The Hanmoji Handbook: Your Guide to the Chinese Language Through Emoji
The Hanmoji Handbook: Your Guide to the Chinese Language Through Emoji
Chinese characters have mostly been written with ink brushes, enabling a form of calligraphy
with many curves and flourishes. But Chinese characters also contain traces of their past.
Before they were written with brush pens, words were carved into small areas of bone, jade, and
bronze. So as in Sumerian, the lines were clear and sharp. This could explain why rigid, straight
lines remain popular in characters even as the written language has evolved.
Emojis are no different. Our phone and computer screens have become so advanced that
they can show drawings and photographs dense with color and detail. A single emoji can now fit
a group of four people, each with a different hairstyle. But emoji have also inherited traces from
the past, when screens were not able to display such rich images. This explains why some
animal emoji are still rendered as cartoonish faces, even though most of the new animal emoji
are drawn in their full-bodied splendour.
For some people, the Chinese language could be considered as a more challenging language to learn because it relies on a visual writing system and also has different tonal elements that affect the meanings of similar-sounding words. In contrast to languages such as English, French, Spanish, and others that use the roman alphabet, Chinese is more akin to other languages that use written scripts, such as Japanese and Arabic. As a result, becoming proficient in written Chinese, or hanzi, requires learning a large number of these characters and, more importantly, how they can be combined into words and phrases and what these mean in their respective contexts.
The Hanmoji Handbook: Your Guide to the Chinese Language Through Emoji offers a novel way of introducing people to the Chinese written language. Drawing upon the easily identifiable images of emojis, the book makes connections between these and the Chinese language, suggesting that emojis can help people to understand and remember Chinese words and phrases. In doing so, the book’s authors incorporate some interesting history about the Chinese language’s origins and development within the broader contexts of China’s history and how languages evolve. Consequently, readers will increase their appreciation about Chinese as well as China’s culture and history.
The book’s structure consists of seven chapters that provide a methodical and easy-to-follow exploration of the Chinese language, with each chapter focusing on specific themes. It begins by giving an overview about Chinese as a logographic language and covering other related topics, such as the tonal elements and differences between traditional and simplified Chinese.
Following this, the book explains the cultural significance of the five Chinese elements (wood, fire, earth, water, and metal) through which readers are then introduced to some Chinese characters. Building on these topics, the third chapter discusses the evolution of languages and highlights connections between the evolution of Hanzi (the Chinese written language) and emojis. Both Chinese and emojis are visual languages that have evolved over time due to the establishment of standards for writing the language as well as changing technology. Readers are introduced to additional words and phrases in the remainder of the book.
The fourth and fifth chapters introduce additional Chinese characters and explain how individual characters can be combined to form new words, similar to how words or parts of words in English can be combined. Readers will acquire more insight into Chinese culture in the sixth chapter, where they will learn about some Chinese idioms, their meanings, and cultural significance. The book’s final chapter discusses the history of emojis in relation to the Chinese language and within the broader context of language evolution. Like Chinese and other languages, emojis are continually evolving to reflect the contemporary times. For example, items of cultural significance, as mooncakes, red envelopes, fortune cookies, and dumplings, can now be found in emoji form.
The book has many colourful and, in some cases, humourous illustrations that complement the information and make learning Chinese fun for young readers. Although the publisher’s website identifies an audience of ages 12 and up, this book can still be appreciated on some level by readers younger than the recommended group. However, adults may need to assist younger readers with understanding the longer passages of text in the book, especially those sections that discuss the history of China or the evolution of the Chinese language. Nevertheless, younger readers can still enjoy the book and will find the colourful images attractive and helpful for comprehending the text.
For example, the book demonstrates how the visual appearance of Chinese characters does bear some correlation to their meaning in some instances. It suggests that the Chinese character for water (水) bears some similarity to a group of three water droplets, which is also found in the emoji for water. Similarly, the Chinese character for burn (焚) comprises of two duplicates of the character for a piece of wood that rests on top of the character for fire. To illustrate this word in an emoji format, the book has an accompanying emoji picture of two evergreen trees perched above a fire. As such, the book’s visuals also function as useful mnemonic devices that will help readers to understand and retain the written characters. The book also does well in illustrating how Chinese characters can be combined to form new words which also derive their meaning from the originally separate characters. For example, “computer” is written as 电脑 in Chinese (pronounced as diànnao) and translates literally as “electric brain” in English. Similarly, “telephone” is written as电话 (pronounced as diànhuà) and can be defined as “electric speech.” Readers can also test their understanding through the quizzes contained in the book.
Readers will also gain further insight into Chinese language in the section on Chinese idioms. As the book mentions, idioms provide a way of understanding the world through a Chinese speaker’s perspective because their meanings often go beyond the words’ literal meanings and connect with specific historical and cultural contexts. For example, the phrase 马马虎虎 (pronounced as mămă hŭhŭ) literally reads as “horse horse tiger tiger” but is used to describe a situation that is “so-so,” “mediocre,” or “not too bad.” According to legend, this phrase arose when an artist painted a picture of an animal that was a mash-up of both a horse and tiger, resulting in “an odd picture of an animal that was neither one nor the other and not much of anything” (p. 124).
It is important to note that this book is not intended to be a comprehensive primer to the basics of the Chinese language or its grammatical structure. Instead, this book aims to make the language more accessible to people, particularly those who may find scripted languages difficult to understand and remember. As such, the book’s approach to the Chinese language through the language of emojis may not appeal to all readers since some may prefer a more conventional approach.
Given the difficulty level of the linguistic topics covered, this book may hold particular appeal for people who are starting to learn the Chinese language or who are not native speakers of the language. This book could also interest readers who want to learn more about the evolution of languages or how emojis, themselves, are connected to the Chinese language. Nevertheless, this book does succeed in giving readers a greater appreciation for Chinese language and, by extension, the cultural and historical contexts that inform it and contribute to its evolution. An interview with the authors provides more insight into their inspiration for this book. The book’s concept arose when the authors noticed how certain emoji combinations could be connected with the meanings of Chinese characters. This led them to consider how they could use emojis as a way to help readers increase their understanding and appreciation of the Chinese language. An Xiao Mina and Jennifer Lee mentioned they wanted to create a book that would appeal to today’s young readers and make Chinese more accessible and fun to learn while, at the same time, stimulating their curiosity about how languages work and how they are impacted by technology. Jason Li concurs that he would like people to think about language in a more fluid and playful manner, such that they have “a more flexible understanding of language systems in general, and to be able to understand new things that they see in the world.”
The book’s authors come from backgrounds related to technology, arts and culture, and design. Jason Li is an independent designer, artist, and educator from Toronto with interests in networked technology. The book’s second author, Jennifer Lee, is vice-chair of the Unicode emoji subcommittee and cofounder of Emojination, a group advocating for more inclusive and representative emoji. Dividing her time between New York and California, An Xiao Mina is a creative strategist, writer, and artist with experience in technology and culture.
The Hanmoji Handbook will be a good addition to libraries that want to increase their collection of materials about the Chinese language. The book’s colour scheme makes it an attractive and visually pleasing text that will particularly appeal to young readers and also makes it easy to access a specific section. Complementing this are the book’s index for easy look-up of specific topics as well as a bibliography of resources.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.