Li Shanchuan (in red T-shirt) plays an ancient Chinese game with young children in a summer camp held by Cool Character.
People speaking their own language every day rarely think about the evolution of their mother tongues. Chinese people are no exception.
Linguist Li Shanchuan and his business partner Huang Hui are trying to change that by helping people rediscover the origins of Chinese characters.
Cool Character, a cultural platform founded by Huang and Li, has already attracted thousands of students of different ages who log in for lessons about how characters came to be.
“Each Chinese character is like a capsule that contains the observations of ancient people or holds stories that have been passed on for generations,” Huang says. “I believe the characters contain the cultural gene of the Chinese people.”
The current curriculum provided by Cool Character is the culmination of long research. After obtaining a master’s degree at the Center for the Study and Application of Chinese Characters at East China Normal University, Li became a researcher and lecturer.
He says mainstream Chinese language education in schools has somehow “ruined” the cultural essence of the characters, making them nothing more than a unit to form phrases.
“Actually, many of the phrases we use in modern Chinese are adopted from Japanese, and that’s why we are used to expressing ideas in phrases with two characters,” he says. “In ancient China, each character had its own precise meaning, and the meanings were related to the origins of the characters — mostly oracle bone inscriptions that can be traced back to about 4,000 years ago.”
From oracle bone inscriptions, Chinese characters have evolved from inscriptions on bronzeware to small seal script and finally to the traditional characters still used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities.
The simplified characters used on China’s mainland were adopted mostly from simplified characters created during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
The book series Li Shanchuan edited to teach characters through Chinese mythological stories
Li says the best way to teach the origins and evolution of characters is to refer to ancient Chinese mythological stories because that’s where the ancient thinking that created characters can be found.
Li calls it “the Chinese character way of thinking.” With it, he can deconstruct all 2,500 commonly used characters.
In recent years, Li has edited a series of 20 books, each one telling one mythological story. Certain characters are picked from the texts for further analysis, including their structures and why they were written as they were.
The series is now used as one of the textbooks for Cool Character curricula.
Huang, a financial industry expert who once worked for Goldman Sachs and other multinational companies, met Li at a lecture.
A Chinese culture enthusiast, Huang says the encounter provided an opportunity that she had been waiting for.
“At the beginning, I just wanted to take a turn in my career,” she says. “I wanted to do something culture-related from a tiny entry point. Nothing is as tiny as a Chinese character. When I attended one of Li’s lectures, I believed I found a match made in heaven.”
Cool Character comprises both online video curricula and classroom teachings. Its target audience ranges from elementary school to college students.
The platform also promotes curricula for overseas Chinese communities, which have been welcomed by parents of second-generation immigrants.
Li says it’s hard for foreigners with no Chinese-language environment to learn Chinese. Recognizing and writing characters are much more difficult than mastering verbal Mandarin.
“That’s why you often come across foreigners who can speak Chinese fluently but cannot read or write it well,” he says. “It’s just the opposite with Chinese people learning English. Many of us don’t speak English as well as we read it.”
The study of characters goes beyond the classroom.
Students learn calligraphy in a traveling course organized by Cool Character.
Li has been involved in a nonprofit museum program for about a decade, and Cool Character continues that endeavor. Young students are taken to the museums around the city to learn characters through the exhibits. The program was selected one of the best in Shanghai in 2015.
The Bronze Gallery at the Shanghai Museum is a fine example. There visitors can learn about the lifestyle of the aristocratic classes of China as far back as 4,000 years. They can also trace the origins of related Chinese characters, such as the names of the food vessels.
“In the gallery, you will find in ancient China, aristocrats were quite fussy about vessels, and different food and drinks were designated to be served in different shapes of bronze vessels,” Li explains. “That lifestyle affected the shape of some characters.”
Students are also taken to less-visited museums, such as a hydraulic engineering museum in Putuo District, where a complete water conservation system from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) is displayed.
During school holidays, the company organizes student tours to historical sites around the country to get a better grasp about the relationship between Chinese culture and characters.
A recent trip to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui Province included a visit to an ancestral hall considered the epitome of such buildings in China. Li explained to the students how the structure of the hall affected the character mi (密), which means “secrecy and privacy.” The character resembles a gable wall at a door, protecting the residents’ privacy.
“The ancient houses and the names of their parts may seem strange to us today, but they once were the most common parts of people’s lives,” Li says. “To learn about that life as a matter of culture means that we just need to look at the Chinese language.”
Huang agrees with Li. From a business perspective, she says, developing diversified teaching styles is a good way to attract the interest of students.
“We are also developing cultural and creative products, such as postcards, to make the popularization of characters part of daily life,” Huang says.
Huang Hui, co-funder of Cool Character