Philology Vignettes

Do I really need to learn Chinese to read Chinese characters?

On the high-speed train from Malaga to Cordoba, I surreptitiously watched as the woman sitting next to me unpacked her bag. Sandwich, drink, napkins, a serving of fresh fruit, and a book filled her train table. Sitting next to the window and now trapped by this woman’s overburdened tray table, I was feeling claustrophobic, and wondered why she needed all that for a two train ride. My plan – to watch out the window as the Spanish countryside sidled by. Then I noticed that the book the woman was reading, was in Chinese. And she had red hair, green eyes, and peachy-pink skin.

Of course there are Westerners who learn Mandarin or Cantonese or Korean or Japanese, but I wondered – can you learn to read Chinese characters without learning Chinese? I read somewhere that Mandarin and Cantonese, while having entirely different vocabularies, use the same written characters. So a person who speaks Mandarin, would “read” the characters in Mandarin. And the Cantonese speaker would read the exact same characters in Cantonese. So, could I read those same characters in English?

So now, I’ve mentally moved from feeling disdainful of this woman, to wondering about her history and background. Did she really learn Chinese? Did she live in China? What interested her in Chinese? What was her book about? What do the Chinese write about that is different from English subjects? I began a mission to learn – about China – it’s history, language, and culture.

The next year, I set out on a trip to China. During the week of my trip, I memorized the two symbols used to write “Hangzhou” – I could verify that I got on the correct bus from Pu Dong Airport in Shanghai to Hangzhou. I learned the symbols for “exit”, “mountain”, “person”. Most everything was written in Chinese, except ads for eating healthy and the notice on the side of the city bus informing me that explosives are not permitted on the bus. By the end of my week trip, I felt certain that I could learn Chinese characters, but I remained unconvinced that I could skip learning Chinese to actually read a book.

Last Spring when Covid hit the USA and work became non-existent, I spent some time studying China’s history via Harvard’s EdX online History of China series. One of the courses had a section on poetry, which included basic information about types of paper, ink, brushes, and various writing script styles. Watching the video of some scholar writing out the poetry on scrolls of paper, captured my fascination. But alas, life got super-busy, and Chinese language and characters got shunted to the back-burner.

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