China, Empire of the Written Symbol

Cecilia Lindqvist

translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate
Harvill Press 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
In China, Empire of the Written Symbol, Lindqvist takes around 150 of the oldest and most central characters of written Chinese and uses them as the foundation for an introduction to Chinese culture.
"... despite the huge changes the written language has undergone, the foundation of the modern language is still the original characters. Man and woman, water and mountain, tree and silk — alll keep recurring individually or in combination ... Regardless of which function these basic characters have in the various compositions, they keep their identity, their pictorial clarity. Once one has learned to recognize and understand them, they provide a key not only to the written language but also to the reality from which they once came, as well as to life lived today."

The result will have particular appeal to those learning to read and write the language, or interested in the calligraphy, but it makes an introduction to Chinese culture suitable for anyone. It is a gorgeous volume which integrates text and image superbly, finding a balance between the visual and the textual which is both pleasing and somehow fitting for the subject matter.

The pictographic origins of Chinese characters are often clearest in examples from Shang oracle bones and Shang and Zhou bronzes, going back to the second millennium BC. The characters were standardised in the Han period, around 300 BC, and remained pretty much unchanged until some were simplified in 1958. This is explained in a brief introduction.

The bulk of the work goes through characters one after the other, dividing them up into sections on "Man, Mankind", "Water and Mountains", "Wild animals", "Domestic animals", "Carts, Roads, and Boats", "Farming", "Wine and Jars", "Hemp and Silk", "Bamboo and Tree", "Tools and Weapons", "Roofs and Houses", "Books and Musical Instruments", and "Numbers and Other Abstract Characters". The standard form of a character is shown, alongside examples from oracle bones and bronzes and (if it exists) the simplified form. The text describes its origin and offers interpretations of its early history.

"The oldest known picture of a Chinese sheep is on a fragment of pottery about six thousand years old. The horns are full of strength and the eyes, rigidly sheeplike, stare straight out over the millennia."
[ with a drawing ]
"There are great similarities between that picture and the first written characters for sheep, though these are only half as old. Some of the characters are still clear pictures, others have already become stylized characters, in which the intense eyes of the sheep have been reduced to a straight stroke."
[ with three examples from oracle bones and three from bronzes, alongside the standard character ]

Lindqvist sometimes offers her own interpretations and ideas for the origin and meaning of characters, but mostly follows (and acknowledges) standard authorities.

Accompanying the descriptions of the characters themselves are discussions of the place of the items or concepts in Chinese culture and history. Sometimes these are quite lengthy: the discussion accompanying "boat" and "sail" is a five page mini-essay on Chinese boats and ships and their history.

"To this day, a great deal of transport in China is by boat, inland as well. In the Yangzi delta and the great watershed areas of the large rivers that run through the plains, waterways are almost as common as ordinary roads. Sails glide silently past rice and vegetable fields, with no sound other than the wind whistling in the rushes and the water rippling around the steering oar — a surreal experience, at least for Westerners used to traffic fumes and noise as an inevitable part of transport."
There is the occasional personal note in this, but it never drifts towards travelogue or (auto)biography.

Lindqvist ends with a brief look at Chinese characters more generally, at their construction through ideographic compounds, loan characters, derived meanings, and the use of radical plus phonetic compounds. The complications produced by phonetic change over time are only touched on, with broader linguistics eschewed. An appendix looks at character stroke order, with details for all the characters covered.

All of this is accompanied by black and white photographs, of modern scenes and items as well as of art works and archaeological finds — a sheep's head from a Shang bronze, for example, or photographs of boats in Suzhou. Thirty pages of colour photographs are included as a separate section.

Note: China, Empire of the Written Symbol was published in 1991, by Harvill in the United Kingdom and by Addison-Wesley in the United States (as China: Empire of Living Symbols). It was out of print for many years, but fortunately Da Capo has brought out a paperback edition.

January 2003 [updated July 2008]

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%T China, Empire of the Written Symbol
%A Lindqvist, Cecilia
%M Swedish
%F Tate, Joan
%I Harvill Press
%D 1991
%O hardcover, halftones, colour photographs, index
%G ISBN 0002721619
%P 424pp