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Whatever Hanmoji may be, they are not transparent.  Take, for instance, that object pictured in the center of the title page of the Hanmoji Handbook (MITeen Press and Candlewick Press, 2022).  I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what it symbolized.  Some things I came up with were not very savory; none were definitive.

The Hanmoji Handbook is supposed to be "Your Guide to the Chinese Language Though Emoji".  One thing I can guarantee about this book, though, is that you won't learn much Chinese language through it.

It belongs in the same category as Chineasy (not!), which we have previously reviewed on Language Log (see "Selected readings").  Both will tell you something about what individual characters look like and something about what they mean, but not really about how to write them and how to pronounce them.  Both have cute, clever, colorful graphics.  Both are full of "fun tidbits about Chinese culture", e.g., the "adorable zodiac".  Etc., etc.  Beyond that, they are essentially useless for learning Mandarin or other Sinitic languages.  They won't teach you how to form words and sentences.  They won't teach you grammar and syntax.  And both are full of misconceptions and mistakes about what the characters are and how they are related to language.

From here on, I'll concentrate on Hanmoji Handbook (henceforth HH).  If you want to know more about Chineasy, read our previous posts about it.  Aside from the tweet with which this post opens, I also learned about HH from this article:

"Exploring Emojis and Chinese with The Hanmoji Handbook",   

by Keith Broni, Emojipedia (Sep 1, 2022)

I'll just list some of the misunderstandings about Chinese languages and writing created or perpetuated by HH:

1. "each character usually represents a single word"  No, only a small proportion of characters constitute a single word.  Most Mandarin words are two syllables long.  It seems that the authors of HH do not know the difference between word (cí 詞) and graph / character (zì 字).  In fact, Chinese did not have a word for "word" until the first half of the twentieth century.

2. "Chinese characters are… made up of re-usable 'modules' (or 'radicals')".  In the study of Chinese character construction, "radical" usually refers to the meaning bearing component.  As for "modules", I've never heard of them before in the formal analysis of Chinese characters.

3. "Unlike a word in an alphabetic language, a logogram [VHM:  fair enough} doesn't spell out a pronunciation, it just shows you what the word is."  Hard to tell how that works; needs a lot of explaining and unpacking.

The special feature of HH is that it weds emoji with Hanzi (Chinese characters).  This is a neat idea and cool to play around with, but you can't get very far learning Chinese characters with it, much less Chinese languages.  HH primarily uses emoji designs from Google's Noto Color Emoji set, of which there are a huge number, but in no way does it constitute a one-for-one or otherwise adequate correlation with the actual components of Chinese characters.

HH is co-authored by Jennifer 8. Lee of Emojination along with graphic designer Jason Li and technologist An Xiao Mina.  Jennifer 8. Lee is well known for being one of the first persons to identify and publicize the fact that Chinese were forgetting how to write characters, largely because they were using computers to write them on their behalf.  This is a phenomenon that William C. Hannas predicted in Asia's Orthographic Dilemma (1997) and that I have dubbed "character amnesia".

Jennifer 8. Lee is famous for her article titled "In China, Computer Use Erodes Traditional Handwriting, Stirring a Cultural Debate" in the Technology section of the New York Times for February 1, 2001.  Lee is also well known for her book about the history of Chinese food in America and around the world called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (2008).

Jennifer 8. Lee (Chinese name: 李競; pinyin: Lǐ Jìng; POJ: Lí Kēng) (born March 15, 1976) is an American journalist who previously worked for The New York Times. She is also the co-founder and president of the literary studio Plympton, as well as a producer on The Search for General Tso, which premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Lee is a vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, which is responsible for making recommendations relating to emoji to the Unicode Technical Committee. Inspired by the universality of the dumpling across cultures and cuisines (e.g., jiaozi in China, ravioli in Italy, pierogi in Poland, empanadas in various Latin American countries), she helped to make the dumpling emoji a candidate. She also co-authored the proposal for a hijab emoji.


What with all this emphasis on emojis and Chinese characters, Jing Tsu, professor of modern Chinese literature and culture at Yale, who provided "color" during the recent Beijing Olympics, would surely be interested in HH, since she has herself investigated the relationship between emoji and hanzi / kanji / hanja 漢字 / 汉字 (see the last two items under "Selected readings" below.

I view books like HH and Chineasy as rearguard actions to preserve Chinese characters among younger generations and overseas Chinese.  They cannot really stave off language and script attrition among individuals outside the Sinosphere.

Selected readings

[h.t. Jeff DeMarco]


  1. Ben said,

    September 5, 2022 @ 12:59 pm

    For a moment I got very excited and thought the book was about Chinese emoji (eg the set included in WeChat). The set has only partial overlap with the set I am used to here in West, and even shared symbols often have very different semantics and pragmatics.
    But a book like that would have required research, I suppose…

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 5, 2022 @ 9:37 pm

    I got interested for a moment in how many times someone has illustrated the character "木" with an arrow connecting it to a little drawing of a a tree, publshed it with some parallel examples, and sold the lot for a profit, but it was immediately clear I had a major research project on my hands.

    Re: emoji, it's an ok hook I guess — but emoji are AFAIK used logographically in only very marginal cases — playing at writing stories, composing ad hoc rebus riddles, etc. I.e. zero conventionalized use of this kind, interssting in itself given the extent of their use

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