As a Japanese student, I wanted to know the truth about kanji (hànzì). Not made-up mnemonics to aid learning, but the messy, ugly, and infinitely more interesting truth. When one compare sources, however, it quickly becomes apparent how much of this work is still tentative—and, given the sparse early evidence, perhaps will always be. But—that only make matters more fascinating, as far as I’m concerned. These little jumbled squiggles really come alive with their myriad histories and stories.
This post lists a few resources I like when investigating characters. Most of them are in English, and easily avaiable to the student; though, of course, nothing compares with the wealth of native material in languages from the “hanzisphere”—Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. These pointers should be considered a first step in the world of character history. My primary intention is to illustrate how diverse the theories can be, as a counterpoint to the self-assured rhetorical style of most dictionaries.