U.S. physicist devotes his life to telling the stories behind the transformation of the Chinese script
Richard Sears, a former physicist and computer engineer from Silicon Valley has become an Internet celebrity promoting Chinese culture
By Li Qing  ·  2021-04-29  ·   Source: NO.18 MAY 6, 2021

Richard Sears in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province (YIN KANG)

Richard Sears grew up in a small town in Oregon in the U.S. where the people were mostly Caucasians. He was 10 when he saw a Chinese girl, the first time he saw a Chinese, and he was enamored by their physical difference. Many years later, this drove him to make a bold decision. In 1972, he bought a one-way ticket and flew to Taiwan to learn the Chinese language, though at that time, he knew nothing about it.

His father tried to oppose his plan. That year, there had been a historic event: U.S. President Richard Nixon had visited China for one week in February, the first visit by a U.S. head of state to the People's Republic of China since its founding in 1949, and opened the door for the normalization of bilateral relations.

"When it occurred to me that 7 percent of the people in the world use English, whereas 20 percent speak Chinese, I decided to learn Chinese," the 70-year-old, now living in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, said.

That was the beginning of Sears' voyage of learning Chinese and getting connected with China. Almost five decades since his first adventure, the former physicist and computer engineer from Silicon Valley has become an Internet celebrity promoting Chinese culture.

Tracing change

The most important thing in one's life, Sears told Beijing Review, is to find an interest and pursue it, which usually means taking a risk.

Sears regards the Chinese script as a miracle in human history as it is the only ancient script still in use in the world. He started to learn Chinese when he was 22 and progressed considerably in reading and speaking, but could not write characters until he turned 40.

When he started to learn the Chinese characters, called hanzi in Chinese, the complicated structure seemed to be too difficult to remember. He could not find any relevance between their shapes and meanings.

Tracing the evolution from the original pictograph to the present modern simplified characters, Sears got fascinated by the stories behind each character. When you compare them, you begin to have clues as to where they come from, he said.

While reading an English book based on Shuo Wen Jie Zi, the earliest existing Chinese dictionary dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), he found the book had a lot of inaccuracies. This set him off, a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's in computer science, on a new path research, comparing and analyzing the ideas on the same topics from different books. "You never stop asking questions. It keeps getting deeper and deeper," he said.

A gift to China

In 1994, Sears suffered a severe heart attack, which forced him to think about how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. "If I knew I had only 24 hours left, what would I do? All I could do is call my friends and say goodbye. What about a year? So I came up with the idea of computerizing Shuo Wen Jie Zi."

He started programming and building a database of oracle bone inscriptions and other styles of ancient Chinese characters. It took him seven years to scan all the characters in the ancient Chinese books and finally, in 2002, supported by the database, his website Chinese Etymology (Hanziyuan.net) was launched.

A free website in English showcasing the origin of the Chinese script and providing the pronunciation of popular words in standard Chinese and dialects such as Cantonese, it explains the roots of nearly 1 million characters.

But despite the love and labor, the website initially had very few visitors. However, the number surged to 600,000 a day in 2011 after a blogger recommended the site on Chinese social media platform Weibo when Sears was in the U.S. He was affectionately dubbed Uncle Hanzi (the Chinese characters) in China because of his work and the Chinese character enthusiast became an Internet celebrity overnight. Till now, the website has been continuously updated. Sears funds the site himself, barring some donations.

When he embarked on his task, he imagined that one of the joys of studying Chinese characters was to better understand them. But he found that Chinese children seldom experience the same joy when they learn the characters at the age of 4 or 5. So to make learning more fun for them, he recently worked with Shiwangme, a Nanjing-based company

specializing in augmented reality (AR), to launch the Chinese Character Origin Cards, a pack of 108 cards that combine animation with AR. Scan one of them and it comes alive, describing how it evolved from the pictograph carved on ancient oracle bones to today's simplified character.

He also promotes Chinese character culture by producing videos on Bilibili, a video-sharing site popular with young netizens. Since last October, he has uploaded 29 videos, combining his daily life and character interpretation. They have brought him over 120,000 subscribers, and the most popular video has been viewed nearly 2.4 million times.

Permanent home

As Sears wanted to stay in China to learn more about Chinese characters, he had to go back and forth between China and the U.S. every time his tourist visa expired. On December 23, 2020, the man studying the Chinese language for nearly 50 years got the Chinese permanent residence permit.

He was overjoyed since he thinks it is "difficult to get the Chinese green card for people like me, aged over 60 and without a Ph.D." Now, Uncle Hanzi can go through the same facilities as the Chinese in entering and exiting the country, entrepreneurship and employment.

However, he has found it also comes with a quaint problem. "Few people have seen the card. So when I show it in some places, the staff have no idea what it is and whether they can trust me," he laughed.

Sears visited the city for the first time in 2000. But still "it is a very nice place to live in," he said. "We have this very beautiful area with gardens and parks, where I can do a lot of things, for instance, walk my dogs," he said.

He quotes a famous line from Chinese poet Liu Yuxi's (772-842) An Epigraph in Praise of My Humble Home to indicate his life philosophy, "My home is humble, but it is virtuous so long as I live in it... In this humble room, I can enjoy playing my simple zither or read the Buddhist scriptures quietly..." BR


Evolution of Chinese Characters

The Chinese script emerged about 5000 years ago when the early humans used pictographs, drawing what they saw around them and expressing their thoughts. The pictorial representation started becoming more accurate and characters evolved. The earliest standardized characters in use discovered so far are the inscriptions found on tortoise shells and animal bones around 1200 B.C., known as the oracle bone inscriptions or jiaguwen, followed by more complex inscriptions on bronze ritual objects found from the Zhou Dynasty (about 1100-256 B.C.) known as jinwen, jin referring to metal or, more precisely, bronze.

In the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), Emperor Qin Shi Huang, founder of the dynasty, unified the six different—and often warring—kingdoms that existed in the fragmented China of the time. With that, he also unified their various writing styles into a standard style, ending a chaotic period when the same characters were written in different forms. The unified form became known as xiaozhuan (the small seal characters) in history.

The characters were further simplified in the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220). Known as lishu or the official script, they replaced the small seal characters and laid the foundation for the modern, simplified form. Caoshu and xingshu, also formed in the Han Dynasty, were created for quick writing.

In the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), a new character form, aka kaishu, came into being. Mostly composed with simple vertical and horizontal strokes, kaishu has been used as a standard Chinese character writing form ever since.

Simplified Chinese characters appeared as early as the 1920s. On January 1, 2001, the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language took effect, confirming simplified Chinese as the national standard written language.

(Compiled by Beijing Review)

(Print Edition Title: Discovering Character)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to liqing@bjreview.com

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