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Pictorial Chinese-Japanese Characters: A New and Fascinating Method to Learn Ideographs
by Oreste Vaccari and Enko Elisa Vaccari
Vaccari Language Institute, 1961
This book has no ISBN number.

Reviewed by Edward J Wood
edwoodjr@webtv.net

As you may know, the granddaddy of them all was Dr Weiger's "Chinese Characters," which gave the Western world its first comprehensive analysis of the Chinese ideographs. It offers much help to the student of Chinese, but little to the student of Japanese.

Today the student of Japanese kanji can choose from a variety of analytical and mnemonic systems, but up until forty years ago, the foreign student of kanji had nowhere to turn. When the Vaccaris published "Pictorial Chinese-Japanese Characters," it was truly a pioneering work.

In his Introduction, Mr Vaccari begins with the obvious: the great difficulty of kanji learning, and the great necessity for doing so. He follows with a description of the book's layout, and he credits Mrs Vaccari with the selection of the kanji and the graphic design of the book.

Then there are "A Few Notes" on the history and classification of kanji: lifted mostly from Dr Weiger's "Chinese Characters", but adapted for students of Japanese. Then there is a set of rules for stroke combination, and seven pagesof stroke-by-stroke examples - this saves the trouble of giving a stroke diagram for each kanji that he treats.

In Chapter 1, Mr Vaccari begins with "Pictorial Characters". He shows a primitive sketch of an object or idea, two intermediate forms, and finally, the modern kanji. It is, as he says, "fascinating" to watch the sketches morph across the page; they are, as he says, "alive with motion". He includes historical and cultural notes as background.

In Chapter 2, Mr Vaccari introduces more abstract kanji. He uses only two forms: either a primitive sketch or the ancient seal character, and then the modern kanji, sort of a "before and after" effect. Used in this way, says Mr Vaccari, the ancient seal characters are not an extra burden, but a help to the memory. There are more explanatory notes. The kanji are given in order of increasing stroke count, and this chapter ends with a collection of primitive elements.

Chapter 3, "Phonetic Characters", is the real meat of the book. The Chinese language, with its endless number of homonyms, needed a way to make written symbols distinctive, without making them too numerous. They decided to create pairs of symbols: a phonetic element to give the character its sound, and a radical to specify its meaning.

Mr Vaccari gives, as an example, the character "carpenter" - pronounced koo - that looks like a capital letter I. There are many words pronounced koo, but the radical element specifies the meaning. "Carpenter" paired with "strength" means "the word koo that has to do with strength = exploits." "Carpenter" paired with "water" means "the word koo that has to do with water = inlet." (This works best if you know the words before studying the characters).

For the rest of the chapter, Mr Vaccari gives many examples of phonetic characters. He identifies the radical element, but he leaves it up to you to analyze the phonetic. Here, as throughout the book, many characters are shown in their pre-war unsimplified form, and each character is presented with two or three example compounds.

The book closes with an index of all characters treated: each is shown as ancient seal character, modern handwritten, and modern typeface. About 800 characters are listed.

Sadly, this and all the other Vaccari books have gone out of print. But they can be found on the Internet. I recommend the Advanced Book Exchange (www.abe.com)

I will close with the Vaccaris' motto: "To do better what others do well."