Decoding Calligraphy


A collector’s edition companion to the SF Asian Art Museum’s superlative calligraphy exhibition.

Last Saturday, I hosted here in the Tuttle library the inaugural meeting of the Vermont Association of Chinese Teachers. We spent the day together meeting, eating, and talking about language books and teaching methods. We hope we’ll meet again soon and often.

In honor of my new friends, this week’s free book is the collector’s edition of Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy. It’s a hefty book by the San Francisco Asian Art Museum compiled to accompany a comprehensive calligraphy exhibit of the same name. You don’t have to have seen the exhibit to prize this book. As handsome as it is authoritative, this 350-pp hardback special edition contains 6 lbs of scholarship and art and many hundreds of color plates. It’s not a how-to guide to calligraphy, but this huge collection of fine Chinese calligraphy will inspire new calligraphers and offer thousands of examples to emulate. If you’d like to win this amazing book, click here to email me and put “Calligraphy” in the subject line.

A big thank you to Tamar who, after seeing me wonder out loud if it’s true that Eskimos have 15 words for snow, sent this link to an article titled There Really Are 50 Eskimo Words for Snow in the Washington Post on Monday.

The short answer? Yes.

This is intuitively so, right? Vermonters discuss snow with much more precision and nuance than my family in the Deep South. And, back in Tokyo in the early ’90s when it snowed one wintry day, my roommate from Caracas began to exclaim: “It’s snowing”. But never (seriously, never) having said that before, he had to weigh “está nievando” against “está nevando” before deciding that the latter was the correct form of the verb. At a similar latitude, speakers of Tagalog in the Philippines had no need for a word for snow. They borrowed the Spanish word nieve, which with some adjustments for spelling, is modern Filipino niyebe.

The Japanese have one word for snow (yuki, 雪). My sense is that they wouldn’t innovate new words for snow but would deploy their prodigiously poetic range of onomatopoeic language to describe different sorts of snowfall. Snow that fell chira-chira would be soft (like cherry-blossom petals). A damp and heavy snow would fall shin-shin.


2 thoughts on “Decoding Calligraphy

  1. How clever! The English even have a word for “deep and heavy snow.” Like the Turks they agglutinate words, so that deep + heavy + snow all add up to the very clever “deep and heavy snow.”

    Who’d a thunk it?


    • So true! Sometimes these issues (to me) aren’t really about words and meaning at all, just spelling and spacing. And I think that was the point that some debunkers of the “15 Eskimo words for snow” were making. They inferred that some of these words were really just Eskimo versions of “heavy-snow”, “slushy-snow”, “back-breaking-to-shovel-snow”, etc.

      An Eskimo socio-linguist who visited Vermont would probably write excitedly back to his friends in Alaska that the sap-obsessed Vermonters, in addition to the generic term “maple syrup”, have four terms for syrup: fancy, light amber, dark amber, and B.

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