Introduction to Wenlin and Chinese
- “學而時習之。不亦說乎。” 孔子《論語》
- “To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learnt, is that not after all a pleasure?”
- Confucius: Analects, translated by Arthur Waley
- “Despite its literal and repetitive features, memorizing is not a passive affair. It is part of a person’s ongoing biographical change. It involves the person in relating new material to what he has already learned, and in relating the component parts of the new material to each other.”
- Ian M. L. Hunter: Memory, Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, 1957, page 95
- “In a system, every fact is connected with every other by some thought-relation. The consequence is that every fact is retained by the combined suggestive power of all the other facts in the system, and forgetfulness is well-nigh impossible.”
- William James: Principles of Psychology, vol. 1, 1891, pp. 662-3
- “Watch your steps up to the temple of learning. The return will be glorious.”
- I Ching, translated by Kerson and Rosemary Huang. Workman Publishing Co., New York, 1987
- 1 Introduction
- 2 The Unique Patterns of the Chinese Language
- 3 A Modern Language with Ancient Roots
- 4 Analyzing Characters into Signific and Phonetic Components
- 5 Combining Characters into Polysyllabic Words and Phrases
- 6 Learning the Most Common Vocabulary First
- 7 Mandarin Pronunciation, Pinyin, and Tones
- 8 Simple and Full Form Characters
- 9 Viewing and Editing Chinese Texts
- 10 Instant Look-up
- 11 Finding a Character Seen Outside of Wenlin
- 12 Wenlin is Not an Automatic Translation Device
- 13 Wenlin is Not a Substitute for a Human Chinese Teacher
- 14 Room for Future Improvement
- 15 A Forest of Characters
Learning Chinese is a glorious experience, and it’s easier than most people imagine. Chinese has a simpler grammar than many languages. Chinese word formation follows logical patterns. (For example, once you know the words 大 dà ‘big’ and 小 xiǎo ‘small’, then the word 大小 dàxiǎo ‘size’ is easy.) Pronunciation can be difficult at the beginning, but phonetic pinyin spelling is perfectly regular. (Pinyin is described below under Mandarin Pronunciation, Pinyin, and Tones.)
Two of the biggest challenges in learning Chinese are remembering thousands of characters, and trying to use a dictionary. Finding a Chinese word in a dictionary can take more than just a few minutes, even for highly educated native speakers. (This is mainly due to the lack of an easy-to-learn system for arranging Chinese characters in order.)
Wenlin makes it much easier to learn characters and to look them up, giving you the power to see the interesting and meaningful patterns of Chinese, so you can learn better, faster, and with more pleasure. When you read a text using Wenlin, dictionary access is quick and easy, so you’re saved from the frustration of attempting to consult an ordinary dictionary (which, even when successful, takes so long that you’re likely to forget what you were reading). Thousands of Chinese texts in electronic form are already available for reading with Wenlin.
Wenlin’s flashcards make memorization more efficient and enjoyable, automatically organizing repetition and review according to a schedule for long-term retention. Most important, Wenlin is an environment in which it’s easy to explore the structure of Chinese characters and words: to see why they look the way they do and how they relate to each other. Each new character, far from being an arbitrary collection of strokes, is a new piece of a big pattern, which becomes increasingly meaningful as you see and understand more pieces.
The Unique Patterns of the Chinese Language
The numerous pieces of knowledge that make up the Chinese language are all tied together in networks of associations. This is true of any language, of course, but written Chinese is unique in the way that its visual elements form an added dimension. Chinese is also remarkable for the extent to which longer words are built out of shorter words, in a relatively simple and logical manner. The shortest words are single syllables, written as single characters. Most characters are in turn built out of simpler characters or graphical components, which convey sounds and meanings. To get a clear picture of the relationships between words, shapes, sounds, and meanings, cross-referencing is essential.
In books, cross-referencing is limited by the required indexing, page-flipping, and bulk. With Wenlin, those limitations disappear. Together with each character, you can easily see a list of all of the words that contain that character, along with the definitions for all of these words, and you have instant access to the full descriptions of the other characters in these words. Similarly, you can easily examine and compare groups of characters that share a component in common. You can even quickly search through a huge selection of literature to find examples of any desired word used in context. None of this was possible before Wenlin.
A further advantage to Wenlin is that you can easily add to or modify the dictionary. Information that you customize in this way can be more useful than notes penciled in notebooks or in dictionary margins, and you can always obtain a paper printout of any of Wenlin’s information, if the computer has a printer connected to it – sometimes it’s nicer to read things on paper rather than on a computer screen.
A Modern Language with Ancient Roots
Wenlin is primarily for learning modern Chinese (written and spoken), but you’ll also learn about the ancient roots of Chinese, because, perhaps more than any other language in the world, Chinese has kept its history alive. By understanding the historical background, you’ll have an easier time learning modern Chinese. Most Chinese characters have changed only superficially, or not at all, since nearly two thousand years ago. Their origins can often be traced back over three thousand years. You’ll find it much easier and more interesting to learn characters, if you understand why they look the way they do. In some cases, that means seeing how a modern character, which doesn’t really look like anything, was originally a straightforward picture or diagram.
Here are ancient (left) and modern (right) forms of the character 立 lì ‘to stand’, which depicts a person standing on the ground.
Wenlin’s explanations of character shapes are based on research that has been published in a variety of wonderful books, most of which are not at all convenient for practical consultation. Wenlin Institute can’t claim any credit for the research, which was done by scholars like Xu Shen (who wrote Shuowen Jiezi, the first Chinese dictionary around 121 A.D.), and Bernhard Karlgren (20th century Swedish Sinologist); we’ve just made the information more accessible.
The character 文 wén originally depicted a person with some kind of design, possibly a tattoo, on the upper body.
It means ornaments, designs, written characters, writing, literature, language, culture, civilization, civil (as contrasted with military), gentle, etc. These related meanings of 文 wén illustrate the traditional Chinese high respect for literacy.
Here are two more examples of characters that originated as simple pictures.
木 mù ‘tree, wood’ depicts the trunk, branches, and roots of a tree.
象 xiàng ‘elephant’ depicts the trunk, head, body, legs, and tail of an elephant.
Analyzing Characters into Signific and Phonetic Components
Most Chinese characters are not simple pictures: they are combinations of elements that we call components. These components may themselves be characters. A component may suggest either the meaning or the pronunciation of a character.
林 lín ‘forest’ is made from 木 mù ‘tree’ doubled. When a component is employed to convey the meaning, or significance, of a character, as the component 木 is employed in 林, it’s called a signific component.
橡 xiàng ‘oak’ is made from two components 木 mù ‘tree’ and 象 xiàng ‘elephant’. 象 is a component in 橡 simply because the two words happen to sound the same. Rather than recognizably depicting an oak tree, 橡 combines a generic tree picture (木), as a signific component, with 象 xiàng as a phonetic component.
When the ancient Chinese needed a character for the word xiàng ‘oak’, they created the character because the meaning was related to ‘tree’, and the word coincidentally sounded like xiàng ‘elephant’. (Of course, the spoken words already existed long before the characters were invented, though the sounds have changed gradually over time.) This is how ninety percent of Chinese characters were constructed. This was all done a long time ago; new characters are almost never created any more. In modern times, a few new characters have been created for scientific words like yóu ‘uranium’ (铀), by exactly the same method: combining a signific component and a phonetic component.
We haven’t done a very thorough job of teaching you these characters. You might have various questions, such as: How do you write these characters stroke-by-stroke? What do the pronunciations sound like? And so forth. If you were using Wenlin right now, instead of just reading the User’s Guide, you could simply point and click to satisfy your curiosity.
Combining Characters into Polysyllabic Words and Phrases
A Chinese character always represents a single spoken syllable. (There is one exception: the suffix 儿 (or 兒) usually only adds an r to the syllable before it.) Nearly every character conveys some meaning even when standing by itself. To some extent, a character in Chinese corresponds to a word in English. But many Chinese words are polysyllabic – two or more syllables (characters) in length.
Normally you can divide up a Chinese expression into single characters, each of which is meaningful. The usual word for ‘elephant’ is 大象 dàxiàng, which is a two-character, two-syllable expression. 象 xiàng means ‘elephant’, and 大 dà means ‘big’. 大象 dàxiàng is one word, composed of two shorter words (but it doesn’t mean ‘big elephant’, it just means ‘elephant’). In linguistics, the shortest meaningful parts of words are called morphemes. Actually, in spoken Mandarin, 象 xiàng is rarely spoken as a word by itself to mean ‘elephant’, since it could easily be confused with various other words pronounced xiàng, so it might be more accurate to call 象 xiàng ‘elephant’ a morpheme rather than a word.
There are, however, some (though relatively few) polysyllabic words in which the individual syllables are not independently meaningful. For example, 蝴蝶 húdié ‘butterfly’ is normally an indivisible unit; 蝴 hú is always followed by 蝶 dié. (Notice, by the way, that both characters contain 虫 chóng ‘insect’ as a signific ‘radical’ component.) 蝴蝶 húdié may have originated as a single morpheme, but, possibly due to the influence of the writing system, 蝶 dié can now occur without 蝴 hú, as in 蝶泳 diéyǒng ‘butterfly stroke’ (compare 游泳 yóuyǒng ‘swim’).
‘Hello’ in Chinese is 你好 nǐ hǎo, which is really two words: 你 nǐ ‘you’ plus 好 hǎo ‘good’ (that is: “Are you well?”). Some dictionaries treat 你好 as a single word, and write the pronunciation as “nǐhǎo” without any space between nǐ and hǎo. Chinese characters never have spaces between them to indicate word boundaries. When Chinese is written in pinyin (that is, using the English alphabet plus tone marks, as described later in this introduction and in Chapter 11 Pronunciation), spaces are used to separate words. However, there is still a lack of agreement about what should be considered words, as opposed to phrases, as in the case of “nǐhǎo” versus “nǐ hǎo”. This is starting to change, as standards develop for writing entire texts in pinyin.
We will not make a fine distinction between words and phrases. We could call them all expressions, or vocabulary items, but to avoid excess verbosity, we’ll generally use words to cover a very broad range: single syllable words, polysyllabic words, and phrases. We tend to write words more often than phrases, in keeping with current practice; we’d rather call 蝴蝶 húdié ‘butterfly’ a word than a phrase.
Wenlin gives you the ability to list all the polysyllabic words in the dictionary that contain a particular character. Here’s a portion of the list of words containing the character 石 shí ‘stone’. The complete list is more than twenty times as long.
- 石油 ¹shíyóu* n. petroleum; oil
- 石头[-頭] shítou n. stone; rock M:²kuài 块
- 岩石 ²yánshí n. rock M:²kuài 块
- 化石 ¹huàshí n. fossil M:ge/²kuài 个/块
- 宝石[寶-] ¹bǎoshí* n. precious stone; gem; jewel M:¹kē/³lì 颗/粒
- 泥石流 níshíliú n. 〈geog.〉 mud-rock flow
- 矿石[礦-] kuàngshí* n. ore M:duī/zhǒng 堆/种
- 石器 ¹shíqì n. ①stone implement/artifact ②stone vessel; stoneware
- 石灰 shíhuī n. lime
- 石匠 shíjiang* n. stonemason M:²wèi 位
- 大理石 dàlǐshí* n. marble M:²kuài 块
- 青石 qīngshi n. bluestone M:²kuài 块 See also ¹qīngshí
- 石子 ¹shízǐ(r) n. cobblestone; cobble; pebble M:¹kē/³lì 颗/粒
- 石碑 shíbēi n. stone tablet; stela M:²kuài 块
- 钻石[鑽-] zuànshí n. ①diamond ②watch jewel M:¹kē 颗
- 硝石 ³xiāoshí n. niter; saltpeter M:²kuài 块
- 花岗石[-崗-] huāgāngshí n. granite M:²kuài 块
- 石灰石 shíhuīshí n. limestone
- 澳宝石[-寶-] àobǎoshí n. opal
- 绊脚石[絆腳-] bànjiǎoshí n. stumbling block; obstacle
- 采石[採-] ¹cǎishí v.o. quarry
- 采石场/厂[採-場/廠] cǎishíchǎng p.w. stone pit; quarry M:⁴zuò 座
- 打火石 dạ̌huǒshí n. flint M:²kuài 块
- 蛋白石 dànbáishí n. opal M:²kuài 块
- (Partial list shown)
The list is arranged in order of frequency of usage: the most commonly used words are shown at the top of the list. Notice that in some of the words, 石 shí is the first character, while in other words it’s the second or third character. An ordinary dictionary would only list the words that start with a given character.
Learning the Most Common Vocabulary First
When memorizing, it’s wise to start with commonly used vocabulary. Wenlin helps you do this by organizing lists of characters and words so that commoner ones are listed before less common ones. The frequency orderings in Wenlin are derived from statistical data from large collections of sample Chinese text. Details are in Appendix A.
Of course, the actual order in which you learn new vocabulary will depend on your teacher, your textbook, and yourself. Wenlin doesn’t impose a particular order, it simply makes frequency information available to you, and emphasizes the most common vocabulary. When you view a list like the one above, you’ll be likely to recognize some characters you’ve already learned, in combinations that are new to you.
For example, you might already know the character 化 huà ‘change’. Then, when you’re learning the character 石 shí ‘stone’, you might see in the list of words containing 石, the word 化石 huàshí ‘fossil’. What could be more logical? A fossil is something that has changed into stone. From the viewpoint of vocabulary learning, Chinese can be easier than English: there’s nothing about the English word ‘fossil’ that makes it easy to remember.
To be even more realistic, suppose you had learned 化 huà before, but when you saw 化石 huàshí you couldn’t quite remember that 化 huà means ‘change’. After all, we have to learn things repeatedly before they’ll stick in our minds. Without Wenlin, you’d have to take the time to find 化 huà in the dictionary, or else just skip it. With Wenlin, you can simply click on 化 to refresh your memory (and maybe learn something new, like the fact that 化 depicts a person and a person upside-down – a person who flips, changes).
Below is part of another list. These are all characters containing 心 xīn ‘heart’ as a component. Notice that many of the characters have meanings related to thoughts or emotions.
- 85 想 [xiǎng] think, feel, consider
- 119 意 [yì] (意思, 意义) meaning; 愿意 willing; 意见 opinion [yī]
- 182 总(F總) [zǒng] general; sum; always
- 182 總(S总) [zǒng] general; sum; always [zōng] [cōng]
- 201 應(S应) [yīng] (應該 yīnggāi) should [yìng] 應用 apply
- 291 認(S认) [rèn] (認為) consider; (認識) recognize
- 297 愛(S爱) [ài] love
- 300 聽(S听) [tīng] listen; 聽見 hear; 聽不懂 not understand
- 306 思 [sī] (思想 sīxiǎng) thought [si] 意思 yìsi meaning [sāi] 于思 richly bearded
- 318 必 [bì] (必须) must; 不必 needn't
- 336 感 [gǎn] (感觉) feel; (感情) emotion [hàn]
- 401 德 [dé] virtue; 道德 dàodé ethics; 德国 Germany (Deutschland)
- 448 息 [xī] breath; stop [xi] 消息 xiāoxi news; 休息 xiūxi rest
- (Partial List Shown)
When you’re studying the character 心 , or any character containing 心 as a component, examining this list can refresh your memory of related characters.
Since the entire list has over a hundred and fifty characters – most of them rare and relatively unimportant – the ordering by frequency lets you focus on the important characters. The number to the left of each character is its frequency rank: the first character 想 xiǎng ‘think’ is (approximately) the 85th most commonly used Chinese character. Do you have any idea how many characters you know? If you know nearly all the characters shown in this partial list, you probably know over 400 characters. Now you have a way of measuring your progress. Once you’ve learned the 2,000 most common characters, you’ll recognize about 97% of the characters you see in ordinary text. Keep in mind, though, that what really matters is how many words you understand, and that the majority of Chinese words are polysyllabic, like 化石 huàshí.
Mandarin Pronunciation, Pinyin, and Tones
Wenlin gives pronunciations in Mandarin, the most widely spoken Chinese language. (Eventually, future editions of Wenlin will also give pronunciations in Cantonese and various languages, topolects, and dialects.)
Pinyin (Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音) is the standard way of writing the sounds of Mandarin Chinese, using the English (Roman) alphabet plus tone marks. In addition to consonants (b, c, d, ...) and vowels (a, e, i, ...), every syllable has one of five tones: high level, rising, dipping, falling, and neutral. In pinyin, tones are represented by marks on top of the letters. (The neutral tone is unmarked.) Here are five different Mandarin single-syllable words:
|(1)||mā||(first, high level tone)||‘mother’|
|(2)||má||(second, rising tone)||‘hemp’|
|(3)||mǎ||(third, dipping tone)||‘horse’|
|(4)||mà||(fourth, falling tone)||‘curse’|
A difference in tones is just as significant as a difference in consonants or vowels.
With Wenlin, you can hear the pronunciation of any Mandarin syllable, in a man’s voice or a woman’s, recorded in audio-CD quality sound. (Pronunciation is further described in Chapter 9.)
There is another transcription system for Mandarin, invented near the beginning of the twentieth century, formally called Zhùyīn Fúhào 注音符号, commonly known as bōpōmōfō (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ). Its first four symbols are pronounced bo, po, mo, fo. It is now rare in mainland China, but is still used in Taiwan. For the benefit of those who know bopomofo better than pinyin, when you click on any pinyin syllable Wenlin includes its bopomofo equivalent in the window that pops up.
Simple and Full Form Characters
There have always been various forms of Chinese characters. Nearly all characters have changed considerably from their ancestral forms of several thousand years ago, so very few modern characters could be considered to be in their “original” forms. In spite of efforts at standardization (starting with the Qīn emperor, who burned a lot of books to achieve standardization), variation has persisted.
Modern usage is divided between the simple form characters (like 马) prevalent in Mainland China and Singapore, and the full form characters (like 馬) prevalent in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The division is especially evident in print. In handwriting and calligraphy, people tend to mix simple and full forms (and many variant forms).
Wenlin fully supports learning to read and write both simple and full forms. This is a major advantage of Wenlin over many other tools for learning Chinese. You may prefer learning to write only one form or the other, but to be literate in Chinese, you’ll eventually need at least to recognize whatever forms you see. Wenlin makes this easier for you, by showing the relationships between simple and full forms systematically, and explaining why the characters look the way they do.
Learning both simple and full forms isn’t as much trouble as you might imagine. Only a minority (maybe thirty percent) of characters have different simple and full forms; the rest are printed the same way in modern Chinese publications everywhere in the world. Of those characters that do have different simple and full forms, the great majority are predictable. For example, once you know that mǎ ‘horse’ has a full form 馬 and a simple form 马, it’s trivial to learn both forms of mā ‘mother’: 媽 and 妈.
The Chinese terms for full form character and simple form character are fántǐzì 繁體字 (繁体字) and jiǎntǐzì 简体字 (簡體字), respectively. In English, full forms are also called long, complex, complicated, unsimplified or traditional. Simple forms are also called short, abbreviated or simplified. Wenlin generally doesn’t use these alternative terms, but you may encounter them elsewhere.
The term simplified (as contrasted with simple) should really only be used when a character was originally more complex, then became simplified (jiǎnhuàzì 简化字). Not all simple forms are simplified. For example, the simple form 从 cóng ‘follow; from’ (depicting one person following another) is older than the full form 從.
“Full” as a translation of fán only means full of strokes (one teacher jokingly translated fántǐzì as ‘full-bodied character’). Not all full forms are more “traditional” than simple forms.
By the way, English spelling also has variations. The word “color” (American spelling) is spelled “colour” in England. The ancestral Latin word was spelled “color”, then the French added a letter “u” (modern French is “couleur”), and finally Noah Webster promoted the simple spelling which was the same as Latin.
Viewing and Editing Chinese Texts
You can use Wenlin both for writing new texts and for reading from a wide selection of literature. There are thousands of Chinese texts in electronic form, including classical and modern literature, poetry, news articles and more, which can be obtained from the Internet and other sources. Wenlin supports both reading and writing in the most commonly used Chinese file formats, including Unicode, GB, Big5, and others. Chapter 3 describes all the supported file formats.
Wenlin includes standard text-editing features such as word-wrap, undo, cut, copy, paste, search, and replace. There is no limit on the size of documents. To type in Chinese characters, you can simply type the pronunciation in pinyin, and then convert it into characters. Or, you can write characters by hand, using the mouse (or, preferably, a pen input device), and if you use the standard stroke order, Wenlin can recognize the characters you write.
Wenlin is primarily a learning tool, rather than a word processor. There are Chinese word processors that are more flexible with respect to page layout, font selection, etc. Wenlin’s biggest advantage for viewing and editing text is its built-in dictionary. You can even use its text editing abilities directly on the dictionary, to customize definitions and add new vocabulary.
When the Instant Look-up option is on, you can point to any Chinese character and a brief, one-line definition appears at the bottom of the screen. If the character makes a polysyllabic word with one or more of the characters adjacent to it, then the definition describes the word rather than just the character.
In this illustration, the user is pointing at the first character in the two-character word meaning ‘once upon a time’. Notice the mouse pointer , which looks like a pointing hand, and the English definition, which appears on the bottom line. More detailed information is available by clicking on a word (rather than just pointing to it).
Finding a Character Seen Outside of Wenlin
You can use Wenlin to look up characters you see in books, newspapers, etc. Instead of consulting an ordinary dictionary, it will often be faster to turn on your computer and use Wenlin. You can look up a character
- By its pronunciation spelled in pinyin, if you know the pronunciation. (Many modern dictionaries are indexed by pinyin)
- By writing it, if you can write it in the standard stroke order that Wenlin recognizes. (Obviously, no ordinary dictionary can recognize your handwriting)
- By its stroke count, if you can count the strokes. (Some dictionaries are indexed by stroke count)
- By its radical, if you know how to recognize the radical. (Many dictionaries are indexed by radicals)
- By any of its components, if you can recognize one or more of its components
The powerful method of looking up a character by any of its components is unique to Wenlin. For example, you can look up the character 橡 (xiàng ‘oak’) if you recognize either of its components, 木 or 象, by listing all the characters containing 木, or all the characters containing 象. This is an improvement to the old method of indexing dictionaries by radicals. Radicals are explained in detail in Chapter 6. Briefly, a radical is one of a small set of components (the most widely used set has 214 of them); 木 is a radical, but 象 isn’t. Most dictionaries list 橡 only under 木, not under 象.
You’ll still occasionally have reasons to consult other dictionaries in addition to Wenlin. By telling you the radical, stroke count, pronunciation, etc., for a character, Wenlin can help you to find the character in another dictionary.
Wenlin is Not an Automatic Translation Device
The purpose of Wenlin is to help you learn Chinese – not to make learning Chinese unnecessary! “Translation” is sometimes even a dirty word for language teachers, because it’s better to learn to think directly in Chinese, without always translating to and from English. Every language has its own unique ways of conveying images and ideas. When using Wenlin, or any dictionary, keep in mind that the English “definitions” of Chinese words can only suggest possible, approximate meanings for individual words and phrases. Someday, there may be machines that can understand (and correctly translate) human languages – then again, maybe not. Anyway, Wenlin doesn’t have that ability. We at Wenlin Institute don’t know anything about “artificial intelligence,” if there even is such a thing.
Wenlin is Not a Substitute for a Human Chinese Teacher
For learning to speak Chinese (and for many other purposes), nothing can compare with interaction with a Chinese-speaking human being, preferably an experienced teacher. Wenlin is definitely not a substitute for classroom instruction or conversation, only a supplement. Students may use it at home or in the language laboratory for studying texts, memorizing vocabulary, and writing homework. Teachers may use it for preparing their lessons, and may assign materials to be read by students in either printed or electronic form.
Room for Future Improvement
Even after all the changes between versions 1.0 and 4.0, there is still plenty of room for improvement in Wenlin. Future editions will have more vocabulary, more detailed definitions, more powerful features, better looking fonts, more sound recordings and pictures, more reading material suitable for beginners, etc. Although we can’t promise how quickly Wenlin will improve, if your edition is more than a few months old, it may already be out of date, so please keep in touch.
This edition undoubtedly has mistakes and imperfections. If you let us know how you think Wenlin should be improved, your input will be greatly appreciated.
Wenlin lets you modify its dictionaries and add new vocabulary. If you make modifications or additions that you would like to share, please contact Wenlin Institute. We’re excited by the possibility of turning the dictionary into a world-wide collaborative project.
Even though Chinese grammar may be simpler than English grammar, it does present quite a few difficulties. Some of Wenlin’s definitions include explanations of grammatical usage. For example, the definitions of 的, 地, and 得 (all pronounced de with neutral tone) attempt to show how these words differ. Ideally, though, Wenlin should have much more grammatical information than it has now. Teachers and scholars, please consider how you might be able to contribute to future editions of Wenlin.
A Forest of Characters
wénlín 文林 n. ① place where scholars get together ② scholarly world ③writer's resort ④〈comp.〉trademark of a program for learning Chinese – ABC English-Chinese / Chinese-English Dictionary, John DeFrancis and Zhang Yanyin ed. (2010)
As mentioned already, the meanings of 文 wén include ‘written character’ and ‘literature’. 文人 wénrén means ‘scholar’ (literally, ‘lettered/literate person’). 林 lín means ‘forest’, and can also mean ‘collections or gatherings of things’ other than trees. Thus, our trademark 文林 Wénlín means “place where scholars get together” – but can also be interpreted as ‘Forest of Characters’. (A famous ancient collection of humorous stories is called 笑林 Xiàolín – literally, ‘Forest of Laughs’.) Chinese has as many characters as a forest has trees! To avoid getting lost in a forest, it helps to have a map and a compass. Wenlin is intended to help you find your way as a scholar of Chinese.
笑 xiào ‘laugh’