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China: Empire of Living Symbols Paperback – May 6, 2008

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 424 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (May 6, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306816091
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306816093
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 7.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #264,515 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Many of the 50,000 Chinese characters in use today can be traced back to ancient, inscribed oracle bones and bronzes. Drawing on archeological finds of recent decades, Lindqvist, a Swedish scholar who studied Chinese writing in Beijing, tells the fascinating stories behind the meaning and evolution of scores of Chinese characters. She notes that the original character for "hand" may well have been a picture of a hand with five fingers; neolithic jars were prototypes for the character for "wine"; the character for "speak or word" has a basic meaning, "large flute." Other characters relate to everyday life (houses, carts, clothes) or to the countryside, plants and animals. A testament to the continuity of Chinese culture, this beautiful book is illustrated with ancient inscriptions, 18th-century woodcuts and photographs of contemporary life demonstrating how ideogrammatic images recur as archetypes through the centuries.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Guardian 7/5/08
“An evocative, compelling celebration of language as a carrier of culture.”

Toronto Globe & Mail 7/5/08
“[A] delightful cultural and linguistic history.”

Boston Globe
“Deserve[s] special mention…Lavishly illustrated.”

London Review of Books
, 2008
“A fascinating introduction to Chinese language and culture. Beautifully designed and illustrated with photographs, calligraphy and drawings.”

Shelf Awareness’s “Top Ten of 2009,” 12/15/2009
“For those of us fascinated by Chinese, this offers detailed histories of many basic characters, showing their earliest forms, which often were representational, and their stylized modern versions.”

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Cecilia Lindqvist's book is wonderful mix of history, culture language and art.
Thom Mitchell
I picked up this book during a rainy day at Borders in my neighborhood and six hours later I was still immersed in it!
This is a great book to learn some basic history about Chinese characters and Chinese culture.
James Berlin

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By tepi on June 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
CHINA : Empire of Living Symbols. By Cecilia Lindqvist. Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate. 424 pp. New York : Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1991 (1989). ISBN 0-201-57009-2 (hbk.)
Although Cecilia Lindqvist is a professional scholar of Chinese and was in fact a pupil of Bernhard Karlgren, one of the greatest sinologists of the 20th century, she is one of those rare scholars who, instead of devoting herself exclusively to academic publications, has not been afraid to produce a book designed for the general reader.
Her book, though founded in a specialist knowledge of both Chinese and China, where she lived for many years, is written with a light and engaging touch, is magnificently illustrated with numerous photographs, both black-and-white and color, line drawings, maps, Chinese characters, etc., and is so beautifully produced that it could be read or browsed with interest by anyone.
Her book attempts so many things, and succeeds so well in them all, that it would be difficult to overpraise it. It introduces us to the pictorial element of the Chinese script in a more engaging way than has ever been done before, and becomes in fact a painless way of acquiring a vocabulary of the basic building blocks which go to make up Chinese characters.
It relates these basic pictograms to a wide range of topics in Chinese cultural history in a sumptuously illustrated series of chapters dealing with - Oracle Bones and Bronzes; 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; Numbers and Other Abstract Characters.
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Harald Groven on February 22, 2007
Format: Hardcover
When I was a kid I though that the Chinese written language was impossible to learn (unless you were born there) and that the signs were just a bunch of arbitrary strokes impossible to remember.

All this changed when I picked up this book in the 1990s. I then discovered the connection between the Chinese culture and history, and the written Chinese language. It is thick with carefully chosen and categorized stories, often experienced by the author herself, about how a Chinese character reveals something about Chinese history, thinking, or everyday life in ancient times. The Chinese themselves are often strangely unaware about the etymology of their Hànzi characters, since the school system encourages rote learning. Its richly illustrated by drawings and photographs that shows similarities between something and the character representing it. E.g. how the character for "well" resembles the ancient Chinese way of constructing wells, quite different from western ones.

What this book is not:

- Its very, far from anything like a textbook in Chinese writing. But it may be the best soft introduction to such a topic. Its well suited for people that want to know something about the Chinese language, but don't want to spend time studying it.

- Its not a dictionary. It covers 500 characters in 350 pages. The characters are not selected because of word frequency, or usefulness in everyday life etc. Many characters covered are really rare.

- It doesn't say anything about how the signs are pronounced. It is strictly about how the Chinese culture embedded in the written language.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 21, 1998
Format: Hardcover
If you only have time or money to get one book as an introduction to Chinese culture--try this! Cecilia Lindqvist shows the reader how Chinese characters are derived from reality. As she does so, Lindqvist describes Chinese history, geography, art, music, customs. The book includes excellent reproductions of Chinese art and pictures of everyday life. Reading this book feels like touring China with a knowing and chatty guide. She takes you not only around an enormous territory, but through 6,000 years of civilization.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By keepaway from tmobile on December 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I cannot believe how beautifully this book was written. Even as a Chinese educated in China, I was fascinated by this little book. It is not only about Chinese language but also about a people, a nation, and a civilization. This book made me re-think about my cultural heritage that I am extremely pround of already. I recommend this book to anybody who is interested in China and humanity in general.
Thank you Cecilia Lindqvist. Your professional expertise inspired me and your lovely sense of humor made my days.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By T. N. Turner on July 8, 2008
Format: Paperback
This is a fabulous book on Chinese, though it's not a textbook on learning Chinese. It tells the history of the development of many characters, and is fascinating. The main part of the book goes back to the oracle bones and ancient bronzes and shows quite a few of the characters and how they developed. A chapter in the back of the book (where I started) tells how the characters were invented. It tells of the various strategies for creating characters. Every strategy devised for creating characters ended up being exhausted, and new strategies had to be created. One of the last strategies was the `radical' concept, where they would take an existing character that sounded like a word that didn't have a character, and they would add a `radical' to it to create a new character. This concept allowed for almost a limitless number of characters and was one of the final strategies. It's interesting to note that in ancient China, most of the words for daily life had no written equivalent. Writing for the most part was reserved for administrative tasks, record-keeping, etc. Words that were used for daily life for thousands of years had no written equivalent and posed great challenges to create characters.
The author is Swedish and the book was translated from Swedish to English recently.
It would be a great book for anyone studying Chinese, but it would also be a great book for Chinese children to learn more about the history of China. It really is a fascinating book that I can hardly put down...
This book also helps with learning (& remembering!) Chinese characters, but a reader does not have to be learning to read and write Chinese characters in order to gain a lot of insight not only into the language, but the Chinese culture itself.
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