Find Chinese characters online by drawing them with your mouse

Nciku, a Web site that bills itself as “more than a dictionary,” has a nifty feature that allows users to find Chinese characters by drawing them with a mouse.

interface for the character-drawing tool

As you draw, possible character matches will appear in the box to the right of your drawing, with the results refined as your drawing progresses. You don’t need to know the canonical stroke order to get this to work, nor do your calligraphy skills need to be perfect, as this example shows.
, showing the results with a sloppily drawn ? (the 'pin' of 'Pinyin')

Once you see the correct character offered as a choice, click on it and it will be entered into the search box for the site’s online dictionary. This dictionary feature can handle multiple-character input and will even prompt you with likely choices to fill out your search.

via Keywords


This week’s rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is The Prestige of Writing: 文, Letter, Picture, Image, Ideography, by Haun Saussy, who is currently a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Yale.

This work contains a memorable, wry disclaimer:

WARNING. The following section contains passages from the writings of Ernest Fenollosa which may be objectionable to some readers. The reproduction of these statements does not indicate endorsement or approval of their content by the author or editors, who decline all responsibility for any damages, direct or incidental, that may be attributed to the reading of them.

The author explains: “The need for such a disclaimer was brought home to me by the reactions of two sinological colleagues who refereed an earlier version of this paper.” Just in case anyone’s wondering why that might be the case, see Fennolosa, Pound and the Chinese Character, by George A. Kennedy, and The Ideographic Myth, by John DeFrancis.

Here is the introduction:

The disparagement of writing is a motif common, I suppose, to all traditions that have writing. Writing is often seen as inadequate to represent speech or thought. But another response to the inadequacy of writing has been to exalt some other kind of writing — occasionally a language reformer’s pet project, but more frequently the writing of the angels, the writing of the citizens of some utopia, of the scholars of some faraway kingdom, or of the forces of nature itself. Imagined writings of this sort telescope critique and critique’s wishful compensation. They attribute wonders — praestigia — to a medium most often noticed in its falterings.

Since Chinese writing became known in Europe, it has often been pressed into service as the model of this perfected writing. This enthusiasm must appear outlandish to those whose ‘native’ writing-system is Chinese. But it is not enough to show that the indigenous and foreign perceptions of Chinese writing are at variance, or even that the tales told of Chinese script do not stand up to linguistic scrutiny: there is an inventive element to all intercultural interpretation, a fit between its observations and the intellectual needs of its proponents, that expert testimony simply shoves aside. The proper way to analyze an intellectual tangle of this sort, it seems to me, is not to hold it to the standard of specialist univocity, but to situate it ethnographically among the conceptions it echoes or answers. Which aspects of which utopias still beckon, and which have definitely gone on to feed intellectual history, is another question deserving patient consideration.

This is issue no. 75 of Sino-Platonic Papers. It was originally published in February 1997.

Web site for stroke-order practice

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has put online new a Web site devoted to stroke order for Chinese characters.

Unlike the older MOE stroke-order online handbook, this new site provides animations of the stroke order for 4,808 of the most frequently used traditional Chinese characters. And they really are traditional, too. For example, a Pinyin search for tai (it doesn’t accept tone marks or numbers) doesn’t return 台, even though it is more commonly seen in Taiwan than the full form of 臺. But perhaps that’s a glitch, since 台 is within the system, as a search for that particular character reveals.

Users can also test their knowledge of official stroke order, since each character’s animation also comes with an interactive feature in which users trace the strokes with their mouse. (Click on the button to the top right of the character.) It can be a little picky, as I suppose befits the prescriptive nature of the site. (In the real world, people write many characters using orders other than what Taiwan’s Ministry of Education and your Mandarin teacher might tell you is the One True Way. But that’s another matter.)

Although there’s no English interface at present, the files are labeled in English, so positioning your mouse over the navigation elements will usually reveal enough for non-Hanzi readers to make their way around.

Unfortunately, the site doesn’t appear to work with anything other than @#$%! Internet Explorer. Also, at first the search feature allowed the entry of no more than four letters, making it impossible to use Pinyin (Hanyu Pinyin is offered along with Taiwan’s official Tongyong Pinyin) to look up characters for, say, zhong and guang, or for the Pinyin syllables with the most letters: chuang, shuang, and zhuang (not counting -r forms); but someone there is on the ball, since that was fixed after I wrote the ministry about it yesterday.

partial screenshot, showing the character ? (TAI) being written

site and further reading:

Sexism in Mandarin: a study

This week’s free rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is Covert Sexism in Mandarin Chinese (1.9 MB PDF), by David Moser (of Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard fame).

Here’s part of the introduction:

Like other cultures, China has a long history of sexist social conventions, and the Chinese language is pervaded with evidence of these. Research in this area has usually sought to identify and catalog aspects of Chinese that embody these sexist cultural traditions, such as sexist idioms, demeaning words for wife, derogatory terms of address for women, or the large number of characters containing the female radical (女) with negative connotations. Such elements tend to be rather easily identifiable and have been some of the earliest aspects to be targeted for linguistic reform. (The Chinese Communist Party, for example, in their attempts to elevate the status of women and eradicate vestiges of feudalism, has from time to time officially discouraged use of pejorative terms of address for women and wives.) Notable contributions have already been made in such research, but there are certain kinds of sexism in the Chinese language that are more subtly embedded in the grammar in such a way that they often escape conscious attention. This article attempts to shed light on some of these phenomena, since it is often in these hidden patterns of linguistic usage that sexist assumptions and notions are most powerfully present.

This is issue no. 74 of Sino-Platonic Papers. It was first published in January 1997.

China shifting its position on traditional Chinese characters?

Many Web sites in China are running the story that Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese scholars have reached an agreement on unification of Chinese characters — and that this involves using many traditional characters.

If any “agreement” has indeed been reached, it probably won’t mean much, if anything at all — certainly not to the government of China. But the number of sites running this story and the prominence of some of the members of the PRC delegation make me wonder if this might just be a little more than much ado about nothing.

Zhōng xīn wǎng 11 yuè 5 rì diàn jù hǎiwài méitǐ pīlù, shǔyú Hànzì wénhuà quān de Zhōngguó, Rìběn, Hánguó Sānguó hé Zhōngguó Táiwān dìqū de xuézhě juédìng zhìzuò tǒngyī zìxíng (wénzì de xíngzhuàng) de 5000-6000 ge chángyòng Hànzì biāozhǔn zì.

Hánguó “Cháoxiǎn rìbào” kānzǎi wénzì jí shìpín bàodào chēng, dì-bā jiè “guójì Hànzì yántǎohuì” shàngzhōu zài Zhōngguó Běijīng chuánméi dàxué lóngzhòng zhàokāi, huìyì yóu Zhōngguó Jiàoyùbù yǔyán wénzì yìngyòng yánjiūsuǒ hé guójiā Hànyǔ guójì tuīguǎng lǐngdǎo xiǎozǔ bàngōngshì zhǔbàn. Huìyì jìhuà jiāng Yuènán, Mǎláixīyà, Xīnjiāpō, Xiāng Gǎng, Àomén xīshōu wéi xīn huìyuán, kuòdà Hànzì shǐyòng guójiā huò dìqū de cānyù fànwéi. Huìyì juédìng zhìzuò gè guójiā dìqū Hànzì “bǐjiào yánjiū cídiǎn”, zhújiàn tǒngyī gèguó shǐyòng de zìxíng. Huìyì hái jiù míngnián zài shǒu ěr jǔxíng dì jiǔ jiè yántǎohuì, gèguó fēnbié shèzhì 3 míng liánluòyuán (yánjiū fùzérén) dáchéng le xiéyì.

Jù bàodào, “guójì Hànzì yántǎohuì” yú 1991 nián fāqǐ. Qí mùdìzàiyú, yùfáng Dōngyà guójiā yīnwèi shǐyòng Zhōngguó Táiwān de fántǐzì, Zhōngguó de jiǎntǐzì, Rìběn de lüèzì děng bùtóng xíngzhuàng de Hànzì chǎnshēng hùnluàn, quèdìng chángyòng Hànzì de zìshù, tuījìn zìxíng biāozhǔnhuà (tǒngyī).

Běnjiè huìyì yǔ 2003 nián zài Rìběn Dōngjīng jǔxíng de dì-qī jiè yántǎohuì xiānggé 4 nián. Jù bàodào, běn cì huìyì tíyì, 5000 duō ge chángyòng biāozhǔn zì jiāng yǐ “fántǐzì” wéizhǔ jìnxíng tǒngyī, rúguǒ gèbié Hànzì yǒu jiǎntǐzì, jiù jìxù bǎoliú.

Chūxí cǐcì huìyì de Zhōngfāng dàibiǎo yǒu Wáng Tiěkūn (Jiàoyùbù yǔyán wénzì xìnxī guǎnlǐ sī fù sīzhǎng, Zhōngguó Wénzì Xuéhuì fùhuìzhǎng jiān mìshūzhǎng), Huáng Dékuān (Ānhuī Dàxué xiàozhǎng, Zhōngguó Wénzì Xuéhuì huìzhǎng), Sū Péichéng (Běijīng Dàxué jiàoshòu), Lǐ Dàsuì (Běijīng Dàxué jiàoshòu); Hánguó fāng dàibiǎo yǒu Lǐ Dàchún (Guójì Hànzì Zhènxīng Xiéhuì huìzhǎng), Lǐ Yīngbǎi (Shǒu’ěr Dàxué míngyù jiàoshòu), Jiāng Xìnhàng (Chéngjūnguǎn Dàxué míngyù jiàoshòu), Chén Tàixià (Rénjǐ Dàxué shǒuxí jiàoshòu), Jīn Yànzhōng (Gāolí Dàxué jiàoshòu); Rìběn fāng dàibiǎo yǒu Zuǒténg Gòngyuè (Zhùbō Dàxué jiàoshòu), Qīngyuán Chúnpíng (qīnshàn bù huìzhǎng); Zhōngguó Táiwān dìqū [sic] dàibiǎo yǒu Xǔ Xuérén (“Zhōngguó Wénzì Xiéhuì” lǐshìzhǎng).

source: Zhōngguo, Rìběn, Hánguó yǔ Zhōngguó Táiwān dìqū xuéjiè jiù “tǒngyī Hànzì” dáchéng xiéyì (中日韩与中国台湾地区学界就“统一汉字”达成协议), November 5, 2007

variant Chinese characters and Unicode

A submission to the Unicode Consortium’s Ideographic [sic] Variation Database for the “Combined registration of the Adobe-Japan1 collection and of sequences in that collection” is available for review through November 25. This submission, PRI 108, is a revision of PRI 98.

This set “enumerates 23,058 glyphs” and contains 14,664 tetragraphs (Chinese characters / kanji). About three quarters of Unicode pertains to Chinese characters.

Two sets of charts are available: the complete one (4.4 MB PDF), which shows all the submitted sequences, and the partial one (776 KB PDF), which shows “only the characters for which multiple sequences are submitted.”

Below is a more or less random sample of some of the tetragraphs.

Initially I was going to combine this announcement with a rant against Unicode’s continued misuse of the term “ideographic.” But I’ve decided to save that for a separate post.

sample image of some of the kanji variants in the proposal