Review of Adrian van Amstel, ed, (2019), Chinese Character Dictionary: A New Approach to Arranging, Explaining and Looking Up Chinese Characters

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)282-289
Journal / PublicationJournal of Chinese Linguistics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


Adrian van Amstel’s Chinese Character Dictionary (CCD) represents a very different approach to organizing Chinese characters in a non-electronic paper-based dictionary. Describing himself in the Preface to his dictionary as a “visual learner”, Van Amstel adopts a visual strategy whereby similar looking characters are grouped together. Rather than organizing characters according to their Pinyin or stroke count, Van Amstel’s CCD adopts a look-up method based on the premise that when radicals are stripped away what remains is “the main and most prominent part of the character” (Preface), or what Van Amstel refers to as the “phonetic” part.

Three hundred ninety-five phonetic parts have been designated as “series headers”, each heading a “character table”. These 395 character tables accommodate around 7,450 traditional and 1,450 simplified characters. The 395 character tables and their corresponding series headers are further categorized into 17 main components – the Main Components Table (MCT) – based on their shape, ten of which are identified as having slanting strokes, and the remaining seven with mostly horizontal and vertical strokes. For example, one category includes components with strokes that slant to the right, another to the left, another with strokes slanting in both directions. The rationale for Van Amstel’s assignments to these categories is not always clear. For example, in his review of Van Amstel’s CCD, Zhang (2016,104) questions grouping 月, 周, 丹 with those components with horizontal and vertical strokes rather than with strokes slanting to the left.

Though clearly influenced by T. K. Ann’s Cracking the Chinese Puzzle by Conceptualizing and Philosophizing Approach1, Van Amstel faults Ann’s “four-corner indices method” as “cumbersome”, and notes how “finding a particular character in the dictionary part was far from straightforward” (Preface). Though clearly hoping to improve on Ann’s work, Van Amstel’s method for organizing and locating characters falls prey to similar criticisms as he levels against Ann. While Van Amstel’s work is not without scholarly merit, the CCD offers anything but “a quick method for locating characters”, as claimed in the Introduction (p.12)

Van Amstel’s bold attempt at devising an alternative strategy for arranging and locating characters definitely qualifies as a scholarly achievement. Regardless of whether or not he has succeeded in devising an improved dictionary design, his approach to disassembling Chinese characters into their component parts pushes the envelope in studies looking into character formation, indexing, and retrieval by machine rather than human users.

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