Most unkindest cut

Ever have one of those days when Chinese characters twist the dagger and shake on salt? In this case the weapon of choice was a sharp chisel:

There I was, in the botanical garden near the beautiful Xiamen offices of Sinoglot, Inc during a pre-Chinese New Year visit. My host, Xiamen head enchilada Randy, was too far down the trail for me to ask, so I was left with only my inflexible brain and its all-too-meager store of Chinese characters, wondering what in the heck 互 was doing on this stone and why it was missing part of its innards.

Naturally, I was completely wrong, as my first available informant laughed and told me. She said it was 工 and this was a common stylized way of stone-carving the character.

Ouch. Not only is 工 (gōng = work) one of the first characters any learner acquires, it was also in a word and context I should have recognized: 竣工, jùngōng, means to “complete work”, and 日期, rìqī, is just “date”. Yet there I was, as dumbfounded as Caesar when he saw Brutus with the dagger*.

Not to worry, though, it was just one little character slip-up, right?

I’m afraid the long-term prospects aren’t any better — no hope of a merciful end to this character assassination business. With thousands of characters making cameos in endless and weird fonts, handwriting, cursives, brush script… there’s only a future that seems closer to, well, slow slicing. In the meantime, if you’ve got an unkind cut story of your own, the sharing might at least be analgesic.

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*Oh yeah, about that post title and theme: Chinese characters as assassins of my limited brainpower? The hyperbole might be indulgent, but at least I didn’t bring up Nazi Germany.

13 responses to “Most unkindest cut”

  1. Robert Delfs says:

    It wouldn’t help with the 大篆 (Big Seal) styllization of 工, but I’m surprised that you include “handwriting [and] cursives” among the “endless and weird fonts” to whose multiplicity you attribute murderous intent – “character assasination”.

    It still surprises me that most Chinese courses today still don’t do much to provide students with even a cursory familiarity with cursive forms (sorry, couldn’t resist that), particularly now that almost all language courses have standardized on 简体字, which in most cases are basically identical to standard cursive forms. (I can assure you that learning cursive handwriting forms wasn’t as easy back when language courses were still taught using 繁体字.) I’ve also been surprised when people with good spoken and (printed) reading abilities have been defeated by a simple handwritten menu in a restaurant or a brief handwritten personal note.

    My own take is that students need to demand more exposure and training in cursive forms, including writing as well as passive recognition. And it doesn’t hurt to ask if you see a character you don’t recognize carved in a stone sign (as Sys did here) or in someone’s “chop”.

    In any case, my own nightmare “unkindest cut” experience with a Chinese character didn’t require any exotic forms or artistic styles of writing. The problem was a character that I stumbled onto in a text I was reading for my course in 2nd year Chinese class. The character was “鼻”. Please keep in mind that this was back in the days of the Mathews Chinese-English dictionary.

    My first thought was that top portion (自) must be the radical. Accordingly, I counted the rest of the strokes, scanned the appropriate list in the radical index pages,then scanned again, starting including the adjacent sections with -1 and +2 additional strokes. No luck.

    Realizing that the center portion (田) was also a radical, I went through the same exercise, with no more success.

    By now, I was getting desperate. On a hunch, I checked to see if 兀 might be a radical too. Actually, I misread the 兀 component of the chacter as 廾 (which is a radical). What’s slightly interesting is that this (with 廾, not 兀) is also how the character 鼻 is printed in a Japanese character font). But after a third counting of strokes and scanning of the radical index items, I still hadn’t found the character. At which point I gave up.

    It never occurred to me to look at the very end of the list, where 鼻 in its entirety turns out to be the 209th of the 214 radicals. Had I done so, I would have found the solution that lay, quite literally, just in front of my nose.


  2. Syz says:

    Robert, you’ve reminded me of what was supposed to be my solemn vow never to whine about characters because — although I was looking them up by radical when I first started — I live in and have embraced an age in which computers do much of the work for me.

    Anyway, that’s a great story and I’ll try to remember it with humility every time I encounter something about characters that seems “hard”.

  3. Kellen Parker says:

    Stylisation kinda blows when it comes to legibility. I once had a student ask me if we (foreigners, English speakers) actually wrote in that way, that illegible way. Cursive is what they meant. The horror on their face when I said yes was something I wish I had a photo of.

  4. Zifre says:

    Cursive seems to be on the way out in English, at least here in America. Plenty of high school students I know can’t even read it, let alone write it. I can sort of write it, but it takes me at least 2x the time, which kind of defeats the purpose (so I never use it).

    I’d say it’s perfectly possible to get around in America without knowing how to read or write cursive. But reading bad handwriting (e.g. doctors with their notoriously illegible scrawls) is a must.

  5. Jean says:

    If you are really stuck with a character like this, you can try the Dictionary of Chinese Character Variants :

    For your example you can find : where your variant is given and linked to 工.

    I kind of like these variants, but they are hard enough to defeat me most of the time. I am too quick in assuming a new unknown character instead of trying to find from the context. My favorite is 个+个 for 竹 :

    By the way, each time people talk about cursive handwriting (for example quite often of Slashdot where most readers are americans), I doubt we are talking about the same thing. Cursive is mostly writing without separating the letters right ? I don’t understand how people can *not* prefer cursive, and how they can write slower using it ? I remember when I was small, we wanted to write like this but had to learn first the proper way, and only then were allowed to write as we prefer. American kids don’t have to write anything by hand ?

  6. Carl says:

    Americans teach their kids the so-called “Palmer method” of cursive. Instead of just meaning that you drag the pen from letter to letter, you end up changing the shapes of the letters, sometimes significantly (I don’t think anyone over 12 remembers how the “proper” Q is supposed to be written), and it ends up making writing into a chore.

    Personally, I write in a mixture of manuscript and cursive. Grabbing a random piece of paper off my desk, I find that I wrote “as the starting point” as (dash for connected, space for isolated) “a-s t-h-e s-t a-r t i n-g p o i n t”.

    No real logic to it, but it’s my handwriting.

  7. Jihong says:

    To be honest, I think every learner of Chinese should at least start out using a paper dictionary. Ok, so now people use web-based ones, but it a great way to learn about the whole radicals concept.

  8. justrecently says:

    The best way to learn Chinese is to sit down at a table, with no unrelated stuff on it, some pieces of paper, a Chinese text (be it learning material, a newspaper, or a instruction manual), and a good Chinese dictionary with a radical section, as Jiong said.
    Students learned Chinese more successfully when there was no internet – on the whole, that is, and as far as my observation goes, even though – or because – the internet provides you with tons of formal and informal learning material. A simple learning environment is the best learning environment.
    Even without stylization knowledge, you’ll hardly read a styled (or stylized?) “gong” for “hu” if you learned Chinese with the old basic means, at least for the first one or two years.

  9. Peter Nelson says:


    The best way to learn Chinese depends on the individual. For me, a dictionary is useful insofar as it provides good usage notes and is easy to look up words in. Based on these (reasonable–I would venture) criteria, is wayyyy better than any real-life dictionary I’ve used. If you really prefer the laborious process of looking up a character based on its radical and stroke count, then by all means continue. I can see your point about having a simple learning environment, but again, different strokes for different folks (and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-bee).

    Regarding your comment that “you’ll hardly ever read a [stylized] ‘gong’ for ‘hu’ if you learned Chinese with the old basic means”: For God’s sake, why? If I do say so myself, my Chinese education was pretty old school. Nonetheless, my reaction to a stylized “gong” was pretty much the same as the author (Is that 互? Why is it written wrong? Perhaps it’s some exotic character I’ve never run into.). So, would you mind explaining your logic? Or was it just a vitriolic “Get off my lawn!”, full of sound and fury, signifying… your strong preference for paper dictionaries?

  10. justrecently says:

    I’m getting the impression that you have taken some of my previous comment personal, Mr. Nelson, or that my comment reveals something of my character to you which you find strange. Anyway – I’m not furious when I commented, and I wasn’t in a competitive mood.

    My argument about paper and pen was a reaction to Jiong’s comment (#vii) which referred to paper dictionaries. Handwriting rather than typing into a text processing box. That’s my personal experience, as I said before, but there seems to be some more or less reliable research about handwriting, too.

    As for the stylized character “gong”, both the number of strokes (the middle one counts as one stroke, no matter if it goes straight down, or with a slip to the right in between) and the context (”work to be completed by…”) told me that it has to be a three-stroke, not a four-stroke character.

    I think it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that you know the number of strokes better when having written it by hand yourself, rather than having keyed it in. Obviously, that is only a contribution to a discussion, and nothing proven – but if you think I suggested that noone should question what I think, you have gotten me wrong. I take it that learning experiences are the issue.

  11. Peter Nelson says:

    My apologies. It seemed to me at the time that you were making a statement about the categorical superiority of your preferred study method, when in fact you were simply adding your 2 cents in response to Jiong’s comment.

    You have also clarified your point–which I found so mysterious–about the stylized 工. I agree that learning handwriting makes it easier to distinguish look-a-like characters (as well as providing some other benefits). In my case, however, it wasn’t much help. I learned only the 8 basic strokes plus a couple of compound strokes. I would have analyzed the squiggly stroke (竖折折) as a vertical (竖) followed by an over-and-down stroke (横折). Now I know!

  12. justrecently says:

    I think my #viii comment was lacking the information that I wrote under #x – so I’d say it was a somewhat hasty and innocent comment. Reading it again, it seems to me that it can be read as if it was a try to trigger a grind competition.

    Thanks for bringing back to my attention. I came across it some two years ago, but lost track of it somehow. When a search for a radical seems to become hopeless, box top-right is kind of a sheet anchor.

  13. Peter Nelson says:

    Yeah, I’m definitely a fan of nciku. For me, what really makes it are the examples sentences. Sometimes usage information (e.g., how arguments to a predicate are expressed grammatically) is hard to fit into a definition, but a quick scan through some examples will sort it out. Also, it seems to have definitions for more words than other online dictionaries I’ve used.

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