Meet US expatriate ‘Uncle Hanzi’, devoted custodian of Chinese characters

Richard Sears has spent 15 years tending to a website on Chinese etymology that includes ancient formats for nearly 9,000 characters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 October, 2017, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 9:59am

Had he not taken the hallucinogenic drug LSD at a party in Boston in the early 1970s, Richard Sears may have led a very different life.

Before then, his dream had been to earn enough money to go to Africa. But under the effects of the drug known as “acid”, Sears felt “strongly inspired to learn Chinese”.

Sears, who was born in 1950 and grew up in Medford, Oregon, a northwestern US city with few Chinese people, could not shake the feeling. In 1972, he bought a one-way plane ticket to Taiwan with the goal of learning Chinese.

That was the beginning of a lifelong journey to quench his desire to learn more – and ultimately to impart knowledge to others – about the characters that underpin a very old language.

Over the next four decades, Sears took on various jobs, ranging from English teacher in Taiwan to physics researcher at a national lab in Oregon to computer programmer in Silicon Valley. Nonetheless, his primary passion remained the study of ancient Chinese characters.

He has spent the past 15 years tending to a website – Chineseetymology.org – dedicated to Chinese etymology, which now encompasses 100,000 ancient formats for nearly 9,000 Chinese characters.

He shot to fame in 2011 when an internet user stumbled across his site and wrote about it on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. The number of daily visitors to his website surged from 15,000 to 600,000.

Social media users were touched by Sears’ enthusiasm for the Chinese language. But some said his work made them feel ashamed.

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“This website is a magnificent project and it should be established by our state government. But it is done by a foreigner,” said one internet user, referring to the scarcity of websites specialising in ancient Chinese.

“It’s good that a foreign uncle so loves our hanzi [Chinese characters]. As Chinese, we should do better to protect this cultural treasure.”

Encouraged by the support from the public, Sears moved to China the same year, embarking on a four-year stint at Beijing Normal University, teaching physics in English.

However, daily traffic to his website soon slumped to just over 30,000 visits. Public donations became unpredictable, Sears said, ranging from nothing to tens of thousands of yuan a month.

“Chinese people praised me,” Sears said. “However, there is a reality that they are not interested in ancient Chinese characters.

“I am disappointed that average Chinese people are not eager to learn more about Chinese etymology,” he said. “Over 90 per cent of Chinese did not know a single hieroglyphic. This surprises me.”

Sears’ efforts may have made a splash on Weibo, but they failed to impress mainland scholars. Liu Zhao, a professor with the ancient characters research centre at Fudan University, described Sears’ research as superficial.

“The positive aspect of his work is that he promotes ancient Chinese characters,” Liu told the South China Morning Post. “There are many more websites and other resources in this field, although they are not widely reported.”

Although Chinese characters are tools for human communication, it is the academic’s responsibility to research ancient characters, Liu said.

Sears has faced this criticism before: “In Chinese people’s eyes, hanzi are just tools. But I see historical tales there,” he said.

According to Xinhua, there are about 80,000 Chinese characters, of which only 3,500 are commonly used.

Most people memorise thousands of characters without wondering where they come from, Sears said.

He said he focused on the characters’ origin because a major challenge when he learned Chinese decades ago was to remember how to write the characters.

Instead of merely remembering them, he wanted to understand the logic of each component of the characters and to explore how they derived into modern characters, he said.

Digging out the logic, rather than rote learning, is a habit Sears developed from his scientific training.

He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Portland State University in 1978 and a master’s degree in computer science in 1985 from University of Tennessee.

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From 1985 Sears worked as a physics researcher at a national lab in Oregon for five years. He translated Chinese scientific research papers into English as a freelancer from 1990 to 1994 when he had a serious heart attack.

After surgery, doctors told Sears they were not sure how long he had to live.

“At that time, I said to myself, ‘If I have one year, I would like to computerise Shuo Wen Jie Zi [a famous Chinese dictionary written 2,000 years ago and the first one analysing Chinese etymology],” he said.

A year later, he was still alive and working in Silicon Valley as a computer programmer. With a high salary at his disposal, Sears hired a Chinese-American woman to scan ancient Chinese characters – such as oracle, bronze and seal characters – from several ancient etymology books.

His database was based on these images and he launched his website in 2002. When internet users input a modern character, the website shows the character’s variations, going back thousands of years.

It received little attention in its first years. Then, in 2011, it went viral in China after the microblog post.

Sears, now retired, lives in Huangshan in the southeastern Chinese province of Anhui. He splits his time between studying Chinese characters and writing on WeChat about Chinese characters’ stories and his own adventures globally.

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His hobby has cost him dearly: he spent all of his US$300,000 savings on the research and operating his website on Chinese etymology. His two wives, both Taiwanese, divorced him as they did not understand what seemed to be a crazy devotion to Chinese study.

Now 67, Sears lives alone, leading a simple and thrifty life. He relies largely on public donations to keep his website going.

“All I did [for Chinese character research] was worth it, because I am interested in hanzi,” Sears said.

This month, he plans to upload more ancient character formats and his analysis on the evolution of 19,000 characters.

Sears spends less than 100 yuan (US$15) per day on himself, he said. “I don’t need a large TV. I don’t need fancy food, fancy clothes or a fancy car,” he said. “Ma jiang mian [sesame paste noodle] is all I need.”

His biggest headache is his visa as he holds a multiple entry tourist visa and needs to leave China every two months.He usually flies to Vietnam or Cambodia where the overall expenses are cheap. He stays for some days before flying back to China.

But Sears said he has many friends on the mainland and does not intend to return to the US where he is “just an old man”.

“In China, I am Uncle Hanzi,” he said. “I do my hanzi research and many people like me.”