Don’t judge a book by its cover

I learned the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” from videos of a popular children’s story series, Thomas the Tank Engine. My son has grown out of it now but he was really into it 2 and 3 years ago. If you live in an English-speaking country and have small children at home, you will probably know what I am talking about;) In one story, Thomas saw Terrence the Tractor plowing through a field. And he started laughing at him because Terrence has the funny looking caterpillar wheels. Terrence proved that his wheels are useful and Thomas learned a valuable lesson from it. In the song after the story, the choir sing:

Don’t judge a book by its cover
Don’t make your mind up too soon
Things aren’t necessarily
Always what they appear to be
Don’t judge a book by its cover
Don’t make your mind up too soon
Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never
Never judge a book by its cover

That’s a great lesson for children and adults alike. If we could all follow it, the world will be a better place. But I digress, and I am not writing just to tell you this story, because for non-Western language books, sometimes you are not even sure if you are looking at the front or back cover of a book.

Let me use Chinese as an example, since it is my native language:)

Before the communists took over mainland China in 1949, all Chinese books, magazines, and newspapers were printed vertically starting at the right hand side of the page. In addition, looking at the front cover, the spine of the book should be on the right hand side. For a Western reader, the usual front cover is actually the back cover, and the usual back cover should be the front cover. And you sort of read the book backwards, if you will, top to bottom, right to left. Are you still with me?:)

After the liberation (mainland lingo for communists taking over) in 1949, or maybe even a few years after that, the mainland government reformed that practice. Now all mainland publications are printed in a way consistent with Western publications. Horizontally, left to right, the spine of the book is at your left hand side when you look at the front cover. The traditional way is only practiced in very rare circumstances, for example, calligraphy, Chinese New Year’s couplets (The 2 rhythmic sentences that are posted at both sides of the front door, written with blank ink on red paper).

The Nationalist lost the civil war and stayed in Taiwan. All publications are still printed the traditional way on that island. In addition, traditional Chinese are used there, whereas simplified Chinese are used in mainland. Maybe I will write a separate blog on that.

Since I grown up in mainland China, I found it awkward initially to read books printed the traditional way. However, I live in the Chicago area now, so Chinese books are in short supply. The Chicago Public Library has some collections of Chinese books, about half of them are from publishes in Taiwan, so I have started reading quite a few of them. After awhile, I am used to it. Like all habits, it is acquired and it is useless to say which way is better.

I am not sure how other Chinese speaking regions do printing, such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Probably they are just like mainland?

Japanese and Korean were heavily influenced by Chinese a while ago, but have undergone pretty big changes since then. But I have a feeling that they still print things the traditional way. I could be wrong though.

I also heard that Arabic and Hebrew printing is somewhat similar. I have zero knowledge of those languages.

By the way, children’s books are helpful to a non-native English speaker like me. I actually learned a few words that I didn’t know and find the big picture books helpful;)


5 responses to “Don’t judge a book by its cover”

  1. Japan and Korea are like the Mainland for the most part. Hong Kong, too. I think it is mostly only Taiwan that sticks to the old way, and even they don’t do it completely. I kind of like the traditional way; as one learning Chinese in Taiwan at the time, I liked how they could display the zhuyin fuhao right next to the character. I think it helped me learn to read.

  2. I can’t say for absolute certainty with Hebrew, but written Arabic does appear from right to left, starting at what westerners would say is the “back” of the book. I would imagine that the westenization of some Arabic states would cause a mixture (Japanese has quite a mixture as well).

    Arabic is my current language I’m studying. My father spoke 8 and could read 10 languages fluently. I’m woefully behind his legacy. Mandarin is next on my list. Perhaps there’s someone I know that could help me practice? 🙂

  3. Wow, 10 languages, that is really something!

    Not sure if I will learn Arabic, but I’d like to learn more about the history, religion, and culture in that important region.

    No problem practicing Chinese with me buddy;)

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