will be in English, and should start with a short audience-friendly intro
  • You will minimally present your research question(s) and your methodology
  • Your target audience is intelligent and interested, but not necessarily trained in linguistics or in Chinese.
  • Maximum duration is ten minutes – please time yourself in preparation!


  • Fellow students from other departments may be invited to listen in.
  • Powerpoints are allowed, but please make sure to have it running on your own device before the Live Room session starts.
  • If you want to use a short handout as well, please prepare a PDF document that you can upload in our online Live Room.
  • Setting up your system will cut into your ten minutes!



Left over form last week's session: assignment 74.


75.  Let us collect some more observations and comments on the interplay between language and script across cultures:

Monumental Mandarin

[ click to enlarge ]

–Thanks to Fresco Sam-Sin and Anne Sytske Keijser for materials and suggestions

  • At the top, a Chinese text on a monument erected in 2008 to commemorate the fact that the first Chinese indentured laborers arrived in Suriname 155 years earlier.
  • At the bottom, the Dutch text inscribed on the same monument; its contents run more or less parallel with the Chinese text.

The monument was unveiled by President Ronald Venetiaan in a ceremony on 20 October 2008 at Fort Nieuw-Amsterdam.

Observe and comment: for both inscriptions, write down what strikes you

a.  in terms of the language and the content of the texts?

b.  and in terms of script and typography?

Your aim is to collect at least three items under (a) and three items under (b) – for both inscriptions.

In other words: minimally twelve items.

Week 4 (13 Apr 20)


No class today

Easter Monday



Week 5 (20 Apr 20)

Language and script (3): Documenting Chinese

In week 2, we looked at 20th-century reforms and standardization, both in the spoken and in the written domain.

Throughout history, these two domains, language and script, have often been treated as indistinguishable: not just in the public eye, but also in learned treatments and official policies. Even today, a principled distinction between these two domains often remains the prerogative of linguistics.

This week provides some background to the interplay between present-day issues of script and language in China, with roots and causes dating back to late imperial times.


Coblin (2000)

W. South Coblin, "A brief history of Mandarin"

    In: Journal of the American Oriental Society

    Volume 120, no. 4, 2000, pp. 537-552.

Available online at the Leiden University Library.



Pulleyblank (1984)

  • "The history of 'standard Chinese' "

  • "The phonology of Pekingese"

In: Edwin Pulleyblank, Middle Chinese

Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984.

  • "The history of 'standard Chinese'" = pp. 1-4
  • "The evidence for Old Chinese" = Chapter 2, pp. 41-59

Available from the Asian Library, on the linguistics handbooks shelves.



76.  Check your progress with the term paper, and bring any questions to class.


– "A brief history of Mandarin"

As always, prepare your answers to all questions & assignments in writing.

Page numbers followed by a slash and the letter L or R (e.g. "p. 537/L") indicate the left or right column on the page.

77.  Read the text and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.

78.  Be sure to identify and look up linguistic terms as well as historical names & events you are unfamiliar with

– and/or to brush up your knowledge on these items.

79.  Provide your own English translations for each of the book titles mentioned on p. 537/R.

In the remainder of the article, keep checking that you understand the titles of all works discussed.

80.  As mentioned in Four tones (Middle Chinese), the 入 tone (p. 538/L) is labeled as "entering or checked" in English.

We discussed this in an earlier session; so please review:

a.  Check the etymology of the Chinese term.

b.  How dis the English labels originate?

81.  Please summarize the conclusion at the bottom of p. 538/R in your own words.

82.  On p. 540/L, the Arte de la lengua mandarina and Vocabulario de la lengua mandarina by Francisco Varo are mentioned.

Check if modern editions of both these works are available – and if so, who are the editor(s).

83.  On p. 542/R, it is explained that "the zhèngyīn system of ca. 1450 was based not on the pronunciation of a single dialect or area but was instead a composite entity".

a.  What could be the reason that a purported linguistic standard is in fact composite in nature?

b.  Cite both advantages and drawbacks of a standard of this nature for its speakers;

and for linguists of later generations.

c.  Can you cite other (historical and/or modern) examples of composite linguistic standards in China?

84.  As noted on p. 543/L, Jiǎng Shàoyú 蔣紹愚 has pointed out that for historical stages of Chinese, "spoken material has [...] been accessible only indirectly through the medium of the literary sources".

a.  Please paraphrase this statement in your own words, and/or give an example.

b.  Compare this state of affairs with the status of spoken materials in the description of the modern standard language as it arose in the twentieth century.

What sources for spoken Mandarin were linguists using in, say, the 1950s?

85.  In the short abstract of this article (p. 537), it is explained that the text exposes a "flawed" view about the provenance of standard Mandarin.

a.  Is there a difference in meaning between the terms

standard Mandarin as used here ("in its oldest sense", p. 537/L);

standard Chinese as used by Pulleyblank (1984: 1); and

Modern Chinese?

If so: please indicate the difference(s).

And if not: check if these terms differ in other way (e.g. style, user base, varieties of English)?

In linguistics as in any other branch of scientific research, flawed views are problematic only inasfar they cannot be falsified; otherwise, their very falsification helps science progress.

b.  Give examples of flawed views in the field of language reconstruction (not necessarily Chinese) which have since been falsified.

c.  Give examples of views in linguistics which cannot be falsified.


Formula One

In the spring of 2019, the Formula 1 Heineken Chinese Grand Prix was organized in Shanghai, China.

The Shanghai International Circuit (which has various Chinese names, e.g. 上海国际赛车场 Shànghǎi Guójì Sàichēchǎng) was purpose-built for Formula One racing events.

This race circuit's tracks were designed to produce a bird's-eye view of a gigantic character shàng 'up' (as in 上海 Shànghǎi).

86.  Can you think of other examples (in China or elsewhere) of architectural or artificial-landscape outlines which are borrowed from or inspired by script forms?

生僻字 Shēngpì zì

Week 6 (27 Apr 20)


No class today

King's Day



Hand-in Assignment #3

Imagine that

  • your were invited by a newspaper or a popular magazine to write about your termpaper project

  • your article would have to be restricted to one or maximally two pages


As a last hand-in assignment, produce a text along these lines.

The intended audience is interested and well educated, but untrained in either linguistics or Chinese studies.


Deadline: Wednesday, 29 April 2020, 1:00pm


At the end of this term, feel free to incorporate or adapt the text of this assignment as the introductory section of your term paper.

Week 7 (4 May 20)


No class today

Remembrance Day & Liberation Day



Week 8 (11 May 20)

Coming full circle

When this course started, nothing could have prepared us for the pandemic spell under which it ends. In order to boost morale, the final session of this course aims to strike a light-hearted note, albeit with a serious undertone.

We are revisiting jiázǐ 甲子 ordinal numbers, whose prominence in the earliest surviving specimens of Chinese script required our attention at the outset of this course. In later sessions, we returned to approach this subject from the perspective of memory techniques.

Memory is as old as cognition itself, all but defining the human condition. From prehistoric times, cultural transmission has depended on memory skills. Perhaps ironically, subsequent revolutions in memory recording techniques have severely jeopardized the survival of basic mnemonic skills.

The very advent of writing was a case in point: witness Socrates's words, as recorded by Plato (yes, in writing!). In the 15th century, mechanized printing heralded an age where "memory became less critical to knowledge". And in our own times, the extensive use of smartphones is taking its unparalleled toll in the form of digital amnesia.

Today's session takes this sinographic overview full circle – metaphorically, as we return to the intellectual mindset prevalent at the dawn of writing; and in a literal sense too, as the twenty-two jiázǐ signs happen to represent a cyclical numbering system.

Term paper

As announced, you may hand in your paper and conclude your course today.

Alternatively, you can take some more time and hand in your paper by the official deadline (see details).

Encore special:

Memory challenge

The art of memory has gone through a modest revival in recent decades, with world championships being organized since the 1990s, and training opportunities entering the public domain.

It may be hugely impressive to witness someone who has memorized a printed dictionary quoting random pages on demand. Still, such feats of memory are achieved using simple techniques which anyone can learn.

Ask the experts: memory athletes never seem tired of stressing that they are not cognitive prodigies.

Compared to its many benefits, the investments required for memory training seem ridiculously small. You do not need a single tool, just your brain. Practice can be performed anywhere. As an extra perk, wasting time will be a thing of the past, since long waiting lines and dull train rides offer unexpected opportunities to learn a new skill.

For aspiring beginners, the following elements will suffice:

  • a willingness to spend some time practicing (regularity being much more effective than abundance)
  • a primary focus on visualization (selecting or creating images to remember your concepts)
  • a mind-set to explore what strategies work best for you individually

There are ample supporting materials online and in print. Some of these are shown below.


87.  Check your progress with the memory challenge presented in previous sessions.

As explained, participation in this challenge was on a strictly voluntary basis. In this final session, we will do no more than share experiences. In other words:

  • if you did not join in, please tell us about your lack of options, interest, time or other circumstances, as this will surely help to shape future runs of this course;
  • if you did give this a try, we may want to test your conversion skills (as described in the challenge); but more pertinently: please let us know what worked, and what did not work.

Your task, in short, is to prepare a point-by-point oral report explaining how you fared with this memory challenge. Each of us will take turns presenting an overview of their progress, pitfalls, discoveries and vexations.

Please note: We are currently [5 May 20] trying to invite a memory technician to join this session.

For your report (and in line with the presentation skills we have been rehearsing) this means that your account must be intelligible to an interested audience untrained in any Chinese language.



"Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."     





Alexander Woollcott, introduction; John Tenniel, illustrations, The com-
plete works of Lewis Carroll
. London: Nonesuch Press, 1939, pp. 33, 36.

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


 The jiázǐ 甲子 memory challenge

Cramming 60 pairs: Can you do it?

The challenge:

    To memorize the Chinese sexagenary cycle, actively and passively.

The test:

    Random two-way oral conversion

    from any number between 1 and 60 (in English) to the corresponding stem-branch pair (in Mandarin) – and vice versa.

    E.g. when challenged with any item on the left, you should be able to respond promptly with the corresponding item on the right:

    thirty-seven 37 gēngzǐ 庚子
    rénwǔ 壬午 nineteen 19
    yǐsì 乙巳 forty-two 42
    two 2 yíchǒu 乙丑
    jiǎxū 甲戌 eleven 11

The rules:

  • No need to do this, and no study credits involved – this is just for fun.

  • The goal is conversion speed: the faster the better.

  • The teacher can participate but cannot win.


– Further reading & viewing

     On the sexagenary cycle:


  • Lǐ (2017)

    李尚達 Lǐ Shàngdá, 數學專題: 天干地支 "Shùxué zhuāntí: Tiān gān dì zhī"

    [Topics in mathematics: Heavenly stems and earthly branches]

    Uploaded on Youtube, 1 September 2017

  • Wiedenhof (2015)

    • Tabel 9.3, "The ten stems and the twelve branches"

    • Table 9.4, "The sexagenary cycle"

    In: Jeroen Wiedenhof, A grammar of Mandarin. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2015, p. 263.

    Availability at Leiden:

    • from the Asian Library, on the linguistics handbooks shelves;
    • as an e-book, through the University Library catalogue


  • Ferlus (2014)

Michel Ferlus, "The sexagesimal cycle, from China to Southeast Asia"

23rd Annual Conference of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society,

Bangkok, May 2013

  • Smith (2010)

Adam Smith, "The Chinese sexagenary cycle and the ritual origins of the calendar"

Uncorrected article proof for

John M. Steele, ed., Calendars and years II: Astronomy and time in the ancient and medieval world

Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010

  • Lu & Aiken (2004)

Wei Lu & Max Aiken Smith, "Origins and evolution of Chinese writing systems and preliminary counting relationships"

Accounting history, Volume 9, No 3, pp. 25-51

Availability at Leiden:

as an e-article, through the University Library catalogue

  • Thurston (1994)

Hugh Thurston, "The Chinese"

In: Hugh Thurston, Early astronomy. New York: Springer, 1994, pp. 84-109.

Availability at Leiden:

Printed book, Library code: GORLAE ASTRON QB016 203.


     On memory techniques:

  • Baasten (2017)

Martin Baasten, Geheugentechniek 02

(in Dutch, with English subtitles)

A class on memory techniques for students of Japanese

Leiden University, 11 April 2017


  • Foer (2011)

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein

London: Penguin, 2011

"[Joshua Foer] explores common mnemonic tools for improving memory: the techniques of Roman rhetoricians and the tannaim ("reciters") of Judea, the Major System and the PAO System for memorizing numbers and cards, and Mind Mapping, a note-taking technique developed by Tony Buzan. These methods are all a form of the method of loci, in which data is stored in a sequence of memorable images that can be translated back into their original form. He espouses deliberate practice as the path to expertise, and declares psychological barriers as the largest obstacles to improved human performance."

  • Memory games (2018)

A revealing documentary by Janet Tobias and Claus Wehlisch

    Starring memory athletes Nelson Dellis, Yanjaa Wintersoul, Johannes Mallow and Simon Reinhard

    Also available on Netflix



Updated 5 May 2020