MA course 2022-2023



Chinese writing & writing Chinese


Jeroen Wiedenhof

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General information

e-Prospectus catalog number: 5174KCH45 & 5474ISCW7

For details see

Time and venue

Time: Second semester, Mondays, 3:15am - 5:00pm

Venue: Lipsius building, room 120


Block 3

Week 1 (Mon 6 Feb 23)

Intro / Speaking and writing in the sinophone world

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 13 Feb 23)

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.






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

The reason for this requirement will be discussed explicitly in today's session.


9.  Group efforts:

By way of a heads-up: 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!
  • Make sure to contact classmates now, and to set a date & time to prepare next week's text together.
  • As by mutual agreement in class last week, I have sent out list of email addresses to facilitate these exchanges. Note: if you use Reply-All, please omit the teacher's address from the list.

As discussed, this buddy-up request is more general. In preparing future sessions, please try to share and join forces in the spirit of this multidisciplinary seminar.


On Chao (1968):

10.  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):

11.  Review

of last week's assignment #8

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


On Dougherty e.a. (1963):

12.  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, going through the assigned text page by page.

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

14.  On p. ix/L,

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

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

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

16.  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?

17.  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.

18.  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 (i.e. pronounce & translate) the Chinese book titles listed on p. xxx.

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

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


Reference materials

Mechanization & Chinese script

A Chinese telegram (detail)   
– Click for full image

Source: Sohu / 搜狐   

電報 ~ 电报 diànbào 'telegram'

電傳 ~ 电传 diànchuán 'telex'

中文電報碼 ~ 中文电报码 Zhōngwén diànbàomǎ 'Chinese telegraph code'

– Mechanization of Chinese characters, backgrounds & overview:

Thomas S. Mullaney, The Chinese typewriter: A history, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017 (on loan at Leiden University Library)

Digitization & Chinese script

Binary counter (百聞不如一見)

– the Baudot-Murray code

– the ASCII code

– the 国标 Guóbiāo code

Five-hole paper tape: writing and reading digital data

– Digitization of Chinese characters, backgrounds & overview:

Jeroen Wiedenhof, "The digital revolution" = § 12.5.2 of A grammar of Mandarin (online at Leiden University Library)


...and an encore

In the news: A proto-writing system?

Image source:   
Bacon e.a. (2023), p. 2   

Next week, we will turn our attention to the earliest known ancestor of the Chinese script.

Note the careful wording here: "earliest known" implies that we may yet discover evidence of even earlier forms. In class, we will be discussing the likelihood of such discoveries for the Chinese case.

Speaking more generally, the advancement of historical knowledge does not depend solely on the discovery of new artefacts. An exciting instance was published only last month:

Bacon, B., Khatiri, A., Palmer, J., Freeth, T., Pettitt, P., & Kentridge, R. (2023). "An Upper Palaeolithic proto-writing system and phenological calendar". Cambridge Archaeological Journal, pp 1-19.

This (Open-Access) publication sets out to identify the kind of marks found across Europe in Upper Palaeolithic sites, spanning the period from 37,000 to 13,000 BP *).

For the first time, the authors describe a clear system behind the use of these marks.

Remarkably, the article does not report a single new find, only new findings. It is, in other words, a novel analysis of archeological evidence which had so far remained unexplained.

20.  In the abstract (p. 1), the system of Upper Palaeolithic marks is called "the first known writing in the history of Homo sapiens".

The title of the article mentions a "proto-writing system".

a.  Without consulting the article: write down what you think both of these descriptions mean.

b.  Now check the explanation given om pp. 14-15 of the article, and compare it to your own answers.

Please comment.

c.  Check out the "Author biographies" on pp. 18-19, and see if you can spot anything remarkable here.

Source: Wiley Miller:   
Non Sequitur, 16 Jan 23   


*) BP: Before Present

Week 3 (Mon 20 Feb 23)

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 (online at Leiden University Library); or

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

– And while you are at it, check out the same tool for the Gwoyeu Romatzyh spelling (cf. assignment #18 above)

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.


Reflecting on Sessions 1 & 2

24.  Individual item

Lily: Your backlog assignments for Session 1 (written answers to Assignments 1 through 8) are due this Friday, 17 Feb 23, at 1:00pm.

  • Please note the format requirements for hand-in assignments
  • Hand in your work in PDF format, as an attachment of an email message to .

25.  In the context of linguistic transcription, Lee's written notes on Session 1 led us to consider ways of typing Pinyin tone symbols.

There are different input methods (called 輸入法 ~ 输入法 shūrùfǎ in Mandarin) for tone symbols.

Your preferences may depend on your hardware, your software, ease of use and individual habits.

Bottomline: for your assignments in this course, you will need a quick and easy way to type tone symbols, so please

  • explore the possibilities
  • compare note with your classmates, and
  • bring any remaining questions to class.

26.  Silvia's question in Session 2 prompted a brief explanation how textual information used to be stored digitally on paper tape.

We will be discussing the digital revolution in a later session, but in the meantime, if you cannot wait:

I added some materials on the mechanization and digitization of the Chinese script for your reference.

On Keightley's (1985) "Preamble":

27.  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";

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

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

29.  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)

30.  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":

31.  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.

32.  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).


33.  Do you know if there are any oracle bones to be seen at Leiden? (or if not: in Leiden? ;-)


Week 4 (Mon 27 Feb 23)

Doing right by a script: The tools of lexicography

Image source: 每日頭條 / KKNews 

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:


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.


Individual items:

Lily: Your backlog assignments are long overdue.

Second & last chance: new deadline = Tuesday, 21 Feb 23, at 5:00pm.

Chih Chieh: Please first check with your classmates for lecture notes, then send me your written answers to Assignments 29, 30, 32 & 33.

Deadline = this Friday, 24 Feb 23, at 1:00pm.

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: Monday, 27 February 2023 at 9:00am


Remaining from last week:

Please review assignment 32:

we will start from this item today.

This week's centerpiece:

34.  Read the first two texts:

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.

35.  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:

36.  Prepare your notes and ideas for a 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.


Week 5 (Mon 6 Mar 23)

"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.


"Writing on language"

Leiden: LIAS/LUCL, 2018


Reading notes

Whitfield (2009):

37.  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.


Term paper preparation

Image source: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0   
Alpha Stock Images   

38.  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.

On the relevance of original observations in the advancement of science, compare assignment 36.

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.

Dūnhuáng's linguistic treasures

39.  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?

40.  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.

41.  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.

42.  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.

43.  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.


On memorization: tips & tricks

Did I mention this before? 😎  Memorize your calendar symbols

From prehistoric times, cultural transmission has depended on memory skills. Perhaps ironically, subsequent revolutions in recording techniques have severely jeopardized the survival of basic mnemonic skills.

Since this seminar focusses on writing, let us remind ourselves that the art of writing itself was a case in point:

"For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory."

– in Socrates' words, as recorded in writing, ironically... Plato, Phaedrus 275a

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.

For some orientation on the art of memory, consider the trailer of this revealing documentary by Janet Tobias and Claus Wehlisch

Memory games (2018)

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


On the calendar: breaking news?

"Stonehenge was a solar calendar, according to research"

By Chloe Harcombe, BBC West, 2 Mar 22

This article 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.

44.  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 13 Mar 23)

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.




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

Time, 2 May 2016



Individual items:

Nathalie: Please first check with your classmates for lecture notes, then send me your written answers to Assignments 38 - 44.

Deadline = this Friday, 10 Mar 23, at 1:00pm.

45.  Check back on the past five sessions of this course, and see if there are any of the assignments 1 thru 44 which you would like to review in class.

Term paper preparation

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

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

Please write out your transcriptions in full. You will be asked to demonstrate these in class.

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

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

48. We discussed a first round of original observations in class; check the details under Assignment (38)b.

Minghui & Jueyu: you did a good job in Round 1; please bring new observations for Round 2!

In our discussion, one type of confusion that we ran into was the distinction between tendencies and events.

A tendency (e.g. "I have noticed that people often... (etc.)" is a conclusion after the fact. It involves comparison and analysis, which is not our purpose here.

An event is something that actually happens at a certain time and place. This is the type of observation we are trying to document.

Thus, if you are in doubt whether your observation is valid for our purposes here, just ask yourself: did I witness this? (when? where?)

Please bring your observations to class. We will discuss these and compare notes.

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

49.  Check your notes and ideas about your term paper, and be prepared to report on these in class.

Assignments heads-up

On Monday, 27 March 3 April (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.

On Monday, 17 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.

On Monday, 1 May (Block 4, Session 5), you will be asked to produce a popular account of your termpaper project.

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

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.


...and the encores

[ click to enlarge ]

50.  What is this?

Hint: think semantics



51.  What is this?

Hint: think Sinitic languages

–Thanks to Marc Gilbert for materials and suggestions




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

A class on memory techniques for students of Japanese

Leiden University, 11 April 2017



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. [repeated here:] Memory games (2018)


Week 7 (Mon 20 Mar 23)

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

At the end of Block 3, we resume our exploration of similarities and differences between language and script – especially as inspired by the progress made in your own coursework.

After Minghui's interesting question, we also return to two (very) different applications of Pinyin in the transcription of Mandarin.



Wiedenhof (2015)

Wiedenhof (2005)



Silvia: Please first check with your classmates for lecture notes, then send me your written answers to Assignments 45 - 49.

Deadline = this Friday, 17 Mar 23, at 1:00pm.

– Also note your individual item in #52 below, with a deadline on Sunday might.

Individual items:

52.  Our round of your individual observations has resulted in a fascination range of phenomena, as might be expected in view of the breadth of the sinographical field.

Here are some remarks on individual items, and a request to send me your update by Sunday night (19 March). Don't worry about format requirements: a simple email message will do.

  • Charlotte:  Could you send me your photo from Serindia (with volume & page reference); formulate your observation, and add one or more research questions.
  • Chih Chieh:  [updated 15 Mar 22h] Lots of literature for your observation! but with little linguistics. There is a short but structural note in my Boltz review (p. 384); you will find an early source reference there as well. But first, send me your example(s) and your proposed research question(s).
  • Jueyu:  You asked "whether Chinese characters in Japan are relevant to our course" – yes, definitely! To develop observation skills, pick a random page from a Japanese book and try telling us what strikes you [as a Chinese reader].
  • Lily:  Looking forward to your Chinese-supermarket observations! And here are some teasers...
  • Minghui:  Please send me scans or photos of the ~ examples that you observed, including source references. Also, try to formulate your research question.
  • Nathalie:  On sinographic creativity in Xú Bīng's art, check § 12.3.2 in my Grammar of Mandarin and/or Grammatica van het Mandarijn; you will find a source reference there as well. Please send me a photo of the selection you made from his work, your observation & your research question.
  • Silvia:  Please check your notes and send me your observation(s) & research question(s).
Source: 湖南日报, 26 Apr 17
Source: Ling Liang Family, 16 Mar 23

"The transcription of Mandarin":

53.  Read the text and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.

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

55.  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.

"Purpose and effect":

56.  Read the text and bring your notes.

We will discuss your questions and remarks in class.

57.  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.



An inspiring publication:

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)  

58.  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 encore

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.


Course Reserve Shelf

The Leiden Asian Library has a dedicated Course Reserve Shelf

providing books and journal issues selected for our course

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

Suggested background reading for this course


Linguistics in general


Chinese linguistics


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

 IPA TypeIt

Sinitic languages

 Grammatica van het Mandarijn

 A grammar of Mandarin


 Pink Trombone

Updated 15 March 2023