Chinese Characters

BY Cchatty ArticleComprehensive Chinese
Release time:2017-12-20
Tag: Chinese Characters Learn Chinese
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Chinese characters have over 4,000 years, evolved over thousands of years, now 3,500 characters commonly used. And Chinese writing is like drawing.
part 1

Chinese Characters

chinese characters

Chinese characters are symbols that have been developed for the writing of the Chinese characters. Chinese characters have also had a major influence on the writing system of other languages, such as Japanese, Vietnam, and Korean. The Chinese characters are highly developed logograms.

Chinese characters are one of the oldest writing systems in the world, with a history of over four thousand years. The earliest known sophisticated Chinese character system is the oracle of the Shang dynasty. Afterward, Chinese characters underwent many changes. Shapes became strokes, pictographs become symbols, and complexity was reduced. The total number of Chinese characters now exceeds 100, 000, 3500 of which are commonly used.

After thousands of years of evolution, Chinese characters have gone through the "seven stages of Chinese characters" namely: Oracle, jinwen, seal script, official script, cursive script, regular script, and running script.

part 2

Chinese and Chinese Characters

Chinese  Characters-Chinese and Chinese Characters

The invention of Chinese characters vastly in. Chinese people are very fond of using words to record their history. Most of the family has a genealogical record, documenting the key events that have occurred in their families for hundreds of years or even thousands of years. Each place has local records documenting the strange and unusual events that have taken place in the area. Every dynasty has a history, recording the significant that have happened in the country and recording the actions and actions of the Kings.

Chinese people like to use Chinese characters not only to record their history but also to give more cultural connotations to Chinese characters. Thus, the Chinese turned Chinese Characters into calligraphy and writing became an artistic activity. Sometimes we say that writing Chinese is like drawing pictures.

part 3

The Invention of the Chinese Characters

Chinese  Characters- the invention of the Chinese characters

According to the legends, Cangjie created the characters (仓颉造字说): In legend, there was a figure in remote antiquity named CangJie who was an official historian of Huangdi (known as the Yellow Emperor). It said that he had four eyes, and the upper two were for watching the sun, the moon, and the stars while the other 2 are for watching mountains, rivers, beasts, and birds. In addition, it was he, as the legend goes, who had created the Chinese characters according to the shapes of all things. Therefore, he has the title of “Sage of Character-creation,” as later generations addressed him. Nevertheless, it is improbable for any single person to create a complicated character system at one time. Many people gradually in the long process of invention, accumulation, and evolution develop the characters.

The invention of the Chinese characters-Archaeological discovery

    Archaeological discovery:

According to archaeological finds, before the creation of Chinese characters, the Chinese people used "knot rope," “the Eight Diagrams," "picture," "text" and so on to record the events around them. Nowadays, research proved that Chinese characters come from collective wisdom. Even if Cangjie had existed, he would only have collated and promulgated the Chinese characters.

Through systematic investigation of China's 19 archaeological cultures, people have unearthed many engraving symbols in more than 100 historic sites. Archaeologists think that China's earliest engraving marks have a history of more than 8,000 years. From the unearthed characters from archaeological excavations, they found that the Chinese character system was first formed in the central plains, and the first matured characters appeared in the Shang dynasty (1700 -1100 BC).

part 4

The Development of Chinese Characters

Chinese  Characters-Oracle Bone Inscription

  • Oracle Bone Inscription甲骨文

"甲骨文(BC.14-11)" is the oldest form of Chinese characters. Most Oracle Bone Inscriptions are divination records, engraved on tortoise shells or animal bones. Archaeologist have found about 150,000 pieces of bone inscriptions containing more than 4,500 words. The content recorded on the tortoise shells and animal bones are extremely rich. It involves many aspects of social life, including politics, military, culture, social customs, etc. The understandings of the ancient Chinese about astronomy, calendar, medicine, science, and technology can also be found. Based on the roughly 1,500 characters that experts have been able to identify from the bones, archaeologists find that these ancient drawing-like characters already exhibited traces of the four methods of creating Chinese characters established later: “Hieroglyphic Characters(象形), Self-explanatory Characters(指事), Associative Characters(会意), Pictophmetic Characters(形声). Characters on tortoise shells and animal bones are mostly found in the Shang Dynasty and the early Western Zhou Dynasty.

  • Bronze Inscriptions金文

Bronze Inscriptions refers to the inscriptions on the bronze ware of Yin Zhou (1600bc), also known as “Zhong ding wen.” Shang Zhou is the time of bronze ware. The “ding” represents a kind of bronze ware, the “Zhong” refers to a type of musical instrument. Therefore, Zhong ding wen refers to the inscriptions engraved on bronze wares. In the Xia dynasty, China entered the Bronze Age, and copper smelting and copper production were very developed. Because bronze is also called gold in the Zhou Dynasty, the inscriptions on the bronze are also called "jinwen" or "jijinwen(吉金文).”

Jinwen was first found in the early period of the Shang dynasty. Ronggeng, an expert on Jinwen and ancient Chinese characters, recorded many Jinwen characters in his book “A Collection of Inscriptions on Ancient Bronze Objects,” which recorded 3,722 characters in total, of which 2,420 are identifiable.

  • Seal Script篆书

It can also be called as “the Script of Qin.” Seal script is divided into “Dazhuan(大篆)” and “Xiaozhuan(小篆).” At the beginning of the Qin Dynasty, the Emperor Qinshihuang contended the idea that the written script should be standardized in form so as to facilitate the communication between people from different areas of the countries.

  • Dazhuan(大篆)

Dazhuan refers to the script used in the late Western Zhou dynasty. The font is similar to Qin zhuan, but the shape of the glyphs overlap. A representative work of this script is the inscriptions on a drum-shaped stone block, which were said to be carved by Zhou Xuan king (827B.C.-781B.C.). The inscriptions on the drum-shaped stone block are the oldest inscriptions engraved on stones. Dazhuan largely retained the characteristics of Jinwen, and they are more standardized and less pictographic than Jinwen.

  • Xiaozhuan(小篆)

Xiaozhuan is also called "qin zhuan." After Qinshihuang unified the country, he ordered his prime minister, Li Si, to unify the language script. Therefore, Li Si abolished the scripts used by other six states and created Xiaozhuan by simplifying Dazhuan. The body of Xiaozhuan characters is long and evenly round. Li Si also eliminated the variant forms of many characters used by different people and create the standardized writing script of Xiaozhuan. It was not until the last years of the Western Han dynasty that the Clerical Script finally replaced it. However, due to its beautiful handwriting, Xiaozhuan is always the favorite script of calligraphers. Moreover, because of the complex structure of Xiaozhuan characters, people who made seals in ancient times, especially official seals for which security was important often preferred Xiaozhuan. The Kangxi dictionary uses Xiaozhuan on all the characters.

Chinese  Characters-Seal Script2

  • Official Script隶书

Clerical Script is an ancient style of calligraphy that came into being in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D.220).

The Clerical Script was evolved from the Seal Script. The main change in the Clerical Script is that its strokes become square. Because it is difficult to draw circular strokes with paint on wood, the writing speed of Clerical Script is faster than that of the Seal Script.

The formal name of Clerical Script came from the Eastern Han dynasty. Clerical Script marked an important stage in the development of Chinese characters, which has brought the Chinese calligraphy art into a new realm. The Clerical Script laid the foundation for the Regular Script.

  • Regular Script楷书

It said that the Regular Script emerged in the late Eastern Han Dynasty. Its structure is further simplified. Because of its square form and straight strokes, the Regular Script is regarded as the model of Chinese scripts, hence the name. In Chinese “楷” means good examples.

Also, many famous calligraphers practiced Regular Script such as Yan Zhenqing(颜真卿) and Liu Gongquan(柳公权). Regular Script is considered as the standard script for handwriting.

  • Cursive Script草书

Cursive Script was formed in the early Western Han dynasty. “草书” can be divided into “章草”(Zhangcao), “今草”(Jincao), and “狂草”(Kuangcao). Zhangcao emerged at the period between the Qin and Han dynasties. It was derived from the Clerical Script, therefore, this kind of script bore some characteristics of the Clerical Script. Jincao appeared at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. Jincao features continuous strokes in a character and connecting elements between the characters. It is said that Jincao was created by Zhang Zhi, who is hailed as the Sage of the Cursive Script. In the Tang dynasty, people created the Kuangcao, which is the most uninhibited type among the various Cursive Scripts. Two eminent figures in the circle of the Kuangcao are “怀素”(Huai Su) and “张旭”(Zhang Xu).

Chinese  Characters-Cursive Script

  • Running Script行书

Running Script can be divided into Xingkai and Xingcao. It was derived from the Regular Script. It emerged roughly at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. It bears both the characteristics of the Regular Script and the Cursive Script. Unlike the Cursive Script, the Running Script has both the charm of art and the practicality of a handwriting script. The representative work of the Running Script is the Lantingji Xu by “王羲之”(Wang Xizhi), a renowned calligrapher of the Eastern Jin Dynasty.

part 5

The Formation of Chinese Characters

Chinese  Characters-The formation of Chinese Characters

The Chinese characters have gone through thousands years of development. Xu Shen, a scholar in the Eastern Han Dynasty, first summarized the rules of constructing Chinese characters in his book “说文解字”(Shuowen Jiezi). In the book, Xu Shen illustrated the four methods to create Chinese characters, i.e. Hieroglyphic Characters(象形), Self-explanatory Characters(指事), Associative Characters(会意), and Pictophmetic Characters (形声).

Hieroglyphic Characters(象形)

This creation method creates characters by drawing the outline of things with lines and strokes that constitute a character. The characters “日”(sun), “月”(moon), “山”(mountain), and “水”(water), etc., were created using this method. It is at the basis of the formation of Chinese characters. However, complicated things, abstract concept can't be drawn using strokes and lines. Therefore, only a handful of characters are created using this method.

The character "瓜" (melon) is also a hieroglyphic character. In the word "melon," the two left-falling strokes represent the vines where melons are attached to before they are ripe; the middle vertical hook represents the melon; the right-falling stroke represents the leaves on the vines. In real life, the names of many things contain the character "瓜", such as a "melon cap" (a kind of hat) and a watermelon boat (a kind of ship).

"瓜" can also be used in many collocated ways. For example, when people eat melons, they often cut them into different sizes. Therefore, people use "瓜分"(to carve…up) to mean partitioning or distributing.

Self-explanatory Characters(指事)

The method to form characters using symbols to indicate the character's meaning is called “Self-explanatory Characters.” Self-explanatory characters are symbolic characters that have been created to represent abstract concepts.

There are two types of self-explanatory characters. One type is purely symbolic characters created to represent certain things, the other type is characters created by adding explanatory symbols to some hieroglyphic characters. The character "一" was created to represent the number "1". The character "刃"(blade) is created by adding an additional dot which indicates where the blade is to the character “刀(knife). The left and right parts of "人" represent armpits.

Associative Characters(会意)

Characters formed with two or more independent characters to indicate a new meaning are called Associative Characters.

Chinese  Characters - Associative Characters

For instance, “好”(Good) = “女”(a daughter) + “子”(a son). The character implies that only when we have both son and daughter can our life become perfect. The following words are more examples of associative characters:

1) 木 (tree) with 亻 (people component) means 休 (to rest);

2) 氵 (water component) with two 步 (footprints) means 涉 (to wade);

3) 口 (mouth) with 鸟 (bird) and means 鸣 (to chirp);

4) 宀 (house) with 火 (fire) inside means 灾 (disaster);

5) 亻 (people component) with a 戈 (knife) means 伐 (to chop);

6) A man 亻 (people component) lying in bed 百 in a house 宀 (house) means 宿 "to live at."

       Pictophmetic characters(形声)

The pictophmetic characters consist of meanings components and pronunciation components. The method to create pictophmetic characters is the most productive method of creating characters. Among which is the unifying of a combination of form and meaning. Characters created in this way include "月+要=腰, 月+干=肝, 月+土=肚." In these characters, "要," "干" and "土" indicate the pronunciation of the characters; "月" indicates that the characters represent a part of human or animal body. "月" is a picture-radical. According to statistics, Pictophonetic Characters account for about 90% of Chinese characters.

part 6

Adaptation to Other Languages

Chinese  Characters-Adaptation to other languages

Chinese culture had a significant influence on surrounding countries. In ancient times, these countries were part of a Chinese character Culture circle in which Chinese characters were considered as the universal writing system. Nowadays, the traces of Chinese characters can be found in the official languages of Japan, Vietnam, and the Korean Peninsula.


Japanese characters are the characters used in writing Japanese; another name of Japanese characters is Kanji. Most of the Japanese characters are almost identical to those used in Chinese. Characters in Japanese can be written as Chinese characters, and some Japanese words have similar meanings with the corresponding Chinese ones. Because in Japan there are multiple levels of borrowing, one Character may have several Japanese pronunciations.

The Japanese writing system also includes a system of syllables called kana, which are Chinese characters used to denote Japanese characters. Kana can be divided into two types: Hiragana and Katakana.


The Vietnamese language had been influenced by the Chinese character culture since ancient times.

Between the 1st and the 10th century, Vietnam was under the rule of Chinese emperors. Therefore, a large number of Chinese characters were introduced into the Vietnamese language during that period. The pronunciation of these words borrowed from Chinese characters are entirely on the rule of the Chinese language. Many important historical materials are written in Chinese. During the second half of the 19th century, French colonists organized a series of campaigns to reduce the influence of the Chinese culture. During the first half of the 20th century, phonograms promoted by the French colonists began to thrive in Vietnam.

It is needed to point out that before the 20th century, Chinese characters were always the official writing script of Vietnam.


Around the 2nd century BC, Chinese characters were introduced into Korean. People on the Korean Peninsula had used Chinese Characters for more than two thousand years. In such a long time, of course, the impact of Chinese characters is inexplicable.

Therefore, we can say that the Chinese characters were deeply integrated into the life of the Koreans.

Before the mid-15th century, the Chinese characters were the only writing system on the Korean peninsula. After independence, many Koreans thought that they should promote their own national writing system. However, since the second half of the 20th century, many people have voiced different opinions on whether Chinese characters should be abolished.

part 7

Chinese Input Method

Chinese  Characters-Chinese input method

Because of the structure of Chinese characters, people can’t input them as quickly as they input English letters. Therefore, many input methods based on other codes are created. Among them, the Pinyin input is the most popular.

However, since the Pinyin input method requires people to know the pronunciation of a character before typing, people often find it difficult to type characters that they are not familiar with.

Another widely used input method is "五笔输入法" (the Wubi Input Method). It is an input method that input characters based on the structure of Chinese characters. Thus, many people think that the Wubi Input Method is the real input method for Chinese characters. However, compared to the Pinyin Input Method, the Wubi Input Method is much more complex and troublesome, which is why many people prefer the Pinyin Input Method to the Wubi Input Method.

part 8

Chinese Writing

Chinese  Characters-Chinese writing

Many Chinese learners find it hard to write Chinese characters. Indeed, the Chinese language is immensely different from other languages. Unlike the letters of many Indo-European languages, the Chinese characters are composed a various number of strokes. To write a character, one must know three essential characteristics of Chinese characters, which are the strokes that constitute it and the way to write and organize the strokes; the meaning of the component of Chinese Characters; some rules necessary for writing Chinese Characters.

    1. The strokes of Chinese Characters

The stroke usually refers to the various consecutive points and lines of Chinese characters, such as horizontal stroke (一), vertical stroke (丨), left stroke (丿), dot (丶), and so on. It is the smallest unit of the Chinese characters.

Chinese Characters - The strokes of Chinese Characters

There are eight kinds of basic strokes in Chinese characters:

1)     Dot,tiny dash;

2)     Horizontal, rightward stroke;

3)     Vertical, downward stroke;

4)     Press down or right-falling, falling rightwards, flattening at the bottom;

5)     Throw away or left-falling, falling leftwards, with a slight curve, not very curved;

6)     Rise or rising, flick up and rightwards;

7)     Break or turning, 90-degree turn, going down or going right only;

8)     Hook,appended to other strokes, going down or going left only;

    2.  The meaning of the components of Chinese Characters

There are 201 kinds of components in all the Chinese Characters. These components can make up many different Chinese characters, which is similar to the 26 letters that constitute English words. 87 components are commonly used. (Regular HSK WORDS LIST)

component of Chinese Characters

Understanding these elements and the rules of their combination will help Chinese learners to learn to write Chinese characters.

1) 日: sun component, implying the sun, light, time, dry and other related things;

2) 石: stone component, implying stone and related to earth;

3) 田: farmland component, related to fields and farming items;

4) 豆: bean component, related to all kinds of bean and legumes;

5) 鱼: fish component, related to fish, amphibians, and fish food;

    3.  Know some rules about writing Chinese Characters

There are some basic rules about writing Chinese Characters, such as:

1) writing the left side first, and then the right side;

2) writing the top, and then the bottom;

3) writing the left-falling and the right-falling;

4) writing the horizontal, and then vertical;

5) writing the left part, and then right part;

6) writing the outside, and then inside;

7) writing the middle, and then both sides;

Furthermore, if you want to improve your handwriting, your could buy a copybook and imitate the models of handwriting in the book. Most of these copybooks contain models of handwriting by famous calligraphers. If you practice it often, gradually you will find that the Chinese characters you write are becoming better and better.

part 9

Characteristics of Chinese Characters

Chinese  Characters-Characteristic of Chinese character

Chinese characters are one of the oldest handwriting systems in the world, and they had exerted a great influence on the neighboring countries. As Chinese characters evolve, they gradually become square symbols made up of strokes. Therefore, the Chinese character is nicknamed “方块字” (square block character).

Chinese characters evolved from Hieroglyphic Characters to logogram Characters with a complete system of word formation and phonetics. As the oldest continuously used writing system in the world, Chinese characters have gone through many changes and challenges. With over 1.3 billion users, the Chinese characters will continue to shine brightly in the course of its unceasing development.