The Sprouts: Chinese Characters


We’ve arrived in China a week prior to the beginning of this year’s Chinese New Year (February 3).  It gives us a chance to do some initial exploration prior to the big celebration.

For Christmas, O received a calligraphy brush and My Little Book of Chinese Words written by Catherine Louis with calligraphy by Shi Bo. He seems to have a natural talent for language (he has a dinosaur vocabulary that bewilders most adults and he taught himself to write and speak the Japanese numbers up to 100). He also wanted to learn Mandarin Chinese, so we thought printing the symbols would be a good first step.   He loves to spend time practicing his calligraphy. He’s thoughtfully printed symbols that tie to family members interests, age, or location and plans to make his birthday invitations with the character for “6” to represent his sixth birthday.

While the Chinese dialect has over 800 dialects, the written language is uniform. In the Snow, by Huy Voun Lee, is another wonderful introduction to the written Chinese symbolic characters. The collage cut-out illustrations, and the way in which the story is written, appeals visually and intellectually. A mother draws various Chinese characters with a stick in the snow, as she and her son walk through the woods. It becomes a game. Xao Ming enjoys guessing the characters as they both explain mnemonic ways in which to remember the characters. For example, the symbol for snow combines “hand" beneath "rain" since snow can be held. The ten words featured in the book are just enough to captivate but do not overwhelm a young reader. The glossary is an excellent resource as well. It includes a cut-paper picture, the character, the English meaning, a transcription in Mandarin Chinese, and phonetic pronunciations.

Our first Chinese meal included noodles…that typically gets our kids attention. We made Changde Rice Noodles with Red-Braised Beef from the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop. Changde is a northern province of Hunan. We usually keep a stock of rice noodles in our pantry, but were out, so we improvised with buckwheat soba noodles. We served cabbage with vinegar as a side. Fuchsia attended Cambridge College and was trained as a chef at China’s leading cooking school, the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu. We showed the cookbook to a visiting Chinese professor who will be a guest chef on the blog in the coming weeks. As she thumbed through the pages and ingredients, she kept exclaiming, “You surprise me. You know these ingredients. “ As we showed spices, sauces and items from our pantry the excitement grew in her voice. We look forward to cooking with her soon!

In the mean time, if you would like to try some of Fuchsia’s recipes prior to purchasing her cookbook, visit

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