Chinese made easy with ’Chineasy’ by Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh

A series of illustrations
Noma Bar has created a series of illustrations for Chineasy, a new design and educational project tool which attempts to simplify notoriously inscrutable Chinese characters
(Image credit: Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh)

The brainchild of tech entrepreneur and self-confessed geek ShaoLan Hseuh, Chineasy (opens in new tab) is an attempt to bridge the linguistic gap between the West and China. Essentially, her system turns notoriously inscrutable (for users of the Latin alphabet anyway) Chinese characters into simple illustrations - by Wallpaper* regular Noma Bar - and then into compound phrases and illustrations.

For ShaoLan, born in Taipei but based in London, Chineasy is more than creating a new model of a phrasebook. It’s an attempt to open a new route into the Chinese language and culture.

A one-month Kickstarter campaign (opens in new tab) launches on 24 July, aiming to raise £75,000 to fund further development of the project. A website is already up and running with plans to publish a 192-page book and e-book this December, though ShaoLan is convinced the Chineasy system has potential across other media.

We talked to Noma Bar, raised and educated in Israel but now based in London, about his involvement in the Chineasy project.

What appealed about this project?

When they first came to me, they were talking about just providing illustrations to go next to the characters. I wasn’t really interested because that’s not what I do but then I had the idea of building the characters into the illustrations and it became really interesting. And was a much better fit with what I do as an illustrator.

I set myself strict rules; that the character should form 80 or 90 per cent of the illustration so the illustrative element should be really minimal. It has been a real effort to reduce and reduce.

How far have you got?

Well, there are 20,000 characters in the Chinese language and I think we have done about 100. But now we are trying to move things along and I’m working on using the characters to tell a story.

I love the explanations of what the compound characters mean and why. It must have made the project even more complicated though, in terms of thinking about how the characters were going to work in these compound forms?

Yeah, the compounds are still a bit of a work in progress to be honest. Some of them don’t really make sense illustratively yet but we are working on it.

Character-based languages are intimidating if you are used to the Latin alphabet. It’s so hard to find a way in. And this project offers a way in.

Well, the Hebrew language isn’t based on the Latin alphabet so I was used to that. And it’s read from right to left so I was used to that too. Actually for a long time I had been thinking about doing something similar with the Hebrew alphabet, with ‘alef’ as an apple and ‘bet’ for butterfly.

Also, I studied typography and calligraphy – and ShaoLan’s mother is a calligrapher - so we understood the power of the stroke and making the character the hero of the illustration.

The Chinese characters remind me of Egyptian hieroglyphs in a way, if you really dig inside them they do have an illustrative element. They have developed over time but if you look hard enough you can find it.

The brainchild

The brainchild of tech entrepreneur and self-confessed geek ShaoLan Hseuh, Chineasy aims to bridge the linguistic gap between the West and China

(Image credit: Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh)

20,000 characters in the Chinese language

There are 20,000 characters in the Chinese language; so far Noma has only illustrated about 100 but is now working on the characters to tell a story

(Image credit: Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh)

Illustrations

Initially, the brief was to provide illustrations to go next to the characters. Noma explains 'I wasn’t really interested because that’s not what I do but then I had the idea of building the characters into the illustrations and it became really interesting.'

(Image credit: Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh)

The illustrative element

'I set myself strict rules; that the character should form 80 or 90 per cent of the illustration so the illustrative element should be really minimal' said Noma. 'It has been a real effort to reduce and reduce.'

(Image credit: Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh)

An illustrative element

According to Noma, the Chinese characters are in a way reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs, if you really dig inside them they do have an illustrative element. They have developed over time but if you look hard enough you can find it

(Image credit: Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh)

A new model of a phrasebook

For ShaoLan, Chineasy is more than creating a new model of a phrasebook. It’s an attempt to open a new route into the Chinese language and culture

(Image credit: Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh)