Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Pet Dragon

One of my extra lovely and loyal blog-readers sent me an unexpected parcel last week from my favourite online bookstore. It contained a wonderful children's picture book called The Pet Dragon by Christoph Niemann, an illustrator for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine.

Besides the obvious elements of Chinese culture, the story cleverly integrates 33 written Chinese characters into the illustrations.

The author/illustrator explains in the preface that he never intended the book to be a means of learning Chinese. Critics complain that he should have included a pinyin pronunciation guide for each character introduced in order that the book might be considered bilingual English-Chinese. Niemann admits to a simple fascination by the pictographs and the iconicity of the Chinese language, that is the way the written form of the word conveys the meaning of the word. For instance, this means person 人, and when you put a box around the person you get 囚 prisoner.

Auslan has many iconic signs as well. When you think of a house, of course it makes sense to do this sign, or this sign for banana.
I could elaborate more, but this post is supposed to be about the Chinese language, not Australian sign language.

While I have struggled with many aspects of the spoken languages here in Hong Kong, I too have become fascinated with the written Chinese characters to the point where I find myself analysing the names for each of the train stations to try to understand why they are written in such a way. For instance, this was the first character I learned. It means big.

Now can you find it in this gorgeous fireworks display which is the final page of Niemann's book?

The Pet Dragon has made me feel more intrigued by the written Chinese language, and maybe a shade less intimidated about learning it. I also love the fact that Jemilla straight away took the book up to her bedroom and copied down all the Chinese characters. She has informed me that she will take it to school tomorrow to show her teachers as well. Mission accomplished, Niemann. And thank you to the kind gift-giver!

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