Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning

J. Marshall Unger

University of Hawai`i Press, 2003.

Search bookstores for this title.

Publisher's page for this title.

"In this informative and entertaining book, once and for all, J. Marshall Unger thoroughly demolishes the notion that Chinese characters directly convey meaning without any reference to specific languages and cultural contexts. To do so, he unleashes an amazing array of weapons, ranging from the perceptions of a famous comedian, the techniques of specialists in memorization, the secrets of shorthand, the mysteries of probability, computer science, and artificial intelligence, to the profundities of philosophy. With a razor-sharp mind and deft pen, he exposes the self-contradictory folly of those who would assert some sort of independent, transcendental status for Chinese characters. Anyone who reads this book from beginning to end--parts of it are easy and fun, others are challenging and demanding--will surely come to the same conclusion as the author: in reality, there is no such thing as an ideogram." -- from the foreword by Victor H. Mair


  1. Agony and bliss
    • Six myths about Chinese characters
    • Twentieth-century chinoiserie
    • Andreas Müller: fraud or genius?
  2. Cryptograms vs. pictograms
    • The notorious Yukaghir "love letter"
    • The classification of writing systems
    • But isn't a picture worth a thousand words?
  3. The Great Wall of China and other exotic fables
    • The handwriting's on the wall
    • How we really read
  4. Dave Barry vs. the intellectuals
    • Obviously a joke ... or is it?
    • The real reasons that Japanese is hard to read
  5. How would a magician memorize Chinese characters?
    • An extraordinary man
    • The three techniques
    • Applying the techniques to kanji
  6. Lord Chesterfield and the Mandarins
    • Longhand,shorthand,and calligraphy
    • A sample of Gregg
    • "We're not in Kansas anymore!"
  7. Where do hunches come from?
    • Beyond the primacy of speech
    • Three notions of probability
    • The analogy with semantics
    • More about probability paradoxes
  8. In the basement under the Chinese Room
    • John Searle's Chinese Room
    • The duplex house
    • Home products
    • Networking East Asia
  9. Converging strands: can "ideogram" be salvaged?
    • The emerging paradigm
    • Dialogism
    • Integrational semiology
    • Language/brain coevolution
    • Death of the ideogram
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index