American expatriate Richard Sears has spent 15 years tending to a website on Chinese etymology that includes ancient formats for nearly 9,000 characters.


Before beginning his work on the site, Mr. Sears dream had been to earn enough money to go to Africa. One day, while feeling the effects of LSD, Mr. Sears felt “strongly inspired to learn Chinese.”

Sears, who was born in 1950 and grew up in Medford, Oregon, a northwestern US city with few Chinese people, could not shake the feeling that he should learn Chinese. So in 1972, he bought a one-way plane ticket to Taiwan with the goal of learning Chinese. That was the beginning of a lifelong journey to quench his desire to learn more – and ultimately to impart knowledge to others – about the characters that underpin a very old language.

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Over the next four decades, Sears took on various jobs, ranging from English teacher in Taiwan to physics researcher at a national lab in Oregon to computer programmer in Silicon Valley. Nonetheless, his primary passion remained the study of ancient Chinese characters.

He has spent the past 15 years tending to a website – – dedicated to Chinese etymology, which now encompasses 100,000 ancient formats for nearly 9,000 Chinese characters.

He shot to fame in 2011 when an internet user stumbled across his site and wrote about it on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. The number of daily visitors to his website surged from 15,000 to 600,000.


China Daily1.jpgPhoto: China Daily

“This website is a magnificent project and it should be established by our state government. But it is done by a foreigner,” said one internet user, referring to the scarcity of websites specialising in ancient Chinese.

“It’s good that a foreign uncle so loves our hanzi [Chinese characters]. As Chinese, we should do better to protect this cultural treasure.”

Encouraged by the support from the public, Sears moved to China the same year, embarking on a four-year stint at Beijing Normal University, teaching physics in English.


Sears, now retired, lives in Huangshan in the southeastern Chinese province of Anhui. He splits his time between studying Chinese characters and writing on WeChat about Chinese characters’ stories and his own adventures globally.

His hobby has cost him dearly: he spent all of his US$300,000 savings on the research and operating his website on Chinese etymology. His two wives, both Taiwanese, divorced him as they did not understand what seemed to be a crazy devotion to Chinese study.

Now 67, Sears lives alone, leading a simple and thrifty life. He relies largely on public donations to keep his website going.

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Photo: Language Log

His biggest headache is his visa as he holds a multiple entry tourist visa and needs to leave China every two months.He usually flies to Vietnam or Cambodia where the overall expenses are cheap. He stays for some days before flying back to China.

But Sears said he has many friends on the mainland and does not intend to return to the US where he is “just an old man”.

“In China, I am Uncle Hanzi,” he said. “I do my hanzi research and many people like me.”

Global Times.jpegPhoto: Global Times