From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Kanji Mastery—Introduction

Click here for the Kanji Mastery Resource Center (all posts available)
[a] Path to Mastery   RF
This introduction is meant for a general audience, although most "general readers" will find it a challenge to "hang on" through some of the language terms. As I wrote in the introduction to Katakana Culture, though, it is worth your while, and I hope that you will stay. Just grasping a little bit of how the languages "work" can be a cultural experience in its own right, and worth any number of books written "about" China, Japan, or Korea. From this point onward, the going may be difficult, but be sure to give the various "Kanji Mastery" posts a try when you see them. You may well enjoy learning to notice how some of the "radicals" as they are called, appear in many different characters (all it takes is desire to "learn visually"), and all of the posts will have pictures. It is hard to go wrong there.
***  ***
This series of posts is about one overarching goal shared by many students of East Asian languages—Kanji (漢字) Mastery.

These posts are meant to be a hands-on primer for the written script used in China, Japan, and Korea. It is mostly geared toward students of Japanese, however, because they seem to struggle the most with the sheer volume of characters in the language. This has always puzzled me. The student of Chinese has, on the face of it at least, the much rougher job. She has only characters—there is no other game in town. Nothing but what some people call ideographs and should properly be called logographs. One of my fellow graduate students many years ago—a Japanese literature specialist taking classical Chinese because all students of Japanese history and culture need to know it—flung his arms in exasperation, and said:
I can't take it anymore. It's all just rows and rows of kanji marching down the page!

He has a point. Take a look at two texts—one Chinese and one Japanese. The Japanese text has the characters "smoothed" (a kind of respite is one way to look at it) by "softer" graphs from the hiragana and katakana syllabaries. The Chinese text is, well, just rows and rows of characters "marching" relentlessly down the page.

[b] Chinese

[c] Japanese
The Chinese text on the left contains another interesting feature of early East Asian writing—there is no punctuation. This accentuates the appearance of "rows and rows of kanji marching down the page." Without even the brief rest provided by a comma or a full stop, the literary labor goes far beyond just handling meaning and syntax. It is up to the reader to interpret how each thought begins and ends on top of it all.

What about Japanese? Consider the Japanese text on the right. I am writing this for both students of Japanese and non-specialists, so bear with me, language scholars. Do you see a difference? My friend in graduate school certainly did. He adamantly maintained that Japanese was "softer," "friendlier," and "more inviting."

Anyone who has every studied fine points of Japanese grammar might beg to differ with the last two words, but that is another story for another time.

Let's get back to kanji. There is a great deal of misinformation out there, and even students of East Asian languages often don't know much about "how many" characters a person "needs" to know. Just a quick skim over a few web pages give numbers ranging from "about a thousand" (this is ridiculously low, and not even near a bare-literacy rate) to "over fifty thousand" (which is so ludicrously high as to contain almost every character that was ever used for three thousand years of prolific writing, document compilation, and esoterica).

In Chinese, a person who knows two thousand characters well (we will get back to what "well" means later) can make her way through a few texts with a reasonable range of comprehension. If she gets up to three thousand, she will have fewer of those head-scratching moments when reading. Approaching five thousand, a reader has probably developed a few useful skills even beyond recognizing (and being able to pronounce with probable accuracy) almost all characters on most text pages. She has quite likely also developed something far more important than those extra few thousand characters (which got her up into the five thousand range). She has most likely learned tens, if not hundreds, of character combinations for the most basic (foundational) two or three thousand. Although we'll tackle this subject later on in our Kanji Mastery posts, remember that it is one of the keys to the whole kingdom. Character combinations.

[d] Watch Out for   RF
Beyond five thousand characters, the student of Chinese has stopped counting—probably long ago. When people estimate character knowledge on the part of skilled readers (advanced students, scholars, and so forth) they tend to end up somewhere in the seven or eight thousand character range. No one at these levels (native speaker or foreign reader) seems very interested in the "how many?" question anymore, and that should be a clarion call to those of you who are still "counting characters." On top of that, even someone who—let's use an improbable example—knew and fairly regularly used ten thousand characters in her work would still be leaving at least 40,000 characters untapped, sitting in the Kangxi Emperor's dictionary (and other large tomes).

Now let's take a look at Japan and the challenges confronting the student of Japanese writing. If this were, say, 1711 or 1811, I would have one thing to say: you need to know all of the characters that the Chinese readers know. There would be no distinction whatsoever, and that is a point too often lost on today's students of Japanese. The skilled reader in Japanese history could read all of the Japanese tradition and all of the Chinese. Period (except when they didn't have them).

It is a little bit different today, now that the language reforms have taken root in Japan. Now we have a little thing called the joyo kanji (常用漢字) list. It was meant to make things easier, but that is a matter of definition. It seems easier, on the face of it. There a few more than two thousand characters that are meant to be for "everyday use" after the 2010 language updates. Two thousand! We could just memorize those as 2,000 little sets of chicken scratches and we'd be all right, wouldn't we?

Wouldn't we?

Nope. It sure doesn't seem that way. This is a difficult question for me, because I started with Chinese and those rows and rows of marching kanji. I also have spent a fair amount of time studying the etymology of the characters, so it seems fairly straightforward. There is a very real problem here, though. Many, many Japanese language students of very great skill "hit the wall" at a thousand or so of them. This is not even halfway to a modest goal. What is wrong?

Let me start by stating in the clearest terms possible (and this is not meant just to make y'all feel good): it is not a problem of intellect. Students of Japanese come in all abilities, but no one has ever claimed that they lack intelligence or drive. No, something else is at work, and it is not likely to make students feel any better. You see, for every "radical" that a very good reader of Chinese (five thousand or more characters) knows, a Japanese reader needs to recognize far fewer combinations. That sounds good, but it most definitely is not.

Let's take a look at radical #159, "cart." The Chinese and Japanese reader both see the common graphs with the "radical" in them. The student of Japanese who has learned the entire joyo kanji list recognizes twelve of them.

"Cart" Radical Characters Appearing in the Japanese "Everyday Use" List
車 䡄 軒 軟 転 軸 軽 較 輪 輸 轄 輩

The Chinese reader, in order to get into the five to seven thousand character range, also needs to be able to recognize the radical and its combinations. At the bottom end of the range, there are forty-one; at the upper end there are close to eighty. Let's stay with the bottom end here, but let's not lose the larger point, either. The "repeats" come thick and fast once you get "up there" in character recognition. Forty more combinations (double the list below) of the same stuff appear as you move from about five thousand characters to the college-graduate level of about seven thousand. In short, Chinese just keeps going over the same territory and combining things in slightly different ways.

"Cart" Radical Characters Appearing in "everyday" writing for Chinese readers (approximately 5,000 characters)
車 軋 軍 軌 軒 軔 軟 軛 軸 軻 輩 較 載 輒 輔 輕 輓 輝 輥 輛 輦 輪 輜 輻 輵 輳 輸 輯 輾 轄 轂 輿 轅 轉 轇 轍 轎 轕 轕 轟 轡 轤

And this is the situation for the vast majority of the 214 traditional radicals.

This may seem to be a boon for the student of Japanese, but it has turned out instead to be a terrible curse. You see, native speakers know a whole bunch of words, and, at some point, it doesn't really matter to them whether those words are expressed in characters or kana. The foreign learner inevitably has far less depth, not the least because she did not grow up with the language. This causes enormous problems for the Japanese learner just as things start getting easier for the Chinese learner. While the native Japanese reader "knows" the words associated with the "Chinese" list above, the foreign student almost always does not. This creates more and more problems...the further one gets into the study of the language.

[e] Decisions   RF
One more thing needs to be mentioned before we end the misery, and it is an even bigger reason why students of Japanese have a harder time getting to the meager goal of two thousand characters than students of Chinese have getting to five thousand. It is precisely because the student of Chinese (who has to learn five thousand characters to be able to read) recognizes many more ways of combining elements of characters than the frustrated Japanese student who, in many ways, is faced with learning two thousand almost arbitrary sets of squiggles.

Let's take one more look at an element of characters that some of the early Jesuit scholars called "phonetics." There are over eight hundred of these, and they combine with "radicals" to form the vast majority of characters.  Compare one phonetic that Japanese speakers would confront in learning the list of joyo kanji with the number the Chinese speaker would face in reaching an "equivalent" level of fluency. It is an important element in East Asian etymology, and appears in many dictionary combinations. It's basic meaning is "How?" or "Why," but it is used as a pronunciation key more than anything. The Jesuits list it as phonetic # 443.

"How" Element Appearing in the Japanese "Everyday Use" List 
渇 喝 褐 掲

"How" Element Appearing in "everyday" writing for Chinese readers (approximately 5,000 characters)
曷 喝 褐 鞨 鶡 蝎 猲 歇 謁 暍 竭 揭 碣 愒 楬 羯 葛 渴 遏 堨 餲

What makes it so hard to learn just two thousand characters? Precisely the fact that there is so little overlap. As one works up the scale in Chinese, everything becomes easier, like mixing and matching shirts and ties (radicals and phonetics) in a large wardrobe. In Japanese (the joyo list is like a suitcase), there are few enough combinations to begin (just take another look at the list above), and then they're a sad country song. The words that native speakers know are still there to torment you, but the characters have been eaten by the joyo list.

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In these posts, I hope to give you some of the tools that you will need to tackle these "character problems." I have been teaching a course called Kanji Mastery for five years now, and am planning to put some of my materials together here. Included in that will be a twelve-point plan for gaining mastery. We will tackle those topics in large and small chunks as we proceed in the coming months.

And that brings us, finally, to the very concept of mastery. What might I mean by such a phrase? Let's just paint an image and call it a day. There will be plenty of room in the various posts in the coming months for the discussion of details. Just close your eyes and relax. Envision kanji mastery.

It is a day in the not-too-distant future when, reading along in, let us say, in 雪国 you turn page after page as the story unfolds, and you are mesmerized by the tale itself. Your mind briefly wanders to a time when you never could have done this. Enjoying a challenging novel without misery was beyond your dreams back then, until you braced yourself for serious study toward kanji mastery.

[f] Reading  RF
Now, as the afternoon sun shines through the picture window onto your dictionary. It is in the other room, sitting on a table, unused. It is not that you look down on dictionaries. Far from it—now you read them the way other people read magazines. Now you know how to use a dictionary, and know that you won't need it while enjoying your novel—not in a state of kanji mastery.

You smile, and are about to feel even a bit full of yourself when, by chance, on the middle of page 189 you see something you haven't seen for some time. What is this? Could it be...? Yes, you think so. One of the characters beyond the joyo kanji list has crept in. But this one is even far beyond that, because you have known for a long time that you need to double the joyo list to be a truly excellent reader. No problem. You are on the path to kanji mastery.

There are only a few things left to attain true mastery, and they are within your grasp.

You look at the character, and then at the dictionary. You keep reading, because the story is pulling you along, and you already have rich context for its probable meaning. It can wait.

You are on the very verge of mastery. There is but one more thing. How do you feel?

You turn back to your book, and feel a tingle of exhilaration mixed with joy as you continue to read, for you know that at some point—later tonight, and perhaps over a nice cup of cocoa—you will open your dictionary and ponder your new friend, the new kanji you have never seen before.

You will admire it from all sides—its packaging (as it were), its shape, and its nuances. You will ponder it slowly, treasuring its aesthetic and its substance, and it will cross your mind that only for one other thing do you show such care, such joy, such reverence.

It will be just like opening a package—fresh from Sapporo—of Hokkaido white chocolates.

[g] 白い恋人   AD
 Then you'll know.

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