Understanding Chinese characters
Learning Chinese characters can be a struggle to begin with but once the basics have been mastered, each new character can take you on a fascinating journey through Chinese history and culture. In the language section we have an introduction to the Chinese language and also show how the characters are drawn with brush or pen strokes. Here we look at the basic classes of characters and the origins of some of the most frequently used characters in Chinese.
The characters are split into groups. The first are the ancient pictographs, these characters are derived from drawings of objects in everyday life probably over 10,000 years ago. During the period 5,000 to 6,000 years ago the pictures were augmented with indirect and abstract symbols, this class is called the 指事 zhǐ shì ‘refer to things’. Different kingdoms in the China area used different characters and it all became quite confusing. It was the discovery of writing on oracle bones from the late Shang dynasty (c. 1200BCE) that has greatly added to the knowledge of the characters used in ancient days. At this time the characters remained mainly pictorial, it was then and in the later Han Dynasty that characters began to include components that indicate how they should be pronounced - the phonetic part. Up until then looking at a character gave no hint as to how to say it. Nowadays about 80% of characters have a phonetic part indicating how it might be pronounced, these are called the 形声 xíng shēng appear sound class of character . The phonetics over the centuries have changed and recognizing the phonetic part is not a totally reliable guide to pronunciation. As well as phonetic components there are a relatively small number of ‘meaning’ or ‘determinative’ components; these radicals indicate that the character which uses it is in a particular class of thing - for example the 木 wood radical is used in over 1,500 characters all with an association with trees or wood and 心 heart radical is used in many characters indicating an emotion.
Since the Han dynasty the core characters has remained pretty much unaltered over 2,000 years but new characters are needed and archaic ones have fallen out of use. The classic script which came into use c. 400CE has been used for official documents ever since. The writing of officials and scholars was different to that of everyday people and the term ‘Chinese Latin’ has been used to make the allusion to Europe when only the educated elite would use Latin not the vernacular language.
Over the centuries the original pictures have been simplified for ease of writing with a brush. In the list of characters below on the left in brown is the original script ‘picture’ from the Shang or Zhou dynasties - 3,000 years ago. In blue is the modern script which uses lines and avoids curves as much as it can. This simplification can make deciphering the origin of characters difficult.
According to tradition it was Cang Jie ➚ 仓颉 who devised the characters at the time of the Yellow Emperor. He observed the footprints of animals and birds and realized how just the shape of the print identified the animal. He could just use the simple footprint shape instead of drawing the whole animal. From this idea he applied the same principle to devising pictographs for many everyday objects (sun; moon; earth; clouds; birds; animals etc.). These characters (象形 xiàng xíng image shapes) have made their way into Japanese (Kanji ➚) and Korean scripts (Hangul ➚) too; so learning Chinese characters helps you read a little in Japan and Korea.
The full set of 200,000 or so characters have been divided into classes based on their origin for thousands of years. The vast majority (90%) are made up of a ‘radical’ combined with another element rather than a single pictorial representation. Liu Xin ➚ and Xu Shen ➚ of the Han Dynasty used six classes : pictographs; indirect symbols; associative compounds; mutually interpreted symbols; borrowed characters and determinative phonetics. To get by in Chinese you only need to master about 500 of them.
The character for a person is a much simplified version of the pictogram of a figure leaning to the left, the leftmost stroke originally represented the arm. Now it is more-or-less just a pair of legs.
One of the clearest pictographs represents mountain. The original pictograph had two smaller humps with a central mountain, these have been simplified to become vertical lines over the years. This character is used in the names of two provinces Shanxi 山西 (mountains west) and Shandong 山东 (mountains east).
A sheep or goat is recognizable from its horns. The modern character for a sheep has two dot strokes for the horns, a stroke for the eyes and one for the mouth.
The pictogram for a bird has it sitting on a perch with one eye represented by a dot. This is one of the more pleasing simplifications as it manages to retain the original essence of the subject with very few strokes.
The pictogram for a fish shows a head and a scaly body completed with a line to represent the fins. A fish is used as a symbol wishing good luck as it sounds the same as the character 余 yú for abundance and affluence.
In the modern character for an elephant the head is shown with the tusk and trunk protruding, so there are seven strokes in all to form the body. The elephant's head is drawn as an oblong. Several animals are captured as an easy to see pictogram such as this including horses; dogs and rabbits. Asian elephants used to be more widespread in China, today they are only seen in Yunnan province. A piece in Chinese chess is called an elephant, and the game itself is called Xiangqi or elephant game.
The character for a vehicle used to make sense in its old script form, 車 it was a cart seen from above with an axle on either side. In the last major simplification of the Chinese script brought in by the People's Republic the character has been simplified to the extent that the ‘cart’ is rather hard to make out.
Of fundamental interest to our ancestors was the passage of the seasons, and the moon determined the date (from which we get the word month). The Chinese character for moon is an idealized crescent moon.
The sun is simply a picture of the radiating circle. The ‘square’ form of all characters in this script forces the shape to be a box rather than a circle. In many cultures the sun is shown with an all seeing eye at its center, so the pictogram has a dot in the center to represent this.
Another round pictogram is mouth which has become a plain square without any embellishment. As a radical component it is often used in characters relating to speech.
A straightforward character to memorize is a gateway or entrance as it is just a doorway with two doors. As with ‘vehicle’ the traditional form 門 has recently been simplified for quicker drawing but retains the basic shape of how you would draw a gateway.
The pictogram for an eye, is an eye on its side. The central iris of the eye has been reduced to two short strokes in the middle.
A field is an ancient character. It is an area divided up for cultivation with cross-paths.
A word of universal importance, particularly ages ago when almost everybody worked the land, is the one for rain. It has little drops falling downwards from the sky.
Another pictogram that once it is visualized as a picture, works well is heart. It has a simple shape, the dot (dian) strokes give an impression of blood in motion. You will see heart in combination with many other characters denoting a strong emotion, for example 热心 rexin is literally hot heart meaning passionate, enthusiastic.
Characters have to identify more than just physical objects, words are needed for more abstract notions like spatial relationships. The following is a selection of a few common characters where the drawing brings an abstract idea to life.
To give the concept of up; above; or over what could be simpler than an upright character? It is used in the name for Shanghai (上海) to roughly mean on-sea.
Once you have chosen how to represent up as a character then down; below or descend must be the mirror image of it.
Another abstract notion is middle or center and this is quickly brought to mind by a symmetric figure, originally representing an arrow hitting the center of a target or may be the central portion of a flag. Most significant is its use in the Chinese word for China itself: 中国 zhōng guómiddle or center country.
The easiest of all the abstract words are the numbers: 1, 2 and 3. They follow the Arabic/Indian system of being based on a count of strokes. So 1 is just one stroke.
Two: 2 must be two strokes.
Three: 3 follows the pattern with three strokes. You can think of Arabic 3 as three horizontal strokes linked together. Thereafter as in the Arabic system Chinese does not continue to add more strokes for 4; 5 etc.. See numbers section for the full set.
Another abstract notion is open space or vastness. The character consists of mainly open space, it used to have a character inside 廣. This character may be familiar to you already as it is part of the name of the ‘vast’ provinces Guangxi: 广西 vast west and Guangdong: 广东 vast east.
When you have relative abstract terms like up and down; you also need big and small. Big is just a big person 人 ren with an extra stroke suggesting out-stretched arms.
If you want to emphasize size even more so that it becomes excessively large, then just adding an extra stroke to big 大 da makes it too or excessive. The extra stroke was originally a line for emphasis but this has become a dot.
Another adaption of the big character is to add another heng line stroke at the top. This gives the concept of heaven or sky - a very large space that is above men. This is the second tian we have used in this section. Tian heaven and Tian field are distinguished by tones in pinyin. Heaven is first tone tiān while Field is second tone tián.
The opposite to big is small and it is represented by an already small thing chopped in two.
At the opposite end of the size spectrum, cutting up something already small makes it even less. So another ‘cut’ stroke turns small (xiao) into less (shao).
Once you have a basic set of characters they can now be combined into composite characters in various ways to form new ideographs. This class of characters is called the 会意 huì yì associative compounds. The way they are combined can become complicated. sometimes the original meaning has been lost and the combination of characters has no modern significance.
If you combine moon and sun you have the two brightest objects in the sky. So the combined character of sun 日 and moon 月 makes the character for bright 明.
Combining the character for rain 雨 with a broom gives another clear meaning - rain you need to brush away which is snow 雪.
Other characters are formed by combination with rain 雨. In this case field 田 and rain together make thunder 雷. This has the evocative link of hearing an approaching storm out in the fields.
The field 田 character can be combined with other characters. If it is added to strength li 力, itself a pictograph of a muscled arm, then the character for male is constructed, reflecting the traditional role of men as the muscled toilers in the fields.
The fish 鱼 character can produce a number of related fishy meanings. If the radical for water shui 水 is added to it as three ‘drops’ then we get the action of fishing. This is also a ‘phonetic’ clue as fish and fishing are both pronounced the same way.
A quality of both fish and meat is that they need to be eaten while fresh as they go off quickly. So to convey the notion of freshness the characters for fish yu 鱼 and sheep yang 羊 are combined together.
Finally as an example of a more obscure but somehow delightful origin is the character for ancient. It is a combination of ten shi 十 and mouth kou 口 perhaps indicating words passed between ten people, or passed down through ten generations making it very ancient indeed.
There is only so far you can go with characters, they all need to be easy to recognize uniquely and have to be learned by heart. Basic literacy is considered to require learning 2,000 characters. This figure clearly indicates that characters are not 'words', there are hundreds of thousands of words in both English and Chinese. In Chinese a single character rarely establishes meaning, this is certainly true in spoken Chinese when hundreds of characters sound exactly the same. To give a clear meaning two or more characters are needed together to form a word. Typically the characters reinforce each other in meaning, both separately refer to more or less the same thing and so dispel ambiguity. A classic example is 朋友 péng yǒu where both 朋 and 友 independently mean friend but taken together they unambiguously mean friend. In my dictionary there are 15 homophones for 朋 péng including 膨 swollen; 棚 shed; 鬅 disheveled and 篷 sail; while 友 yǒu has 13 homophones including: 懮 relaxed; 牖 lattice window; 黝 dark green and 泑 ceramic glaze. Hearing péng yǒu immediately identifies the meaning as friend.
Similarly characters together form a composite ‘word’ idea. 笑话 xiào huà joke is made up of 笑 xiào laugh; smile 话 huà speech; words. There are many examples of this, where the combination conveys a more precise meaning than the individual parts.
It is also quite common for two characters together to have a meaning quite separate from the component characters, rather like the case of some components within a single character described above. For example 东 dōng 'east' and 西 xī 'west' in combination can mean literally east and west or very generic thing, stuff 东西 dōng xī. Another example is 雪恨 xuě hèn avenge which is made up of 雪 snow and 恨 hate; or 尘世 chén shì mundane life made up of 尘 dust; dirt and 世 age; era; life; or 歪风 wāi fēng unhealthy trend; bad influence made up of 歪 crooked and 风 wind.
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