MA course 2021-2022



Chinese writing & writing Chinese


Jeroen Wiedenhof

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Cramming jiázǐ 甲子

General information

e-Prospectus catalog number: 5174KCH45 & 5474ISCW7

For details see

Time and venue

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

Venue: Huizinga building, room 008B


Block 3

Week 1 (Mon 7 Feb 22)

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".

The note discusses the simplified character , but the remark on "phonetic series" is strongly rooted in tradition – in other words, in the traditional script.

a.  In your own terms, what is a "phonetic series"?

b.  Can you find an instance of alternation between Mandarin sh- and r- within 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 14 Feb 22)

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

Anouschka: Thank you for your comments on the formulation of assignment 7.

I have rephrased this now: please check if this renders the assignment less confusing.


Catalina: As discussed, please check your course enrolment (uSis & Brightspace) with the student administration.

Also, since you missed out on last week's communications, please

  • Read the chapter from Norman (1988)
  • Prepare the eight assignments
  • Bring any remaining questions to class

Harry: Given your interest in assignment #8, we will be coming back to it in this session.

For assignment 8(b): could you send me your attempts at solving this?

  • In case you could not find the relevant terms in Mandarin, please email me references of sources you tried to consult
  • If in the meantime, you did manage to find these terms, please email them to me (including the source references as well)

Please send your email message to me before the weekend.


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.

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

We will review 8(a) through 8(c) in class.

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.

As explained last week, we will be start with your individual questions and comments for each text.

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 21 Feb 22)

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

Cambridge University Library Oracle bone CUL.52
Interactive scan by Sketchfab (2015)

Texts & materials



  • NASA (2011)

"Lunar eclipse essentials"

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Uploaded to Youtube on 8 June 2011.


  • Djamouri (1992)

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.


  • Keightley (1985)

    • Chapter 1, "Shang divination procedures"

    • Chapter 2, "The divination inscriptions"

    David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang history: The oracle-bone inscriptions of bronze age China.

    First edition 1978; paperback edition, with corrections, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, pp. 3-27 (Chapter 1), 28-56 (Chapter 2).

    Available in the Leiden Asian Library: S-UB DS744.K44 1985.


  • Takashima (2019)

  • Ken-ichi Takashima, A little primer of Chinese oracle-bone inscriptions: With some exercises.

    Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, second revised edition, 2019. First published 2015.


  • Thurston (1994)

    Hugh Thurston, "The Chinese"

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

    Leiden University Library code: GORLAE ASTRON QB016 203.


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)

  What's in a name 

Do you know the Pinyin equivalents for <Ro> and <ma> in <Gwoyeu Romatzyh>? 

22.  Sexagesimal means 'based on 60' just as decimal means 'based on ten'. The sexagesimal system is the basis of (not just) the Chinese calendar.

Graphs representing this cycle are well-known from even the oldest specimens of oracle bones.

In case you need help with the sexagesimal cycle:

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

Wikipedia has a list of Shang Kings.


On Keightley's (1985) "Preamble":

24.  With the help of the Reading notes, read the "Preamble" to David Keightley's Sources.

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

  • the TIME: names and dates for dynasties, historical periods and historical figures

    – e.g. "Wu Ting";

  • the PLACE: please check all geographical designations

    – e.g. "the powerful Ho".

  • technical terms in English and in Mandarin, including the corresponding Chinese characters,
  • – e.g. "hsin-wei, eighth day of the week";

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

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

26.  Consider the character卜:

a.  Which pronunciation(s) and which meaning(s) can you find for modern Chinese languages?

b.  Can you find a phonological reconstruction for the pronunciation of this character? (the earlier, the better)

27.  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?

On Lǐ's (1989) "月㞢食":

28.  On the basis of 李圃 Lí Pǔ's helpful notes, read and prepare an English translation of the original oracle-bone text.

In other words: please translate the short (nineteen-character) text shown on p. 1.

In preparing this translation, please take notes about any difficulties encountered in reading Lǐ's commentary.

We will discuss Lǐ's text in class, page by page if necessary.

29.  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).

  Home Sweet Home 

30.  Do you know if there are any oracle bones to be seen at Leiden? or if not: in Leiden?  


...and the encore

Writing non-Mandarin Sinitic

In session 2, some of you raised questions about the nature, status and viability of scripts for Chinese languages other than Mandarin.

In this context, let us first remind ourselves that writing Mandarin in Chinese characters itself constitutes a rather late chapter in the long history of the Chinese script.

For other Sinitic languages, the availability and adaptability of scripts (characters, alphabets or otherwise) is not a problem, but general use and acceptance often are.

Last week, we looked briefly at the case of Taiwanese.

As mentioned, historical and modern means of writing this language have been neatly documented, explained and analyzed in Henning Klöter's Written Taiwanese.

For Cantonese, here is a recent example of a "phonetic script with sinoglyph aesthetics":

粵切字:粵字改革方案 | Jyutcitzi : A Cantonese Script Reform Proposal


31.  Now consider this notion of a "phonetic script with sinoglyph aesthetics":

a.  Can you think of historical or modern examples of this, where general use and acceptance turned out to be unproblematic?

b.  In the phrase phonetic script with sinoglyph aesthetics,

  • what exactly is meant by phonetic?
  • can you think of a linguistically more pertinent term?

Week 4 (Mon 28 Feb 22)

Doing right by a script: The tools of lexicography

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

Today, we will explore early advances in Chinese lexicography against the backdrop of philosophical and political developments In Qín and Hàn times.

This session will consist of two parts:

  • This weeks' centerpiece:

    An unconventional look at the establishment of writing conventions

  • Looking ahead:

    Exploring possibilities for your term paper


From Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia


許慎 Xǔ Shèn, 說文解字 Shuō wén jiě zì [Discussion of simple characters and analysis of complex characters]

Edition: 说文解字: 附检字 Shuō wén jiě zì: Fù jiǎn zì [Discussion of simple characters and analysis of complex characters: With a character index].

北京 Peking: 中華書局 Zhōnghuá shūjú, 1963.

East Asian Library number: SINOL. 5093

Available in the Leiden Asian Library: see the dedicated Course Shelf, number ALCRS112, for this course.


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 in PDF format as an attachment of an email message to .

  • Small is beautiful: maximally one page (A4).
  • For your text, please consult the format requirements.
  • For the attachment, please use the following PDF file-name: <sgfx-handin#1-Your_surname.pdf>

Deadline: Sunday, 27 February 2022

Remaining from last week:

Please review assignment 31:

  • item (a) was skipped in class last week;
  • for item (b), please formulate the difference between phonetic and phonological studies succinctly in your own words.

Individual items:

Maaike: Thank you for your comments on assignment #28.

I have changed this now: please check if this improves clarity.

Hamza: In last week's discussion of item #29, we discussed graphical, phonological and semantic aspects.

Also, I objected to your use of the term word in this context, but we did not have time to look into this.

Please write down a short definition of this term word

– for now, not necessarily in any technical sense, but simply in the sense that you had in mind when you used it last week.

If you wish, you can also review assignment #20 in this connection.

This week's centerpiece:

32.  Read the first two texts:

    • Galambos' Chapter Two, "The Qin and Han creation of the standard" and
    • the Wikipedia article "Shuowen Jiezi".

Note down any difficulties you may encounter in these two texts, and bring your notes to class.

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

33.  The third title is a modern reprint of the 說文解字 Shuō wén jiě zì.

(a) Have a good look at this book, which is currently available from the course reserve shelves in the Leiden Asian Library.

(b) Check that you understand how the work is organised.

(c) Find the characters , , and in this dictionary.

For each of these four characters, write down

  • the page number for the entry in this modern edition
  • the Shuō wén jiě zì radical
  • the dictionary's definition of the characters, and
  • an English translation of this definition

Looking ahead:

34.  Prepare some notes and ideas for your term paper.

Make a list of possible observations and, for s each observation, one or more research questions.

Please bring your notes to class for discussion.

You can read more on the relevance (and art) of observation here.


 A gentle reminder: do practice your sexy sexagesimals! 


"/žə4 š0 i0 gə0 šəŋ1xəa0 čaŋ2š2/" — 0m57s



...and the encore

Writing non-Mandarin Sinitic (continued from here)

This post from Language Log on "Writing Teochow" is just out (24 Feb 22).

Some food for thought in this connection:

35.  Compare the <T> in <Teochow> and the <Ch> in <Cháozhōu>.

In two sentences, can you formulate an informed judgment on what happens here?

36.  The original Twitter post by @LearnTeochew carries an illustration, partly reproduced here

featuring Herbert Giles' name.

We mentioned Giles last week, in connection with the Wade-Giles romanization scheme, named after him and Thomas Wade.

As discussed, that transcription scheme featured in the sinographic conflicts raging at the end of the 19th century, and centering around the pros and cons of Nanking and Peking phonological traditions.

In case you are interested: the story has a distinct Leiden angle. For details, see

Gustaaf Schlegel,

"On the extended use of 'The Peking system of ortography' for the Chinese language".

T'oung Pao, Vol. 6, No. 5 (1895), pp. 499-508

– downloadable from the Leiden University Library


Week 5 (Mon 7 Mar 22)

"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 visit 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.

    Reserved volumes are arranged by library user names. To save staff time (and your time), please state clearly at the Special Collections desk that both volumes are reserved under my name.

    The Special Collections desk has a list of students in the Sinographics course. Your library card will be saved during your visit.

    Please check the opening hours!

    Unlike the ground-floor reading rooms where your Course Reserves reside, our Special Collections department is closed during the weekend.

    (2) Digital edition

    Toyo Bunko Rare Books

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

    Despite the quality of the digital scans, they cannot replace hands-on experience with these impressive volumes.

    In other words: if you pick option (2), this will not remove the necessity of the Special Collections visit as detailed under (1).


"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 ALCRS112, 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.


37.  Backlog items

We will first have a quick look at the "Encore" assignments of session 4.

38.  Individual items

Hamza: you asked (if I remember correctly) about the productivity & present relevance of the 會意 huìyì principle of character formation.

Please check the Chinese translations of these three hydrogen isotopes: protium, deuterium and tritium.

(as to "present relevance": see this BBC news item of 9 Feb 22, on the future of our planet's energy resources ;-)

39.  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.

40.  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?

41.  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.

42.  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.

43.  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.

44.  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 at the Táng court 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.


...and the encore

The future of reading

Adriaan van der Weel, Ruud Hisgen e.a.:

De lezende mens ['The reading human']

Book presentation, in Dutch

"In de relatief korte geschiedenis van kleitablet tot e-book heeft het lezen ingrijpende veranderingen teweeg gebracht voor individu en samenleving. Maar wat is lezen eigenlijk, en hoe werkt het? En wat doen de digitale schermen met onze leesgewoonten?"

Date: 4 March, 8:00pm to 9:30pm

Venue: SPUI25

Details: De lezende mens

 Did I mention this before? 

Memorize your calendar symbols 

On memorization: tips & tricks

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


On the calendar: breaking news?

"Stonehenge was a solar calendar, according to research"

By Chloe Harcombe, BBC West, 2 Mar 22

This article is just out, and it mentions (in the final paragraphs) an ancient unit of time:

"The proposed calendar works in a very straightforward way. Each of the 30 stones in the sarsen circle represents a day within a month, itself divided into three weeks each of 10 days."

We encountered "weeks" of ten days: yes, as in xún; and yes, as in jiá yí bǐng dīng wù jǐ gēng xīn rén guǐ.

45.  Consider the title of this news item. Are there any non-solar calendars?

To answer this question, check carefully how you would define your terms for types of calendars.

Week 6 (Mon 14 Mar 22)

Text source: Language, brains and the syntactic revolution

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.

In the classical Hēúrēka! example, the rising water in a bath tub helped Archimedes solve a problem of specific gravity, but it may be just as significant that the solution came to him in a moment of relaxation.

Such experiences are shared by many, and may be expressed by claims that solutions suddenly “hit us”, making “every­thing fall into place”: in the shower, during a stroll in the yard, or after a good night’s sleep.

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"

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

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.



45.  Backlog item

We will first have a quick look at #45.

46.  Individual items

Hamza: please send me (links to) the materials you proposed to work on for your term paper

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

Now, apply your knowledge to the ten sentences listed under #5, "More exercises".

You will be asked to demonstrate these in class.

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

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

49.  Like last week, we will be 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, 28 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, 11 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.

50.  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.

Week 7 (Mon 21 Mar 22)

Image source:

Spring break


51.  We discussed the relevance of relaxation to problem solving, quoting Archimedes as an historic example.

The update of last week's session references the story.

52.  We briefly discussed memorization techniques in the context of the Chinese sexagenary cycle.

I have revamped the relevant resources as an appendix to this page, and added a challenge.

In the final session of this course, I hope to create an opportunity to share experiences.

Block 4

Week 1 (Mon 28 Mar 22)

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

Write a short first draft of your term paper. Send it to my email address in PDF format, before the beginning of our 28 March class session.

Please note the format format requirements.

  • Please do not not write text about your essay, but text for your essay
  • Your text should minimally include:
    • observation(s);
    • research question(s) and
    • proposed methodology
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. before the official deadline) into a realistic possibility.

– "Purpose and effect":

53.  Read the text and bring your notes.

As usual, we will discuss your questions and remarks first.

54.  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":

55.  Read the text and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.

56.  We briefly mentioned the difference between Character Pinyin and Linguistic Pinyin in an earlier session.

Now, please formulate this difference in your own words, as succinctly as you can.

57.  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.

and please do not forget to scroll down to assignments 58 & 59 ;-)








'Good shot!'





















Chinese characters




Character Pinyin (CP)


Linguistic Pinyin (LP)


















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)  

58.  Further to non-Mandarin Sinitic scripts:

in Gina Anne TAM's Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960, we read the following text to accompany this illustration:

"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?

59.  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.

Week 2 (Mon 4 Apr 22)

Image source: Kknews

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.


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


60.  Left over from last week's session:

assignments 59(b).

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

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.


– "Can a logographic script be simpli­fied?"

62.  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"

63.  As usual, we will discuss this article on the basis of your notes.

64.  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.


65.  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?

66.  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)

67.  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"

68.  We will discuss this text on the basis of your notes.

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

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

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

(71.  For native speakers of Mandarin:

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

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

73.  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?

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

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

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

76.  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?

77.  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"?

78.  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?

Week 3 (Mon 11 Apr 22)

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.

  • Script and society:

    Second chances!

Oral presentation

On 11 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 materials, research question(s) and 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.
  • A short handout for the audience will come in handy, because it will save you time writing on the blackboard: please bring six printed copies
  • Powerpoints are allowed, but only after prior consulation (over email). Note that setting up your system will cut into your ten minutes!


79.  Second chances

– for those who came less than fully prepared to last week's session:

Make sure you read all three texts. Bring your questions and comments to class.

80.  Also on the subject of script and society, here is a cross-cultural example:

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 (Mon 18 Apr 22)

Image source: Hong Kong Cookery


No class today

Easter Monday




Week 5 (Mon 25 Apr 22)

Image source: 親王之聲 / King Wang Voice

Myths about Chinese

In our sinographical explorations so far, we have examined a variety of aspects and perspectives in a broad chronological order. And along the way, we have run into a number of persistent myths about Chinese. Today we will look at these myths separately.

But wait: when we say "myths about Chinese", do we mean about language, or about script? Sadly, the very distinction may be blurred in these myths, which can have people speaking in characters, and characters forming the stuff of language.

To be sure, this type of confusion is common in every literate society. What makes the Chinese case special is the longevity of logographic traditions. Against a backdrop of millennia, challenges from a young science such as linguistics risk being taken as a snub to cultural values.

Development notes: For future runs of this course

Sources to be considered

Erbaugh, Mary S., Difficult characters: Interdisciplinary studies of Chinese and Japanese writing. Pathways to Advanced Skills Series, Volume VI. Columbus: National East Asian Language Resource Center, Ohio State University, 2002.

On monosyllabicity:

Kennedy, George A.“The monosyllabic myth”. In: Tien-yi Li, ed., Selected works of George A. Kennedy. New Haven: Far Eastern Publications, 1964, pp. 104-118. Reprinted from Journal of the American Oriental Society, Volume 71, No. 3, 1951, pp. 161-166.

On ideograms:

DeFrancis, John, "The ideographic myth". In: John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, pp. 133-148. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1984. A revised version of this chapter appears in Erbaugh (2002), pp. 1-20.

Unger, J. Marshall, Chinese characters and the myth of disembodied meaning. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004















leidenhumanities (2022)



–Thanks to Milan van Berlo, Ellie van Eijk and Marc Gilbert for materials and suggestions


81.  For a quick scan of present-day misconceptions about Chinese languages and scripts,

(a)  consider each of the examples shown at our "Typisch Chinees" webpage (in Dutch); and

(b)  check out the list of Bronnen ('Sources') at the bottom of that page.

Note down any comments or questions, and bring your notes to class.


Consider the message of 20 April posted from the Leiden Faculty of Humanities' official Instagram account.

On the basis of what you have learned in this course, can you spot any misconceptions, fallacies or myths in the text of the Instagram post?

If so:

(a)  describe what possibly went wrong; and

(b)  try to identify a rationale and/or a source for the error.

And if not:

note down your answer to the question in the last line of the post.

 update  2 May 22

The screenshot referenced here

documents the text of the original Instagram post of 20 Apr 22.

That post has since been revised, due partly to comments offered by students in this Sinographics course, in response to Assignment #82.

Thank you!

The original URL accordingly displays the revised post only: <>


83.  Inventorize this week's progress on your term paper and note down your planning for the final weeks.

Please bring your notes to class.

As before, we will compare notes and do a quick round of any outstanding issues.


...and the encore

Throats and sounds: Another look at transcription

–Thanks to Henning Klöter for materials and suggestions

Click to enlarge

84.  In the photo, you see a package for cough drops.

For this assignment, we will be assuming that the roman text printed on this package transcribes and translates (a variety of) Mandarin.

Check out the original text in Chinese characters, and the roman alphabetic rendering.

Now compare the two.

(a)  Can you name resemblances between this transcription and two different international romanizations?

For each of these romanizations, name at least two concrete instances of a resemblance with this text.

(b)  Given these resemblances with two better-known transcriptions, make an educated guess about the place/region/country of origin of this text.

(c)  For the transcribed form <Zen> for ,

  • find resemblances with other Mandarin transcriptions,
  • and/or suggest a linguistic rationale – in linguistic terms! – for this representation of the Mandarin sounds.

(d)  For , the roman text seems to opt for a translation rather than a transcription.

Can you find a rationale for this, or another explanation?

Week 6 (Mon 2 May 22)

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. And last week, we saw instances where these two domains, language and script, are treated as indistinguishable. A principled distinction between these two domains often remains the prerogative of linguistics.

This week provides some historical 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.

For those who missed out last time: please check these shelves in time!


Wikipedia (2022)

"Four tones (Middle Chinese)"

    Last updated 3 April 2022




– Assignment heads-up

On Monday, 9 May (Block 4, Session 7), a near-final draft of your term paper will be expected.

This draft will be assessed as Hand-in Assignment #3.


– "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.

85.  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. Please bring any remaining issues to class.

86.  Read the text and bring your notes.

Your questions and remarks go first in our class discussion.

87.  Please summarize the point Coblin is making in this article, in one or two sentences.

88.  Please 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.

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

a.  Please check the etymology of the Chinese term.

b.  Can you guess how the English labels originated?

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

91.  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).

92.  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?

93.  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?

94.  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.


...and the encore

Formula One

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).

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?


Week 7 (Mon 9 May 22)

Image source: Shutterstock

From bones to bytes: The digital revolution

As we saw, the earliest extant specimens of Chinese writing are preserved in hard materials: bones, shells and bronze. Yet the characteristic looks of the character script were determined by soft and flexible materials: brush, paper and silk.

After the 10th century, new printing techniques created a boost in the transmission of science, literature and the arts. Movable type became cost-effective much later, after the steam engine allowed mechanization in the late 19th century.

In terms of "material" culture, the digital revolution is perhaps the most radical development in the history of the Chinese script, and of scripts generally. In terms of documentation and analysis, we will examine an overview and consider a number of special angles.


Wiedenhof (2015)

"The digital revolution"

In: Jeroen Wiedenhof, A grammar of Mandarin.

Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015,

§ 12.5.2, pp. 402-406.

Availability at Leiden:

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

Apple (2017)

[Apple] Handwriting Recognition Team, "Real-time recognition of handwritten Chinese characters spanning a large inventory of 30,000 Characters"

Machine learning journal,

Volume 1, Issue 5, September 2017



Russell (2016)

"Signing off: Finnish schools phase out handwriting classes"

The guardian, 31 July 2015.

Hilburger (2016)

Christina Hilburger, "Character amnesia: An overview"

In: Victor H. Mair, ed., Sinitic language and script in East Asia: Past and present

Sino-Platonic papers, Number 264, December 2016, pp. 51-70.


Reading notes

–"The digital revolution"

95.  The reference quoted here is Halpern and Kerman's "Pitfalls & Complexities" article, available from the CJK Dictionary Institute's website.

–"Real-time recognition"

96.  In the introduction, if you wonder what "convolutional neural networks (CNNs)" are: don't worry, they will be illustrated in the next section.

Or if you can't wait: here's a clever introduction. And note the human angle: CNNs "take a biological inspiration from the visual cortex".



Hand-in Assignment #3

Write a near-final draft of your term paper.

Hand it in, either in PDF or printed on paper, on or before Monday 9 May.

Please note the format format requirements.


97.  Read both texts and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class first.

98.  Just checking: would you like to share any comments / experiences / progress so far on our Memory Challenge?


– "The digital revolution"

99.  As mentioned on p. 402, there are "persistent issues" in the conversion of characters between digital standards (compare the Reading Notes)

The notion of conversion, e.g. from 貝 to 贝, or vice versa, involves more than just a distinction. Conversion also denotes a degree of identity between the object and the result of the conversion. In this example, there is also a certain sameness between 貝 and 贝.

This leads us back to the linguistic leitmotiv of our course on scripts, and a consideration which will be relevant to many (if not all) of your term papers.

Whether we are linguists or not, the analyis of scripts requires a statement on the position allotted to language – "language" in the technically strict sense of the spoken (not the written) medium.

For this example:

a.  Can we establish the degree of identity between 貝 and 贝 without reference to language? And between between 後 and 后?

b.  How can we do this?

100.  The character 与 "with a horizontal stroke crossing the downward hook, has increased in popularity within the Chinese script" (p. 403).

When you look at the previous sentence (i.e. here, on this webpage) is the horizontal stroke crossing the downward hook, yes or no?

101.  The software illustrated in Figure 12.24 (p. 406) is Wenlin.

The following is an experiment, not a contest.

a.  Note down (strictly individually, and without consulting any dictionary) how many characters you know actively among the ten characters displayed in Figure 12.24.

Here, "actively" means that:

  • you can pronounce the character's reading in one Sinitic language of your choice
  • and you know a corresponding meaning, i.e. a meaning in that same language

We will compare the results statistically in class, comparing numbers between 0 and 10.

b.  Write down at least three factors which may influence the result of this comparison.


– "Real-time recognition"

102.  To which scientific domain(s) does this text belong?

103.  Imagine you are an aspiring sino-techie applying for a job in a software company.

Describe at least one specialist asset that you bring to the firm thanks to your training in the Humanities.

104.  The Introduction mentions the phrase "underlying character inventory".

The term underlying suggests a conversion, but this type of conversion differs from the one above.

In the context of the Apple article, what are the object and the result of the conversion?

105.  In the section on "System configuration", we have a character of 48x48 pixels.

a.  In terms of resolution, is this currently a realistic average? (–on screens? –in print? –in other domains?)

b.  For fluent reading, what is the minimally required (square) resolution for Chinese characters?

106.  In the same section, the number 30,000 is mentioned for

"one node per class, e.g., 3,755 for the Hànzì level-1 subset of GB2312-80, and close to 30,000 when scaled up to the full inventory"

The text that follows will mention "30,000 characters".

In your own words, what is the difference between 30,000 nodes per class and 30,000 characters?

107.  The same number re-emerges in the title of the next section, "Scaling up to 30K characters".

a.  What type of interests drove this feat of engineering?

b.  How does the number of 30,000 compare to the numbers of characters usually addressed in educational, political and/or social domains?

108.  The same section distinguishes a "character inventory" from "[r]endered fonts".

In your own words, what is the difference?

109.  Compare the headings of Figures 2, 3 and 4 with the first sentence below Figure 4.

What is the difference between "cursive" and "unconstrained" variants (i.e. "variations")?

110.  Figures 7 presents "Similar shapes of U+738 (王) and U+4E94 (五)".

a.  For the characters 王 and 五, can the corresponding handwritten forms be completely identical, or will these two always be distinguished?

b.  If you do not know the answer to a., describe two different methods to solve this question (you do not need to actually perform these steps).

111.  In the "Discussion" section, the text returns to a nagging driving force in Chinese lexicography: personal names.

For persons whose Chinese names are written with characters which have no digital code, what are the current options for digital registration?




Here is some information on the Wénlín software suite:

"Wenlin Software for Learning Chinese integrates a variety of tools for instant-access to more than 300,000 Chinese-English entries, 73,000 Chinese character entries, 62,000 English-Chinese entries, and 11,000 Seal Script entries.

Wenlin’s versatile and easy-to-use interface tackles the most frustrating obstacles for students, scholars, and speakers of Chinese.

Wenlin’s integrated solution runs on a variety of computer platforms (including Mac and Windows), and includes expandable Chinese dictionaries, a full-featured Unicode text editor, a flashcard system, pronunciation recordings, handwriting recognition, and much more."

For more information see the Wenlin Institute products page.


...and the encore

T-bars and U-turns

–Thanks to Fresco Sam-Sin for materials and suggestions

112. All scripts, in the technical sense of the term, are derivatives of spoken languages. Still, as discussed in our last session, written traditions may in turn contribute to language itself.

One productive mechanism is the application of written shapes on real-world referents, exemplified in the English expressions T-bar and U-turn.

For Mandarin expressions based on the Chinese script, check out this weblink to an article by 史嘉琳, who also publishes under the name of Karen Steffen Chung. It lists and discusses countless examples, and is certainly the largest inventory I have seen online or offline.

We covered some sinographic background to this phenomenon in Week 2 of this semester block (in A grammar of Mandarin: closing pages of § 12.3.2 "Language and script").

(a)  What is your favorite example of this phenomenon in Dutch?

(b)  From a strictly sinographical viewpoint, what is missing in the inventory referenced here?


Week 8 (Mon 16 May 22)

Image source: 天晴资源网 / Tianqing123

The future of Chinese writing

Longevity is perhaps the most striking feature of Chinese writing.

As we have seen, longevity requires a great deal of adaptability. Throughout the history of writing in China, shifts in form and function have been affected by – and have feed back into – material, social, cultural, political, economic and educational circumstances.

Extraordinary longevity also inevitably raises the question what the future will bring.


Image source: CUP

We dive into the two articles which served as background in our prevvious session:


Russell (2016)

"Signing off: Finnish schools phase out handwriting classes"

The Guardian, 31 July 2015.


Image source: Language Log

Hilburger (2016)

Christina Hilburger, "Character amnesia: An overview"

In: Victor H. Mair, ed., Sinitic language and script in East Asia: Past and present

Sino-Platonic papers, Number 264, December 2016, pp. 51-70.



Almog (2018)

Reassessing the evidence of Chinese "Character amnesia"

SOAS University of London, 2018

Accessible online through the University Library catalogue


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.



113.  Read both texts and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.


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.

114.  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 [11 May 22] 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.


Course Reserve Shelf

The Leiden Asian Library has a dedicated Course Reserve Shelf for this course

The Course Reserve Shelf (in Dutch: Collegeplank) has number ALCRS112

Suggested background reading for this course


Linguistics in general

  • Crystal, David, The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, third edition 2010.
  • Matthews, P.H., Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998 and later editions.
  • SIL Glossary of linguistic terms


Chinese linguistics

  • Dong, Hongyuan, A history of the Chinese language. Abingdon: Routledge, 2014, second edition 2021.
  • Norman, Jerry, Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Wiedenhof, Jeroen, A grammar of Mandarin. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015.


Writing & scripts in general

  • Daniels, Peter T., and William Bright, The world’s writing systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Omniglot / Alphabets & writing systems. Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages, 2022.


Chinese writing & writing Chinese

  • Behr, Wolfgang, “In the interstices of representation: Ludic writing and the locus of polysemy in the Chinese sign”, in: The idea of writing: Play and complexity. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2010, pp.281-314.
  • Boltz, William G., The origin and early development of the Chinese writing system. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1994.
  • Erbaugh, Mary S., Difficult characters: Interdisciplinary studies of Chinese and Japanese writing. Pathways to Advanced Skills Series, Volume VI. Columbus: National East Asian Language Resource Center, Ohio State University, 2002.
  • Galambos, Imre, Orthography of early Chinese writing: Evidence from newly excavated manuscripts. Budapest, Department Of East Asian Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, 2006.
  • Handel, Zev, “Can a logographic script be simpli­fied? Lessons from the 20th century Chinese writing reform informed by recent psycholin­guistic research”. Scripta, Volume 5, 2013, pp. 21-66.
  • Handel, Zev, Sinography: The borrowing and adaptation of the Chinese script. Leiden: Brill, 2019.
  • Kraus, Richard Kurt, Brushes with power. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Lunde, Ken, CJKV information processing. Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 1999.
  • McCawley, James D., The eater’s guide to Chinese characters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • Unger, J. Marshall, Chinese characters and the myth of disembodied meaning. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004.

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

 IPA TypeIt

Sinitic languages

 Grammatica van het Mandarijn

 A grammar of Mandarin

 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:


  • 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 11 May 2022