Etymology of the Unique Chinese Characters

Etymology of the Unique Chinese Characters

Ben Wang’s 2022 Winter Course


Tuesday, 6:30 – 8:30 PM
January 11 – March 22 (No class on 2/1, Lunar New Year)
10 sessions (20 hours)
$540 member / $580 non-member
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)

*This class is taught in English.

Since the beginning of time, Man has been pursuing art and beauty. Artists and poets in the world have always been fascinated by how realism can, or must, be transformed into magic. (Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar is a perfect elaboration on the subject.) The Chinese artists’ and scholars’ ardent pursuit of art and beauty and their indefatigable search for a way to elevate realism to magic are none the more evident than in calligraphy, in that they transform crude images bearing close likeness to the real into forms of high art.

In each Chinese written character lies a picture of logic, profundity, humanity, humor, melancholy, hilarity, or social phenomenon. For this reason, calligraphy (art of writing and beauty of the written words), along with classical poetry, has since the nascency of Chinese culture been held in the highest esteem by the literati and members of the intelligentsia of China.

Simply put: Etymology of these characters is the key to the heart and mind of the Chinese, and calligraphy, the accomplice of etymology. Take away etymology, there’s no calligraphy; China’s culture in turn would cease to exist.

There are in total 5 calligraphic styles: The Oracle (甲骨文) standing for antiquity in the closest semblance between pictographs and characters; the Seal (篆) for formality, ceremoniousness, and grandeur; the Clerical (隶) for documentary somberness and rigor; Running (行) for ease and calmness; Cursive (草) for bravura, bravado, unrestraint, abandon or carefreeness – all depending on the artist’s mood to accompany and thematize the painting and poetry he’s creating.

All of the above-stated culminates in the art of calligraphy that is at once viscerally captivating and cerebrally evocative. Being able to appreciate the art of calligraphy is a joy to every person of learning. – By Ben Wang



Ben Wang: Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of Renwen Society of China Institute, retired Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program.  A published writer on classical Chinese poetry and others, Ben Wang is an award winning translator both from Chinese into English and vice versa; He taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University, New York University, Pace University and City University of New York between 1969 and 1991.

Ben Wang teaches and lectures on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature, including the Book of Songs, the Songs of the South; Han, Tang and Song poetry; Yuan and Ming poetic dramas; Story of the Stone of the Qing; classical Kunqu Drama and Beijing Opera; Literati Painting. Ben Wang’s lectures on and translations of Kunqu dramas have been reviewed and acclaimed three times in the New York Times by the Times’ music and drama critic James Oestreich as “magnificent,” “captivating,” and “colorful.”

Since 1989, Ben Wang has lectured (extensively on the above-mentioned subjects)at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, New York University, Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s College in California, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, United Nations, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, ABC Nightline, the BBC, among other academic and cultural institutions.

Latest publications in English:

  1. Forlorn in the Rain: Translation and Annotation of Selected Classical Chinese Poetry and Others; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: Oct. 2018
  2. A series of 4 books on the Forbidden City in Beijing, China:
    1. We All Live in the Forbidden City
    2. This Is the Greatest Place!
    3. Bowls of Happiness
    4. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?

    (Published by China Institute and Released by Tuttle Publishing; 2014, 2015, the series has garnered 9 US book awards, as of September 2016.)

  3. Laughter and Tears: Libretti from Highlight Scenes of 26 Classical Poetic Kunqu Dramas; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: 2009.

(January 2019)

6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
Instructor: Ben Wang