Graphical etymologies of Chinese and Japanese characters, a database and a studybook

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The project:

I’ve created an online database for 40,000 Chinese and Japanese characters, at characterdb.ketmia.net and I’m adding graphical etymologies.

The database lists relevant info for each character from a wide rage of sources and is already quite informative. But I’m adding more sources.

Importantly, I’m adding graphical etymologies (history and explanation of the form of the graphs, with additional linguistic information if useful). I want to add graphical etymologies for about 3000 characters. My aim is to make the entries as much up to date as possible, and expose all my sources.

I’ve written An introduction to Chinese writing aimed at the layperson to explain how the signs that make up Chinese writing are different from letters, and to give the necessary background for the graphical etymologies that I am adding to the database. (Currently the text is protected against bots: log in as guest, password guest.)

I maintain the website and the database on a VPS using Perl.

Since many of the graphs I deal with now function as building blocks in other characters I hope to gain momentum as I finish more entries. A progress page is here.

I’ve decided to use my progress thus far to use for creating a study book for learning to remember and write Chinese and Japanese characters. This book will focus more on the most recent methods of more effectively and productively learning characters than other books in that genre. While I also want to include the graphical etymologies of characters, my approach will be quite different from Alex Adler’s recent The World of Kanji. While I approve of his dismissal of Heisig’s method, I think Adler makes quite a few wrong choices, as a result of which his book is still rather boring, deceptive, and not optimally effective. Stay tuned!

My background

I’ve got an MA in Japanese language and culture (Leiden, the Netherlands). Japanese writing uses Chinese characters, and as a result I got interested in de development of the Chinese writing system, and in the history and logic of writing systems in general.

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