Chinese is considered one of the oldest written languages and, by many outside of China, very difficult to learn. But Chinese-American writer and entrepreneur Shaolan Hsueh has found a unique way to use illustrations to easily learn the language. She developed Chineasy to help Western language learners decode and master Chinese.
During her research to break down the language, she found some interesting facts about the historical origins of the early relationships between men and women. She told Voice of America's Frances Alonzo about how she is using pictographs to positively reinterpret the meaning of the language.
I spent a couple of years breaking down thousands of Chinese characters on my computer. And then I analyzed and prioritized the most important building blocks. Once people are able to recognize those building blocks, they will be able to construct many more and I use illustrations and very simple animation so they can recognize some very basic building block very quickly. Once they know one or two, then they can develop many more from a few very simple characters. And the learning process is really fast and is a lot of fun.
ALONZO: What about your background that led you to this kind of way for people to learn Chinese?
HSUEH: My parents are both artists. My mother is a calligrapher and my father a ceramic artist. So I grew up in this environment looking at Chinese characters with a very different approach and different type of appreciation from most people.
ALONZO: Tell me about some particular words that using your approach was so much easier.
HSUEH: For example, the character for woman, the shape of [the word] “woman” is originally from the shape of a woman kneeling on the floor behind her man. And so if you have this perception, you will be able to understand it’s not only the illustrations, there’s a lot of culture and historical indication, and [that] when we put two women together it means argument. This is not a made-up joke. This is actually again a deeper layer of the true cultural understanding given the gender inequality in ancient world, not only in China, but in [the] ancient world in many places. Two women together, especially in China, ended up with argument. That actually reflects the fact that many Chinese families have three generations or four generations underneath the same roof. And many ancient Chinese men - middle class, upper class men - had multiple wives, therefore their children were from multiple wives. They had to live underneath the same roof. So there’s a domestic conflict to reflect the fact that two women together means argument.
So Chineasy not only is a method, not only [uses] illustrations, we [also] do a lot of historical or storytelling to tell people what happened in ancient China and how each character evolved over the years. And as a woman, I find it a little bit fascinating and sometimes a little bit frustrating to know, “oh gosh, all the female, most [of] the female characters are really negative.” Even, for example, the character for “good,” is the combination between a woman and a son. The origin was actually because the woman would only be good when she had a son. And if you look at it that way it sounds very negative. But because Chineasy is a happy learning method, we try to interpret that a woman would be really happy and everything would be good with a son. So, we try to reinterpret the meaning, for example, when a woman is underneath the roof, that means peace. And it’s from men’s perspective because a man wanted a woman to provide domestic service and provide the children for him. And you can use that negative approach but at the same time, we should say “no, when a guy has a woman underneath a roof he will be a happy man, he will be peaceful.” So in that case, everything will turn into something positive and happy.
ALONZO: I would have never thought that a lot of the Chinese language was based on the relationship between men and women.
HSUEH: Yes, there was quite a lot and as we said, yes, originally it was because of the gender inequality which happened across the world. I think, not only in ancient China but nowadays, Chinese women, we recognize that we are independent and elegant. So, yes, we do understand the historical origin, but at the same time, I would love to give the Chineasy characters some new modern interpretation.