A real character

Updated: 2013-01-11 07:21

By Zhang Lei (China Daily)

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A real character

To Sears, hanzi (characters) are symbols of exoticism and a cultural heritage. Liu Xiaozhuo / China Daily

Charmed by Chinese on a visit to Taiwan in 1972, Richard Sears has dedicated decades to researching the ancient language

Richard Sears has been absorbed in his work for the past 20 years. His aim has been to make Chinese characters' etymological information available online so that users can trace them back to their original form, as they were first carved or written on bamboo slips or silk more than 2,000 years ago.

Although the 62-year-old American from Tennessee launched his etymology website in 2002, it elicited little response among Chinese netizens until last year, when two Chinese newspapers published his story. That led to Chinese bloggers praising his work as well as bemoaning that even government-funded cultural promotion agencies had been unable to create such a good website for all those fascinated by Chinese characters.

Currently, his website provides three former character variations when you type one Chinese character in the search engine - the seal script form, bronze inscriptional form, and oracle bone inscriptional form - alongside illustrated etymological information.

Despite his recent success, Sears, who lives in Beijing, isn't content and believes there is still much work to be done, "especially with those Chinese characters that are not easy to trace their former shape and where there are contradictions in different books".

"I am also thinking about scanning cursive Chinese characters and indexing them into the database," he says.

In the past 20 years, Sears has compiled a database of more than 96,000 archaic Chinese characters using three ancient books. The main seal character database comes from the 11,109 clearly printed characters found in the ancient text of ShuoWenJiezi, 31,876 oracle bone characters from XuJiaGuWenBian, and 24,223 bronze characters from JinWenBian.

In addition, he provides a Mandarin, Taiwanese and Cantonese speech and phonetic database for each character. And with alternate seal characters from LiuShuTong, a text of a similar vintage, he presents all the seal forms that are available. For example, the character has 16 seal scripts, 20 bronze and 81 oracle variations. And there is also a complete etymological analysis of the 6,552 most common modern Chinese characters.

"The Chinese saying goes 'live until you are old, learn until you are old'. It means we should be learning all our lives. My main interest is languages. I am fluent in Chinese, and have studied several other languages with varying success," he says.

"While scanning all these ancient characters, I have found that 90 percent of these characters can be traced back to their etymology, but for 50 percent different scholars have different opinions, and for the remaining 10 percent no one knows their original shape."

Almost all of the work has been done by Sears alone.

"By indexing all these ancient characters, I have gradually become familiar with the evolution of the character from its original shape, which is closer to the Chinese language's initial ideogram principle, that is easy for me as a learner to understand the original meaning behind each character. For example, suddenly I can realize why a particular character has those kinds of strokes," he says.

"With the advantage of computerized etymology, I can do all kinds of Chinese character and text analysis, and this ongoing online research project can help me better identify the errors or discrepancies, and they can be corrected much easier in a systematic way."

Charmed by the Chinese language during his first visit to Taiwan in 1972 when he was just 22 years old, he decided to learn the language. But during his studies, he says he felt daunted by the prospect of learning to write around 5,000 characters and 60,000 character combinations, many of which have no apparent logic in their stroke formations.

Sears says the lack of even one single book in English that could explain the etymology of Chinese characters spurred him to create his own website dedicated to the subject, but it was not until a life-or-death incident that he finally started the work.

"In 1994, I had a severe heart attack back in my hometown Knoxville, Tennessee that nearly took my life. At that moment I had this urge to realize my dream of setting up the website. What if there was only one year for me to live?" he says.

"Fortunately, after successful bypass surgery, I survived and began to digitalize Chinese characters by hiring people to scan them for me."

The costs involved in realizing the project - including books, wages and travel - were not easy for Sears. In 2002, he ran out of money and had to sell his house to move into a single room apartment. The project has cost him $300,000 in total and his marriage, when his wife left following the sale of their home.

Last year he moved to Tianjin, China to continue his work, later securing work at Beijing Normal University as a physics teacher.

His love of Chinese characters has earned him the nickname Uncle Hanzi (Hanzi is Mandarin for character).

"To me as a foreigner, these symbols mean an exoticism and a different cultural heritage that is beyond the boundaries of nationality."


(China Daily 01/11/2013 page21)