How does an index work in a Chinese book?

You might have wondered: How does an index work in a Chinese book?

Let me illustrate this by showing how looking up a word would work if indexes in English books worked the same way they do in Chinese books. For the purpose of this illustration let’s say lowercase letters are more “standard” because this will be important.

Let’s say you want to look up the word “stroller.” You would start by counting the number of “strokes” that make up the word. Let’s say s is one-stroke, t two, r one, o one, l one, and e one, because that’s how you write these letters. So you flip to the index and look under the heading “9-stroke words,” and you start scanning through the entire section. When you see the word “stroller” you are done.

What if you couldn’t find it? Maybe it’s not in the index. Or maybe your counting skills are not up to par.

No, seriously. Maybe you undercounted because the way you write your letters aren’t so standard. Maybe the letter r is supposed to be written in two strokes instead of one.

So you look under the section that follows and repeat the scanning through the entire list of “10-stroke words.”

Still no luck? Then maybe you overcounted instead. So you repeat the scanning through the entire list of “8-stroke words.”

If you still can’t find it, then you’re pretty sure “stroller” is not in the index. Unless, of course, the word is actually spelt p-r-a-m in the book because the author thought “pram” is a more common form than “stroller” in the British Commonwealth, or maybe the author thought Canadian English is the same as UK English. And the indexer never thought of adding a cross reference for “stroller.”

Actually this is a bad example, because “pram” is actually 9 strokes so you would have found it. Maybe the difference between “streetcar” and “tram,” but you get the idea.

You might say, That’s a stupid way to orgranize an index, but you see, Chinese is completely not alphabetical. In English you can get away with knowing how to arrange 26 letters. In Chinese no one can be expected to know how to arrange more than ten thousand “letters.”

So what do we make of indexes with no headings in a Chinese book? Useless. Unprofessional. A disservice to the reader. And I’ve just shown you why.

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