American man touches Chinese netizens’ hearts by 20 years’ research on Chinese characters

January 15, 2011Jing Gao2 Comments, , , , , , , , ,

An American man who enjoys the study of Chinese characters has become all the rage and “touched China.” A net user with sign-on “grass-roots rabble” (“草根屁民”) wrote on his/her microblog, “A foreigner that has deeply touched China in 2011: he has spent 22 years sorting out oracles characters, Bronze characters, Seal characters and so forth and has made them available online. Key in a Chinese character, and enter for multiple character patterns. It’s really a shame on those bullshitting experts who take research funding from the country!” Until today, the microblog has been shared by 21,360 people and received 4450 comments.


Snapshot of the website Chinese Etymology (Six different patterns for the Chinese character “horse”)

Richard Sears, founder of the website Chinese Etymology, currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee Area, working as a programmer, according to his LinkedIn profile. On the homepage of the Website, he says:

What you see here is the result of the past 20 years of my efforts
to make Chinese character etymology information available online.
Please donate so I can keep this information on line and updated.
All information is free and without advertisements.
(Thank you)(See my story)

He explains why he launched this Website:

When I was a young man of 22 in Taiwan in 1972 trying to become fluent and literate in Chinese, I was faced with the prospect of learning to write about 5000 characters and 60,000 character combinations. The characters were complex with many strokes and almost no apparent logic. I found on the rare occasions when I could get a step by step evolution of the character from its original form, with an explanation of its original meaning and an interpretation of its original form, suddenly it would become apparent how all the strokes had come to be. The problem is that there is no book in English that adequately explains this etymology and even if you read Chinese there is no single book in Chinese that explains it all. In short it is a research project to understand each character. To have this information at my fingertips in English would have been a great help.

The first advantage of a computerized etymology is that you can do all kinds of analysis which would be limited by the linear nature of books. The second advantage is that etymology is an on going research project. We do not know all the answers when it comes to character etymology. If errors or discrepancies are discovered in a computerized system, they can be corrected. They can not be corrected in a book that has already been published.

There are literally thousands of references on the this subject, most of them in Chinese. Most of them having something new, unique or interesting to say. I only list what I have found to be the top references.

On the Website, in addition to multiple patterns of Chinese characters, one can even find its Cantonese and Taiwanese pronunciations. Most net users praised his effort and his love for Chinese characters that surpasses that of many Chinese. Some also mocked the Confucius Institutes, a government-backed showcase of Chinese culture and language, and Chinese experts for failing to achieve what the foreigner has achieved.

Selected comments from Sina Microblog:


A sinophile. Respectable!


The laowai (Jing’s note: a casual Chinese word for foreigner(s))says on Chinese Etymology ‘What you see here is the result of the past 20 years of my efforts to make Chinese character etymology information available online.’ This makes people sigh: some roots in our own culture, like Chinese medicine, music and social customs…quite a number of them are being sorted out by laowai. Now surprisingly Chinese characters is one of them. How can we not be ashamed!


The so-called experts and masters in China. Hehe, I am snickering with no comment.


Current Chinese culture can only be called “Instant Noodle Culture/Quickie Culture.”


In fact, China does has its own website of a collection of oracle characters called Handian. (汉典, literally “Lexicon of ancient Chinese”) The website is: In contrast to this foreign friend whose compilation is rather simple, Handian has detailed explanations for each character, cites definitions of ancient books, and also demonstrates evolution of characters. It’s more authoritative and useful. Very awesome.
The number of entries in Handian is too small. Unlike laowai‘s “illustrated truth”.


Each of the two websites has its own unique features. Handian’s definitions and explanations are more detailed, but their character patterns are not as complete. The foreigner’s website has a large pool of character patterns, but the definitions seem to have been chopped to the simplest and even contain incorrectnesses.


Those experts and professors are busy buying themselves electric appliances with the research funds.


I am indeed touched.


In China, too many people are smart-alecky like to cut corners. Too few people get down to earth and work with effort.


Praise. A thousand times better than the Confucius Institutes.


I wonder what the Confucius Institutes, which cost tens of millions of yuan, are feeling about this?


This is the difference between “work for the sake of interest” and “work for work’s sake.”


Other people are willing to spend 20 years on a single thing. But we want to get a thing done with a mere hammer. The faster the better. Always talk about “efficiency.” Being anxious to achieve quick success and get instant benefits is a common mentality of Chinese. But the outcome they get is usually trivial. I am no exception.


Foreigners love Chinese characters even more than Chinese do. Will we spend 20 years on Chinese language? No. We are desperately learning foreign languages.

Related articles:

2 comments to “American man touches Chinese netizens’ hearts by 20 years’ research on Chinese characters”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Susan (賀念慈). Susan (賀念慈) said: RT @ministryoftofu: American man touches Chinese netizens’ hearts by 20 years’ research in Chinese characters [...]

  2. Kalika Kothari | May 25, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    Thanks for this wonderful post! It has been extremely helpful. I hope that you will continue sharing your knowledge with us.

Leave a Reply