Chinese Characters and the Chinese language

BY CchattyArticleComprehensive Chinese
Release time:2018-05-06
Tag: Chinese Characters
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Chinese Characters were created as written symbols to record the Chinese language. They are the basic structural units of written Chinese.
part 1

Chinese Characters and the Chinese Language

Chinese Characters and the Chinese language

Chinese Characters were created as written symbols to record the Chinese language. They are the basic structural units of written Chinese. They are very well suited for writing Chinese, and their properties allow there to be great consistency between the written and spoken language. The Chinese characters allow the Chinese people to communicate in spite of their dialects and eras. 

Chinese Characters adapt themselves to actual Chinese language with high consistency with it. It seems that their only difference lies in “appearance” and “pronunciation,” namely, it is Chinese characters upon seeing, and it is the Chinese language upon reading out.

1) Chinese Characters Adapt Themselves to the Chinese Language Dominated by Monosyllable

Monosyllables are the basic unit of the Chinese language, such as "人 ren (person)" and "物 wu (object)" in the disyllabic word "人 物 ren wu (figure)." One syllable signifies one single monosyllabic word or morpheme, which is the fundamental grammatical element in a language.

Most characters in ancient Chinese were monosyllabic, such as "学 xue (study)" and "习 xi (review)," both of which can be used separately. For example, in the saying "Learn and often review and practice, and is this not very happy?", the two characters are used separately to express two different meanings. In modern Chinese, although most words are disyllabic, and there are fairly clear boundaries between the syllables. For example, the disyllabic word "xuéxí" combines the two characters "xué" and "xí" and is written as "学习 xue xi (study)." The boundary between "学 xue (learn)" and "习 xi (review)" is the pause between the two syllables (morphemes) "xué" and "xí." In other words, one character expresses one syllable. Another example is given by the eight syllables in the sentence "Wǒ zài Zhōngguó xuéxí Hànyǔ, which is written as "我在中国学习汉语 wo zai zhong guo xue xi han yu." This sentence means "I learn the Chinese language in China." These eight characters correspond precisely to the sentence's eight syllables.

2) Chinese Characters Suit the Formless Aspect of the Chinese Language

In English many words often change their forms. For example, we say and write “a book” but when there is more than one book, we say or write “two books.” In this case, the consonant phoneme “s” is used to express plurality. There is no such form change in the Chinese language. So, in Chinese, “书 shu (book)” has no change in form and one writes “一本书 a book” or “两本书 two books.” “书” is also always pronounced "shū."

3) Chinese Characters Help People Understand Homophones

Homophones—characters and words that have different meanings but share the same pronunciation—are quite common in the Chinese language. Due to their graphic form and structure, Chinese Characters make it relatively easy to distinguish the meanings of homophones. Examples of Chinese homophones include: “师 (teacher),” “狮 (lion),” “尸 (corpse),” “施 (apply),” “诗 (poem),” “湿 (wet),” “失(loss).” These are all pronounced “shi” in the Chinese language.

To sum up, Chinese Characters are very suitable for recording the Chinese language in a written form as they can adapt to the way it is structured and used. There are few disconnections between "appearance" and "pronunciation" in the Chinese language. It is Han character upon seeing, and it is the Chinese language upon reading out.

part 2

Chinese Characters are the Fundamental Structural Units of the Chinese Language

Chinese Characters are the Fundamental Structural Units of the Chinese Language

As mentioned above, sentences in Chinese are formed by syllables spoken one after another. In written Chinese, these sentences are composed of characters (morphemes) placed one after another.

Characters form words, which, in turn, create phrases. Chinese Characters are the fundamental structural units of the Chinese language.

Take the sentence “我在中国学习汉语 wo zai zhong guo xue xi han yu (I learn the Chinese language in China).” This sentence has eight syllables and is formed by eight characters. Six of these characters make up three disyllables “中国 zhong guo (China),” “学习 xue xi (learn)," "汉 语 han yu (the Chinese language)." The sentence contains two small phrases which are based on the three disyllables: “在中国 zai zhong guo” (which means “in China” and has a preposition-object structure) and “学习汉语 xue xi han yu” (which means “learn the Chinese language”). These two phrases are combined into a bigger phrase “在中国学习汉语 zai zhong guo xue xi han yu (learn the Chinese language in China) which is then combined with a final element to produce the complete sentence.

The smallest or most basic structural units in this sentence are the eight Chinese Characters (morphemes): "我 wo," "在 zai," "中 zhong," "国 guo," "学 xue," "习 xi," "汉 han," "语 yu."

part 3

The Word-making Ability of Chinese Characters

The Word-making Ability of Chinese Characters

The way in which Chinese Characters can be used to make words is incredibly flexible and adaptable. This fact means that in Chinese a large number of words can be written using a relatively small number of characters.

1) Flexible Word-formation

The way in which Chinese Characters can be used to make up words is very flexible. For example, the character “学 xue (learn)” can be used as either the first or last character in a word. It is the first character in the following words: “学习 xue xi (learn),” “学校 xue xiao (school),” “学生 xue sheng (student),” “学问 xue wen (knowledge),” “学分 xue fen (credit),” and “学历 xue li (education background).” It is the last character in the following words: “自学 zi xue (self-study),” “教学 jiao xue (teaching),” “数学 shu xue (math),” “讲学 jiang xue (lecture),” “勤学 qin xue (studious),” and “留学 liu xue (study abroad).”

Another example of a character that can form multiple words and phrases is given by “治 zhi.” Words and phrases that are formed using this character include: “治水 zhi shui (tame flood)” (e.g., “大禹治水 Da Yu zhi shui (Yu the Great tamed the flood)” ), “治山 zhi shan (mountain governance),” “治田 zhi tian (field governance),” “治湖 zhi hu (lake governance),” “治海 zhi hai (sea governance),” “治病 zhi bing (treatment),” “治安 zhi an (public security),” “治理 zhi li (governance),” and “治疗 zhi liao (therapy).” There are more than 1,300 syllables in the Chinese language, but hundreds of thousands of words are recorded as Chinese Characters. This fact provides convincing proof of the phenomenal word-making ability of Chinese Characters.

The flexible way in which Chinese Characters can be used to make words has inevitably led to the creation of numerous homophones, such as “学生 xue sheng (student)” and “学签 xue sheng (learn Sheng (a kind of musical instrument)),” “治病 zhi bing (treatment)” and “致病 zhi bing (cause disease),” and “治理 zhi li (governance)” and “至理 zhi li (famous dictum).” The meaning of these homophones is easy to understand because the graphic form and structure of the Chinese Characters. In other words, although, they sound the same, they all look different. The order of the characters in a word affects that word’s meaning. For example, “国王 guo wang” means “king,” while “王国 wang guo” means “kingdom”; “蜜蜂 mi feng” means “bee,” while “蜂蜜 feng mi” means “honey”; “生产 sheng chan” means “parturition,” while “产生 chan sheng” means “produce”; “进行 jin xing” means “conduct,” while “行进 xing jin” means “march forward”; “科学 ke xue” means “science,” while “学科 xue ke” means “subject”; “害虫 hai chong” means pest, while “虫害 chong hai” means “insect attack,” and “黄金 huang jin” means “gold,” while “金黄 jin huang” means “golden yellow.”

All of the examples above show how the Chinese Characters allow the written Chinese language to create many words using comparatively few characters.

It is not hard to see that the exceptional ability of Chinese Characters to form words is based on their graphics features, and on the fact that every character in a disyllabic or polysyllabic word has its unique pronunciation and meaning.

2) Simple Word Formations That Make Learning Easy

It is often hard for students to memorize words written using alphabetic writing. However, some Chinese words are formed in a way that makes them easy to remember. For example, the English words pork, beef, mutton, chicken, fish must be memorized individually. But in Chinese, they are written as “猪肉 zhu rou,” “牛肉 niu rou,” “羊肉 yang rou,” “鸡肉 ji rou” and “鱼肉 yu rou.” These words are formed by placing the names of the respective animal in front of the character “肉 rou (meat).” This kind of word formation  makes these (and similar) words easy to remember and write.

Similarly, there are 12 English words for the 12 months in a year (“January” to “December”). However, in Chinese, the months are written by adding the relevant number character in front of the character “月 yue (month).” That makes it easy to remember the twelve months which are written as “一月 yi yue (January),” “二月 er yue (February),” “三月 san yue (March)” … “十二月 shi er yue (December).” Likewise, it is easier to remember and write out a number of other words that contain the character “月 yue (month),” which include “岁月 sui yue (time and tide),” “日月 ri yue (sun and moon),” “蜜月 mi yue (honeymoon),” “圆月 yuan yue (full moon),” and “残月 can yue (waning moon).”

These examples show that mastering some frequently used Chinese Characters is an important step towards learning the Chinese language.

part 4

Chinese Characters Bridge the Gap Between Dialects and Eras

Chinese Characters Bridge the Gap Between Dialects and Eras

Chinese people from different parts of China speak numerous different dialects. However, they all understand and use the same kind of written language. Similarly, some modern Chinese people can recognize Jiaguwen (inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells from the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BC)). This fact shows how Chinese Characters bridge the gap between different dialects and eras - something that is considered by many to be one of the miracles of human civilization.

Across China, many dialects are spoken. The way in which Chinese is spoken varies considerably between dialects. For example, “书 shu (book)” is pronounced “shū” in Mandarin, “sū” in Sichuan Dialect and “xū” in Hubei Dialect; “街 jie (street)” is pronounced “jiē” in Mandarin but “gāi” in the Southern Fujian Dialect, the Sichuan Dialect and the Shanghai Dialect; “鞋 xie (shoe)” is pronounced “xié” in Mandarin but “hái” in Sichuan Dialect and Hunan Dialect; and “肉 rou (meat)” is pronounced “ròu” in Mandarin but “yòu” in Shandong Dialect.

Due to the differences in pronunciations between the different dialects, people from different areas in China are often not able to understand each other when they speak. However, they all use Chinese Characters which means that they can all communicate by writing. In this way, Chinese Characters help people across China communicate and interact with each other.

The Chinese Characters that are currently in use are gradually evolved from ancient Chinese Characters. For this reason, modern Chinese people can still read books dating back to the ancient times. In comparison, it is much more difficult for a person today to read an ancient book written using the alphabetic script. Because they can help people understand what was written many centuries ago, Chinese Characters have played a crucial role in the continuous development of Chinese civilization.

part 5

The “Sinosphere”

The “Sinosphere”

The time-honored and beautiful square Chinese Characters not only sit at the heart of Chinese culture, but are also a key symbol of Oriental Civilization. The development of the “Sinosphere” is a perfect example.

The “Sinosphere” is a cultural concept that has been put forward by a Japanese scholar. It is also known as the “East Asian cultural Sphere” or the “Confucian world.” The Sinosphere refers to countries that use Chinese Characters as a tool to spread language and culture (or which have used them in the past). While the key feature of the Sinosphere is the use of Chinese Characters, other countries inside the Sinosphere share many other cultural similarities with China. Also, they have all been influenced by Han culture and the Confucianism.

Some of the countries in the Sinosphere only use (or used) Chinese Characters. Others use (or used) Chinese Characters alongside their characters, and make (or made) extensive use of ancient Chinese words in their native languages. The Sinosphere symbolized the strong impact of the Chinese culture and Chinese Characters on the countries and regions surrounding China, which was a long and complicated historical process. The Sinosphere is, therefore, a phenomenon of “cultural transmission.” The principal region of Sinosphere is undoubtedly China, which is the birthplace of the Chinese Characters. Other members in the Sinosphere are the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other countries and regions surrounding China that use or used Chinese Characters.

1) The Korean Peninsula

The DPRK and South Korea are China's northeastern neighbors. They were jointly called “Goryeo” in ancient times. Koreans originally used the Korean language but did not use characters. Around the 1st century BC, Chinese Characters were introduced into the Korean Peninsula. By the early 5th century, Chinese Characters were learned and used by many people across the Korean Peninsula. In 1444, a Korean called Sejong the Great issued the Hunminjeongeum (lit. The Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People) that created the Korean alphabet. This alphabet is known as “Hangul.” It is a kind of phonetic alphabet that is created using the strokes of Chinese Characters. It was used in conjunction with Chinese Characters and was used to write articles and poems.

After World War II, the DPRK and South Korea respectively declared independence. Both countries successively abolished the use of Chinese Characters in favor of alphabetic writing using Hangul. Later on, both the DPRK and South Korea launched educations for Chinese Characters in succession, for example, South Korea started to use parts of Chinese Characters again.

There are many Chinese Characters and words in modem Korean (they are thought to make up 60% of spoken or written Korean words). Currently, the number of people learning Chinese Characters and the Chinese language in South Korea and the DPRK is increasing. The world’s first “Confucius Institute” was established in Seoul, Korea. This institute is an organization designed to promote Chinese language and to spread Chinese culture.

2) Japan

Japan is an eastern neighbor of China. In ancient times it was called “Dongying,” “Fusang” or “Woguo.” The Japanese initially used Japanese without characters. Later on, Chinese Characters were introduced to Japan along with ancient books and records written with Chinese Characters, and Chinese Characters became the country’s official written language.

In the 3rd century AD, The Analects of Confucius, and many other Chinese books and records were introduced into Japan on a large scale. The Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), which appeared in 720 AD, is a Japanese history book written using Chinese Characters.

In the late 8th century, to cope with the inconvenience caused by the fact that the country’s spoken language and written characters were used for different purposes, a simplified cursive font was created for Chinese Characters to mark the “hiragana” in Japanese pronunciation. Then simplified components for Chinese Characters were developed to mark the “katakana,” which eventually led to the formation of the “kanji-kana mixed style” in which kanji (Chinese characters) and kana are used jointly.

After World War II, Japan began to limit the use of Chinese Characters and disseminated a series of approved Chinese Characters lists. These included the tōyō kanjihyo (literally, List of Kanji for General Use) which contained 1850 words and the jōyō kanjihyo (literally, Regular-Use Chinese Characters) which contained 1945 words.

At this time, the kanji-based “kanji-kana mixed style” (which had been used for a thousand years) was changed into the kana-based “kana-kanji mixed style.” To facilitate writing, the Japanese also simplified the Chinese Characters they used. To do this, they absorbed the fonts of simplified characters from ancient China, such as “黒 (黑) hei (black) ”, “海 (海) hai (sea),” “器(器) qi (device),” “突 (突) tu (suddenly),” “徳 (德) de (moral)”, “歩 (步) bu (step)”.

Today, the Japanese attach great importance to the study and learning of Chinese Characters and calligraphy. For example, Japanese scholars have made significant contributions to the research on ancient Chinese Characters and Jiaguwen.

3) Vietnam

Vietnam is a southern neighbor of China. It was called “Jiaozhi” in ancient times. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for much of its history. The forces of Emperor Wu of Han conquered Vietnam in 112 AD. They set up the “Xiang County” which included the current northern and central parts of modern Vietnam. Vietnam had no written characters until the Chinese brought Chinese Characters with them. At about the same time, the Vietnamese absorbed a number of words from the Chinese language. For a long period of history, Chinese Characters were used as the official characters of Vietnam. However, to better express the Vietnamese national language, the Vietnamese gradually created a new kind of character—Chữ Nôm. It was a type of semi-phonetic and semi-graphic character mainly based on the square form of Chinese Characters. This development started from about the 11th century, from which time Chữ Nôm were used together with Chinese Characters.

In the late 19th century, the French colonialists vigorously promoted the use of Latin alphabetic writing in Vietnam. Their efforts led to the development of the commonly used Vietnamese alphabet “Chữ Quốc Ngữ” (which means the “national language”) in 1945. After this point, Chinese Characters and Chữ nôm nom were no longer used.

Through these various changes, modern Vietnamese has absorbed many elements of the Chinese language. It is particularly apparent in the way the Vietnamese use Chinese loan words. Indeed, Chinese loan words account for more than 60% of the total Vietnamese vocabulary.

Currently, Vietnamese students are being encouraged to learn and use Chinese Characters. The Chinese language has now become the second foreign language in Vietnam. Many universities have set up departments of Chinese Language and Literature, and tens of thousands of Vietnamese students study in China.

4) Singapore

Singapore is a city-state in Southeast Asia. In ancient times the aboriginal people who lived on the island spoke Malay. In the 19th century, a large number of Chinese moved to the island and introduced Chinese Characters along with their culture. Today, in Singapore, Chinese people, who have Chinese as their mother tongue, account for three-quarters of the entire population. Singapore's official languages are English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. In its education system, Chinese and English are used simultaneously.

Singapore is currently promoting the use of simplified Chinese Characters. Its Table of Simplified Characters is entirely consistent with China’s Complete List of Simplified Characters. Now, simplified Chinese Characters are widely used in Singaporean newspapers, books, textbooks, university and school test papers, advertisements, websites and television subtitles. Calligraphers and painters in the country also like to use these simplified characters for their creative work.

5) Malaysia

Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia and is home to a great many Chinese people. As with Singapore, Malaysia is also heavily promoting the use of simplified Chinese Characters. This approach is based on the concepts that: “this is the new trend of the development of Chinese culture” and “simplified characters are scientific.” The Table of Simplified Characters used in Malaysia is also identical to the Complete List of Simplified Characters used in China.

As in the above examples, the Sinosphere, which is partly defined by the use of Chinese Characters in the countries it contains, has real cultural integrity and vitality. Its history, current status, and prospects deserve widespread attention and further research.