Book review on Animal Wisdom: Horse

20 October 2017 by Britta Bielenberg

I just finished reading the Horses book out of the Animal Wisdom series again. I love it just like the first time round, and know that I will come back to it again for more than one reason.

First, the illustrations are as with all Snowflake Books to die for. Ok, at least to dream about and be massively inspired. The details lead me to believe that the artist has intimate knowledge of the animal as well as botanic world, and when I look at an image for a longer period the characters seem to be animated and move across the pages; that´s how accurately the postures and eyes and manes of the horses are sketched.

Secondly, I find the way the expressions are constructed - basically a lineup of four characters like on a string of pearls - fascinating, amusing and interesting, and it challenges the way my brain is used to make sense from bits of data. It´s like tackling a sudoku for the very first time. I mean honestly, how could I have possibly guessed for instance that “Ride Horse See Flowers” means criticising someone for not appreciating something (flowers) because they are (distracted by) riding through the landscape on a horse?! Or that the four characters named Horse Horse Tiger Tiger are describing a person who is perceived as careless or sloppy?  

Finally, I enjoy the element of surprise - I enjoyed reading the stories about how the expressions came up, and even during the second time reading I had to finish each story till the end, for instance the one about the empress who was ashamed of her feet or how a clever army general managed to get disobedient commanders in line….great stuff!

Most of all however, I feel I'm taking away from engaging with this book the reminder that all cultures have their special ways of communicating: grammar doesn't seem as important in the Chinese language, it's all about symbols! The character for horse in fact seems to resemble one half of how I would draw a horse in stick style (plus maybe a rider or something else on its back). And instead of constructing a word letter by letter as we do, in Mandarin people get a sense of the plot by stringing symbols of things or verbs together, which certainly inspires my imagination and takes some practice, and it is a lot of fun as well. And I wonder: would I manage to last for just five minutes trying to stay with this method of describing what I want to say as I sit at my desk and only using “naked” nouns, verbs, adjectives without any grammar at all?