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Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy [Paperback]

John DeFrancis
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 1, 1984 0824810686 978-0824810689
Book by John DeFrancis

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Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy + The Languages of China + Chinese (Cambridge Language Surveys)
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Editorial Reviews


"Delightfully engaging. . . this book contains a wealth of hard facts about Chinese."

Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: University of Hawaii Press (October 1, 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0824810686
  • ISBN-13: 978-0824810689
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #417,306 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
50 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enlightening reading January 7, 2003
John DeFrancis' book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy is the best book I have read on the Chinese language. It explains in great detail what the Chinese language and its ancient writing system is all about. It is also great fun to read.
Based on his profound understanding of the language and its teaching methods, Mr. DeFrancis, in this book, contradicts all misconceptions, myths and fantasies that people may have about the subject. And there are lots of them.
He begins the book by telling a long-winded joke about a Language Committee that was founded by the Japanese during World War II. Its task was to prepare for changing the writing systems of all major world languages into using the Chinese language writing method in case the Japanese emerge victorious and become the rulers of the world. This way, by comparing the two writing systems Mr. DeFrancis makes it abundantly clear that most ideas people have about the Chinese language and its writing system lay on a very shaky foundation. I'll try to mention some points here although it has been a while since I read the book.
For a Western person, it is very difficult to say anything even remotely meaningful about the Chinese language before he has spent a good number of years studying it. We are told, for example, that there is such a thing as the Chinese language, and that it is universally spoken and understood, written and read by all Chinese-speaking people. This is one of the misconceptions Mr. DeFrancis attacks: most of the so-called dialects of the Chinese language are in fact completely different languages with mutual differences as great as those between English and German, or French and Spanish.
Mandarin Chinese has four tones, whereas Cantonese and Shanghaihua have six and nine, respectively.
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69 of 87 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Selective Facts, Strange Fantasy August 30, 2009
I have just read this book straight through three times in a row in an effort to make sure that I was not missing or misunderstanding anything. Each time I came away with a greater horror at the inaccurate picture which it creates. Please note that the statements in Mr. DeFrancis book, which is a sustained argument of close to three hundred pages, cannot be thoroughly refuted in a review of the length permitted by this website; what follows is a mere summary of my principal objections to this book.

1. The arguments are circular. We get a pretty strange example of this almost at the outset. Linguists, we are told, prefer to use the word 'language' exclusively to mean the spoken, not the written, word. This is to avoid confusion. Mr. DeFrancis, who has a habit of falling back on every-day common sense only after a couple of pages of mind-numbing obfuscation, ultimately declares that he himself will not follow the advice of these anonymous 'linguists' in his own book: indeed his very title indicates a refusal to follow that advice. Instead, he promises to keep the distinction between writing and speech clear in his own writing, and to use (in what he makes sound like a brilliant solution to a vexing problem, whereas in fact the problem would not have vexed anyone had he himself not brought it up) to use the expressions "spoken language" and "written language". Why then bring up the problem at all? He and his fellow linguists are, it seems, engaged in a "persistent but largely unsuccessful battle against the confusion resulting from the popular use of the term" to mean both writing and speech. He gives two examples of this 'confusion'. First, the statement of a textbook writer that "two thousand [chinese characters] are sufficient for the speech of a well-educated man.
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36 of 45 people found the following review helpful
THE CHINESE LANGUAGE: Fact and Fantasy, by the legendary pedagogue of Chinese John DeFrancis, is an imprecisely titled book. What DeFrancis seeks to show here is that the Chinese character writing system is inefficient, unnecessary, and detrimental to mass literacy.

DeFrancis begins with an introductory essay (which he later revealed to be a joke) about a World War II committee of Asian scholars attempting to design a character-based writing system for Western peoples once they were subjugated by the unstoppable Japanese. After this brief piece, the reader will already see that characters are unsuitable for most of the world's languages.

The first part, the only portion of the book which is dedicated to the Chinese language in the sense of speech, elucidates the division language -> regionalect -> dialect. In the second part, DeFrancis tries to reach a conclusion on what exactly characters are, as diverse terminology from "pictograph" to "ideograph" has been used. The third part, "Demythifying Chinese Characters" is the real meat of the book. While hard to believe now, in previous centuries European intellectuals were enamoured with characters and even called them a universal writing system. DeFrancis slays the universality myth, and the closely related emulatability myth, mainly based on the fact that literacy is so hard to acheive, as well as on the fact that no phonetic information can be had. The idea that Chinese is monosyllabic is shown as a myth, since the spoken language has and depends upon polysyllabic constructions to avoid redundacy and only in the thoroughly artificial written language could one see monosyllabism.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Good reference ABOUT Chinese
Great information about the Chinese language with details often not known or understood by Chinese people. Read more
Published 18 months ago by John E. Foster
2.0 out of 5 stars Author is standard bearer of modern linguistic totalitarianism
My biggest gripe - DeFrancis seems to claim credit for expressing the now sacrosanct idea that early forms of ideographic proto-writing are not 'real' writing. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Kram Grubrah
5.0 out of 5 stars There is something here for everyone
There is something for almost everyone in this chock-full-of-facts-and-information-book. For people who have never studied Chinese, there is a description and discussion of the... Read more
Published on March 4, 2012 by Lemas Mitchell
3.0 out of 5 stars historically obsolete
Much can be said about this book, both pro and con, but the bottom line is that history has made the argument DeFrancis proposes obsolete. Read more
Published on October 24, 2009 by DaLaoHu
4.0 out of 5 stars A little dry but very informative
I was interested in learning Cjinese but had no knowledge about the language so my proffesor recommended this book before I began to learn Chinese. Read more
Published on October 9, 2009 by I. Campos
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book that is bound to be controversial
This is an excellent overview of the Chinese language and written scripts. I found the book to be highly enjoyable and actually read it while on vacation. Read more
Published on August 18, 2009 by Sukit Chawalitakul
2.0 out of 5 stars Truely a Westerner's opinion
I read this book and could not believe that it got such high ratings. Then, after going over the writings again, I found that everything is done properly and much of what the... Read more
Published on May 21, 2009 by Jason R. Timm
4.0 out of 5 stars The Illiteracy Myth.
One major argument from the book is that, Chinese characters are "unsuccessful in producing mass literacy and meeting other needs in modern society," (p. Read more
Published on February 28, 2009 by Lap
5.0 out of 5 stars Dispelling the myths
Most of us, ranging from outsiders with no specialist knowledge of Chinese to scholars fully conversant with both the classical and colloquial language in various regional... Read more
Published on February 17, 2008 by John Duncan
5.0 out of 5 stars A scholarly, yet sometimes humourous look at the Chinese language
John DeFrancis is one of the most eminent linguists in the United States working in the field of Chinese language. Read more
Published on February 15, 2008 by Robert Badger
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