Warp and Weft: Chinese Language and Culture

March 12, 2009

With the rise of China as a global power triggering increasing demand for people with knowledge of Chinese language and culture, Keekok Lee's new book is undoubtedly a timely and more than welcome addition to the existing literature.

Unlike most publications in this area, which are intended for a specialist audience, this book will provide readers with an informative yet light-hearted read. It is a time machine that will take you on a sightseeing journey into China's past to visit its "scenic spots" of historical and cultural interest.

At first sight, it might be surprising that a book on Chinese language and culture should be entitled Warp and Weft. This is actually a clever yet appropriate metaphor. It is across the warp of continuous use of Chinese script that the weft of Chinese culture has been interwoven and carried down through the ages.

This book comprises three parts, with the first two setting the scene by providing introductory and background information to help readers understand the third.

As the book is intended for non-specialists, it begins by demonstrating how "linguistic excavation", which is used in this book to tell fascinating stories about the culture and history underlying Chinese words, can be useful in digging out the origins of modern English words such as beef and hocus-pocus.

Lee also compares charades and solutions in Chinese, English and French to demonstrate the deconstruction of Chinese characters, so that readers have an idea of where the stories about Chinese words in the text stem from.

The second part presents a linguistic and historical account of the Chinese language by focusing on the six well-known principles of character formation and use.

According to these principles, Chinese characters can be grouped into six categories, some of which are frequently referred to in the book.

As Lee's linguistic excavation relies more on various archaic forms of Chinese script than modern Chinese writing, she has also helpfully included a brief account of archaic Chinese writing and reforms of its writing system through the ages.

The third part is the meaty portion of the book, which comprises a number of sections focusing on various themes, including surviving and living, rites and rituals, kith and kin, male and female, leisure and pleasure, and war and peace, with each section telling fascinating tales about Chinese characters and words associated with a particular theme.

The text also includes a table and three maps summarising its historical and archaeological information, in addition to a very brief bibliography for readers who wish to explore Chinese language and culture more seriously.

The contents as outlined above are presented in a lucid style. Lee is also very informal and reader-friendly in her jottings, so much so that the book gives the impression that sometimes she will gladly wander off-topic.

While this informal style is certainly appropriate for a book intended to provide a pleasurable read, it is also less surprising to spot in it than in a more formal and serious academic work as many as 18 errors and typos of various kinds relating to encyclopaedic knowledge, the phonetic transcription of Chinese words, as well as mistakes in English spelling and grammar.

For example, Xi'an and Changsha, which are capitals of Shaanxi and Hunan provinces respectively, become parts of Henan province in this book; the Chinese measuring unit for distance, li (500 metres), is glossed as "roughly a kilometre or two-thirds of a mile"; and when Lee says "to some up" instead of "to sum up", is it likely that she is using a "phonetic loan"?

Nevertheless, just as a flaw cannot mar a jade, such slips of the keystroke will not cast a shadow over the informative and entertaining values of this book. As such, I am happy to recommend it to anyone who is interested in or curious about Chinese language and culture - you do not have to know Chinese script to enjoy this book, although even a native Chinese speaker like me finds it both informative and enjoyable to read.

Warp and Weft: Chinese Language and Culture

By Keekok Lee. Eloquent Books, 312pp, £17.52. ISBN 9781606932476. Published 24 October 2008

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