Ever since the beginnings of sustained contact between China and the West, the Chinese writing system has exerted a particular fascination on Western observers. At the heart of that fascination lies the notion of a language in which the written symbols are actually pictures of the things they name. In fact, as linguists have frequently pointed out, the Chinese writing system is considerably more complex—and less directly pictographic—than popular accounts would lead us to believe.

Nevertheless, as Cecilia Lindqvist explains, the core pictographic characters, which have their roots in ancient inscriptions on bones and bronze, “are the main elements of the written language, and like the elements of the periodic table in chemistry, they recur constantly in all the other characters in new and fascinating combinations.” A Swedish scholar who studied Chinese under the great Sinologist Bernhard Karlgren, Lindqvist has also lived and studied in China. Her approach to Chinese characters is unique. Discussing the character for “pig,” for example, Lindqvist devotes several paragraphs to the role of the pig—and pig manure—in Chinese agriculture and the uses of pork in Chinese cuisine. A photo shows how different the shaggy, black Chinese pigs are from the variety that is common in the United States. As usual, the character under discussion is shown as it evolved from early inscriptions to the modern form. Throughout the book, Lindqvist relates the characters to distinctive practices, customs, and beliefs of the Chinese people.

Lindqvist began her scholarly career as an art historian. When she focuses on the characters themselves, she combines a painterly eye with a poet’s imagination. There is no better introduction to the Chinese writing system than CHINA: EMPIRE OF LIVING SYMBOLS—a book which will also engage and inform readers with a longtime interest in its subject.