Exploring Emojis and Chinese with The Hanmoji Handbook

Exploring Emojis and Chinese with The Hanmoji Handbook

This week a new emoji-filled book has begun to pop up in stores worldwide: The Hanmoji Handbook: Your Guide to the Chinese Language through Emoji. Published by MITeen Press and Candlewick Press, the book uses emojis as a means of introducing and memorizing Chinese Han characters, thus the name "Hanmoji".

Co-authored by Jenny 8. Lee of Emojination alongside designer Jason Li and technologist An Xiao Mina, The Hanmoji Handbook is aimed at both Chinese language learners and emoji aficionados, channeling emoji combinations and sequences in outlining how Chinese characters are already made up of re-usable "modules" (or "radicals"), that often get combined with one another to create new meaning.

Above: The Hanmoji for "forest", which is a combination of two🌲 Evergreen Tree emojis in the same way the Chinese for "forest" is two 木 (tree) characters.

Primarily using emoji designs from Google's Noto Color Emoji set, the book details not just how emojis can help us to better understand and recall select characters from both Mandarin pinyin and Cantonese Jyutping, but also contains an engaging overview of the history of both writing systems in Chinese and, of course, emojis and Unicode.

Recommended retailers from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are detailed on the official Hanmoji website.

The official website site also includes a small number of Hanmoji puzzles, with the promise of further puzzles for those subscribed to the Hanmoji substack.

πŸŽ™οΈ Author Interview

As part of the launch, we here at Emojipedia sat down with the three authors of The Hanmoji Handbook to discuss their varied backgrounds, the similarities between Chinese characters and emojis, and the creation process of the newly-published handbook.

Keith Broni of Emojipedia (KB): So, I believe each of you has a different personal story when it comes to learning Chinese. What are those stories?

An Xiao Mina (AX): So I studied Mandarin in college and before that had just had a kind of passing interest - I grew up speaking English. So for me, it was very much a very manual process: learning the characters, sitting down, practicing. My grammar was terrible, but my teacher always said you have beautiful handwriting. And so I always took an interest in the writing in the script and how the characters came together: how you constructed them, what they were made of, and how you remember what they are.

Jenny 8. Lee (J8): Though I was born in the United States, Chinese was my first language: I was probably taught characters by my parents with flashcards when I was around two years old. And then I went to Chinese school on the weekends when I was young, though it did us no favors: we were missing all the Saturday morning cartoons! This generation of children would never realize how traumatizing it was to miss the only block period in the week when there were cartoons available for us to watch.

But yes, in my youth, I was basically learning English and Chinese at the same time. And then, when you're little and you're learning Chinese, you are learning things like the word for "good" (ε₯½) is "woman" (ε₯³) plus "child" (子). Even my six-year-old self was someone indignant at that realization, but it was a lesson in how different Chinese characters can be constructed through combinations of others - and that's a major part of The Hanmoji Handbook.

Jason Li (JL): I was born in Hong Kong and so I grew up speaking Cantonese, so Chinese and English were the languages I was learning in school. My family immigrated to Canada after I finished grade one, so I went straight to ESL and stopped learning Chinese. I did three years of catching up in English while in Canada, and then we went back to Hong Kong. But I still had grade one Chinese, and I couldn't cram three years of Chinese over the summer, so I had to attend an English-speaking international school.

However, my mom did try to gimme lessons in Chinese here and there, and I was a fluent speaker of Cantonese, so one of my ways of learning can learning Chinese then was just if this character sounds like this, I would just write it next to it: a custom system for recollection. And part of the thesis of the book is that we propose a new way of helping people learn and remember Chinese characters, with emojis acting as a helpful code in the same way that I knew Cantonese.

Above: The Hanmoji for "bright", which is a combination of β˜€οΈ Sun (ζ—₯) and πŸŒ™ Crescent Moon (月). 

KB: Jenny's work in the emoji space is very well-documented between joining the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, EmojiNation, and The Emoji Story documentary film, to name but a few ventures. Jason and An Xiao - what was your relationship with emojis prior to working on The Hanmoji Handbook?

JL: By the time we had come together for the book I had already worked the Jenny via EmojiNation to pass an emoji: we got the πŸ¦™ Llama emoji passed, and I believe the πŸͺ³ Cockroach emoji was submitted and awaiting a decision.

AX: I've been looking academically at online culture and visual culture for a while, but like with Jason it was my friendship with Jenny that led me here: just hanging out and her talking about emojis. We would text using emojis and then we would text in Chinese, and that's actually how the idea for the book came together. Cause she asked me one day back in 2018 "have you ever done emoji research"?

KB: The Hanmoji Handbook uses concepts like the Chinese Zodiac and then traditional five elements as some of the first examples of how many Chinese han characters have direct emoji equivalents. How did that structure first come to be?

JL: The book initially started with just us being excited about certain emoji combos that could match the underlying meanings of Chinese characters, like the "woman" (ε₯³) and "child" (子) combo meaning "good" (ε₯½). And so it starts off with us just like playing with those, but then the building block approach came about when were considering how we could best help guide fresh learners or a non-Chinese speaking audience to understand the concepts behind the book, and not just introducing 50 Chinese characters and their equivalent Hanmoji characters up front.

AX: It was very iterative, but I would say it really, even before the book was begun to be written, we were aiming for a combination of play and a sense of academic rigor as well. We actually had an academic paper that we worked on while writing the book.

J8: One of the things that we did in that academic paper was take all of the 214 Chinese "radicals" and try to map them to emojis to see which ones had roughly matching ones. And what was stunning to me was how many kind of slightly obscure radicals had emoji counterparts. One of my favorite ones is snout: there's a snout emoji but there is also a snout radical. Animal tracks is a radical, and there's actually also an animal tracks emoji.

But when it came to using the elements, and this book being an iterative process, well when we began the project we realized there were certain concepts that were missing: we were doing the elements of water (πŸ’¦ Water Drops; ζ°΄), wood, (🌲 Evergreen Tree; 木), fire (πŸ”₯ Fire; 火), earth (🌏 Globe Showing Asia-Australia; 土), but when we began in 2018 an emoji that could approximately represent the concept of "metal" (金 - the material, not the music genre) was missing. And if something was a universal enough concept to become a Chinese character, like 4,000, 3000, or 2000 years ago, sure it also was important enough to be immortalized in Unicode today in emoji form?

So we found a since-closed emoji gap: when we began, the closest concept to metal was ⛏️ Pick, but now we have πŸͺ™ Coin. Another example of a radical that didn't have an emoji when we began working on the book is the flute but is now very likely to be an emoji when Emoji 15.0 is approved.

Above: the hanzi for fire (火) resembles the shape of the πŸ”₯ Fire emoji.

KB: Now that it's released, what do you primarily want readers to get out of reading The Handmoji Handbook?

AX: I think when we set out to write the book, one thing that I was thinking about was "How could I write this for the me who was 10 years old, but in today's times", right? The kind of nerdy kid that's curious about the world, learning about things, and really diving into books.

So you're gonna get an introduction to the Chinese language, an introduction to how emojis work in the world, with standards and the processes of the Unicode Subcommittee. What I hope our readers of any age get out of this is really a curiosity about how language works today with the intersection of linguistics and technology. Technology and language deeply influence each other: the way they're expressed, the way they're created, the way they're disseminated. Β If a reader comes out with that curiosity activated and starts to think about language in a different way, then that would be amazing.

JL: Yeah, I do want people to think about language in a more fluid way, and have a more playful relationship with language. The book is primarily about emojis and Chinese, comparing them back and forth, but I want people to come out with a more flexible understanding of language systems in general, and to be able to understand new things that they see in the world.

J8: I think ideally something we would wanna get out from the book is that it becomes a basis for lessons: a more fun way to learn Chinese for either kids or adults. I think it'd be really cool if this book was used by academics, or if it was put on a syllabus. And I want our readers to enjoy the handbook enough that they tell other people about it, and it would be my ideal thing where it gets into cultural fabric enough that people mention it to me without knowing that I was involved with it. Β 

πŸ“– Release

The Hanmoji Handbook is now available in stores across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Recommended retailers can be found on Hanmoji.org, or via the list below:

  • Indiebound (USA πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ)
  • Barnes & Noble (USA πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ)
  • Shop Local (Canada πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦)
  • Indigo (Canada πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦)
  • Blackwells (United Kingdom πŸ‡¬πŸ‡§ & Global  🌍)