"The very best thing about the program is the instant translation feature. It is fabulous being able to zap through a text and look up all the words you don't know instantly. It's the equivalent of an earthbound snail learning to fly."
—Gesa Walker, Edinburgh
The Clavis Sinica software was developed by a faculty member at the University of Michigan as a supplementary learning tool for English-speaking students of the Chinese language. It is currently used in second- and third-year Chinese courses at the University of Michigan, where both students and instructors have given it an enthusiastic reception. It is now being offered for sale to other universities and to individual students of Chinese in order to fund further improvements to the program and to promote the wider study of Chinese language and culture.
The title of the program, Clavis Sinica, has an interesting history. In the late 17th century, an otherwise obscure German philologist by the name of Andreas Müller claimed to have discovered the "key" to the Chinese language. He had read and studied the many Jesuit missionary writings about the Chinese script, and had concluded that Chinese characters comprised an elaborate but thoroughly rational "code" whose secrets would be revealed to anyone in possession of the proper key. By using his method, he promised, anyone--"even women"--could learn to read Chinese books within the space of a year. He offered to sell the publication rights to his discovery, which he called the clavis sinica, to anyone who would pay a fair price for his labors. No suitable offers were forthcoming, however, and he fulfilled a pledge to destroy his papers before he died.
While we may never learn the details of Müller's discovery nor reconstruct his technique for mastering Chinese in less than a year, the spirit of his enterprise lives on in the Clavis Sinica program. Much like Müller's original key, this software attempts to reveal the structure and patterns to be found in the Chinese written language, and to encourage the student to recognize and build upon connections among related elements of the language as an important stepping stone to true literacy.
The Chinese title of the program, Shi Wen Jie Zi, literally means "annotate texts, analyze characters." These four characters, then, concisely describe the two principal features of the program. The text reader "annotates" Chinese texts with helpful lexical information about unfamiliar characters and phrases, while the dictionary windows "analyze" characters into their component parts and show their relationship to other characters that use the same parts. Taken together, the four characters of the Chinese title are also intended as an allusion to the great Shuo Wen Jie Zi, an analytical dictionary written by the scholar Xu Shen during the Eastern Han dynasty and the first full-fledged dictionary in Chinese history.