Ice-skating coconuts having bad hair days

Next week we’ll be up against Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year. This has absolutely nothing to do with the Chinese book I just bought, but until somebody gives me a box of chocolates, or preferably, a red envelope stuffed with holiday cash, I’ll just sulk and study my new book.

It may be solitary study but I’m not alone. The world is full of people digging into these kinds of books. Saipan’s pipeline into the Chinese tourism industry is just one example of the dynamic.

Chinese New Year is, traditionally, an occasion to sweep out the old concerns and start things with a fresh outlook. So I’m going to take a fresh look at the written side of Chinese for those who are contemplating joining the fun.

One of the first things I encountered when bellying up to Chinese was that the written language and the spoken language are essentially separate things. Some teaching methods use an “integrated” approach; they combine the written side and the spoken side. Other methods, by contrast, don’t combine them.

Books on the written side of the ledger range from dry-and-scholarly on one hand to creative-and-quirky on the other. As for the latter approach, the creativity comes in when devising ways to memorize the exotic characters that constitute the Chinese script. These ways can involve stories, mnemonic devices, or even cartoons. The basic idea is to either find, or invent, patterns that allow us to associate characters with ideas or with other characters.

If you’ve ever gazed at the sky and noted that one cloud looks like a fish, another one looks like Abraham Lincoln, and that the cloud over the beach looks like an ice-skating coconut having a bad hair day, and if you can then manage to make up a story that involves all three characters, then you might enjoy studying Chinese script.

Which brings us to the book I just bought. No, it doesn’t have any coconuts in the clouds, but it is based on using creativity as a learning tool. Chinese Characters: Learn & Remember 2,178 Characters and Their Meanings (, 496 pp., $24.95 but I paid more), by Alan Hoenig, Ph.D., was published in 2009. That’s reasonably recent by book standards, but it’s not easy to find these days. I paid a premium for it, $35, from a used bookseller.

I surmise that it’s a self-published effort, but the associated website doesn’t seem to work and the phone number listed in the book isn’t a live one, so I don’t really know what’s going on.

I bought the book so I could try to break some logjams in my vocabulary. That’s because some characters, no matter how hard I try to memorize them, elude my grasp. So it’s not a front-to-back read for me, but rather just one more tool in the box to try when the occasion arises.

The book often makes effective use of creativity and it is very well-indexed. It is focused on individual characters (in the simplified script, which is used in mainland China and Singapore) and their basic meanings. It does not offer lists of words that can be derived from the characters, but that’s fine with me, since I didn’t buy the book for that realm anyway.

I’ve found that the book I turn to the most when studying Chinese writing is Reading and Writing Chinese, third edition, by William McNaughton (Tuttle Publishing, 311 pp., $18.95).

In some cases this book has helpful hints for memorization. In other cases it doesn’t. It’s at the scholarly end of the spectrum, but it’s still user-friendly and never pedantic or stale. It has a lot of information.

A book that’s more creative than the one I just mentioned, but which offers a smaller inventory of material, is Learning Chinese Characters by Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews (Tuttle Publishing, 383 pp., $29.95). This was my first book on Chinese writing and it was a great first step. It has a friendly and light-hearted tone that helped ease me into the language.

I don’t play the game of speculating whether one book is better than some other book. I’m not limited to buying only one book. So if a book looks useful, I’ll buy it.

For the sake of context, I’ll submit that even meager progress in Chinese can gobble up 1,000 hours if you consider study time, class time, and commuting-to-class time. How much is your time worth? This is a notion worth considering when contemplating the comparative costs of books or other materials.

Well, such are my thoughts as we close one lunar year and face the start of another. I wish you good fortune, and may your horizons be plentiful with ice-skating coconuts.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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