Modern Chinese Characters are graphic characters that have evolved from pictographic characters. In the course of history, Chinese characters have been gradually simplified. They are therefore no longer pictographic, although the remnants of some ancient pictographic elements still exist (for example, in the meanings their stroke symbols represent). Understanding the pictographic elements hidden within the forms of modern Chinese Characters is extremely helpful for people who are studying or using Chinese characters.
1.1 Pictographic Elements in Modern Chinese Characters
As mentioned above, at first, Chinese Characters were all pictographic. For example, the ancient form of the character “日 ri (sun)” was a rounded sun; the character “山 shan (mountain)” was a literal painting of three peaks; the character “水 shui (water)” looked like a flowing river; “人 ren (person)” was a profile of a person with their arms outstretched; “手 shou (hand)” was the shape of a hand with five fingers, and “马 ma (horse)” was the shape of a horse.
In modern Chinese Characters, such vivid drawings no longer exist as they have evolved from pictographs to symbols and from drawings to strokes. However, the underlying shapes of those drawings are still often visible, only in a simplified form. For example, the character “日” has been changed from a rounded sun to a square sun and the three peaks of the “山” have been simplified into three vertical strokes.
The remnants of some ancient pictographic characters can be seen in both the stokes of modern Chinese Characters and certain pictographic elements that they contain. An example of such a pictographic element can be seen in the character: “禾 he (ripened grain),” which has a similar shape to the character “木 mu (tree).” The difference between the two characters is only a horizontal left-falling stroke on the “木.” This stroke is the pictographic element which is used to differentiate the two characters. It represents the ear of a piece of ripened grain. Independent Chinese Characters have a definite meaning and a strong ideographic function. Many have therefore become the radicals of combined characters. For example, “日” is the radical for many combined characters such as “明 ming (bright),” “时 shi (time),” “晚 wan (evening),” “昨 zuo (yesterday),” and “旱 han (drought).” “日” means both the “sun” and “time.” As can be seen, both of its meanings are expressed in the combined characters that have it as their radical.
In general, independent characters that serve as radicals have a limited number of strokes and a simple form. They also have fixed meanings and pronunciations, and comparatively obvious pictographic elements. More than 90 percent of modern Chinese Characters are composed of such radicals. To learn and use Chinese Characters correctly, it is important that learners know which independent characters serve as radicals. Also, radicals act as “categories” in dictionaries. Indeed, the “index of radicals” in all Chinese dictionaries is a useful tool that can help learners to know about radicals.
Modern Commonly Used Independent Characters:
Independent characters are mostly in common usage and have a strong ideographic form. Combined characters make up more than 90% of the overall number of modern Chinese Characters. They can be a combination of independent characters or else a combination of separate characters and components that have been changed from independent characters. What’s more, many of them are the “components” in dictionaries. Thus, mastering the commonly used independent characters is an effective way to study Chinese Characters. In March 2009, the Modern Common Independent Characters Table was issued jointly by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China and State Language Commission of the People’s Republic of China, which identifies the 256 of the most commonly used modern independent characters. This table is of great value for analysis, which has made it easier for people to use and learn Chinese Characters.
1.2 Pictographic Elements in Combined Characters
Combined characters are either associative-compounds (compounds of pictographic or ideographic characters) and pictophonetic characters (characters that incorporate form components and sound components). Examples of combined characters include "明 ming (bright)," "妈 ma (mother)," "河 he (river),” “把 ba (hold)” and “花 hua (flower).”
Combined characters have a strong pictographic element. For example, in the associative-combined character “明 ming (bright),” the form components "日 ri (sun)" and "月 yue (moon)" are pictographic. While in the pictophonetic character "妈 ma (mother)," the form component "女 nv (female)" is pictographic (it also serves as a radical).
There are 2,270 combined characters amongst the 2,500 common Chinese Characters. In 70 percent of these combined characters, the form component provides the character's meaning.
1.2.1 Category Meanings of Form Components
Form Components relate to categories that contain things with ordinary qualities and features. They are therefore said to have “category meanings.” For example, the form component ‘‘氵” represents things such as “water” and “liquid.” “Water” and “liquid” are therefore the category meanings of “氵.” Once this is understood, it is quite easy to learn the combined Chinese Characters that are related to “water” and “liquid.” These characters include: “河 he (river),” “油 you (oil),” “汗 han (sweat),” “流 liu (flow),” “澡 zao (bath)” and “泡 pao (bubble).”
Let us take another example. The form component “疒” was, in ancient times, a representation of a sweating person lying on a bed (this implied that this person was sick). It is hard to see such a vivid image in the modern character “病 bing (illness),” but it is possible to notice the traces of the ancient pictographic character. Today, Chinese Characters related to disease almost all have the form component “疒.” These characters include “病 bing (illness),” “疾 ji (disease),” “疗 liao (cure),” “疼 teng (pain),” and “痛 tong (ache).” The category meaning of “疒” is, not surprisingly, “disease.”
Consider the form components “礻” and “衤” as further examples. People often confuse these two components and write “神 shen (god)” as “衤申 ” or “裙 qun (skirt)” as “礻君 .” They make this mistake because they do not know that “礻” has the category meaning “sacrifice” and “衤” has the category meaning “cloth.” Close inspection shows that the pictographic elements of the two form components are similar but different.
As in the above examples, learning the forms and category meanings of form components is very handy if you want to understand and use combined characters.
1.2.2 The Variants of Form Components
For the square forms of Chinese Characters to be as balanced and beautiful as possible, the design of some form components is changed depending on the position they take in character. For example, “水 shui (water)” is written as “水” when it serves as an individual character or when it is placed in the lower part of a character. It is written as “氵” when it is placed in the left part of a character. Similarly, when “心 xin (heart)” serves as a form component and is placed in the left part of a character, it is written as "忄"; when it is placed in the lower part of a character, it is written as "心". It is worth mentioning that many Chinese Characters change a little when they serve as a “left” form component. For example, "山" is written as "山," "马" as "马," and "女" as "女." These changed characters are known as variants. “手 shou (hand)” has the most variants, which include: "又," "寸" and "夂". It is instrumental for those who are learning Chinese characters to understand that all these characters are equivalent to "手."
The remnants of some ideographic and pictographic elements in modern Chinese Characters (i.e., stroke symbols that represent meaning) not only are very conducive in character recognition but also can help us to distinguish homophones and characters that have similar forms. Even to someone who is relatively proficient in the use of Chinese Characters, these pictographic elements provide important and beautiful visual cues.
2.1 Form Indicates Meaning
There are many homophones in the Chinese language, which cannot be distinguished merely by ear. Instead, people can only tell them apart by looking at the forms of their characters. For example, "治病 zhi bing" and "致病 zhi bing" sound the same, but the former means that "a sick person gets rid of disease after healing,” while the latter indicates that “a healthy person gets sick." Or consider: "期中考试 qi zhong kao shi" and "期终考试 qi zhong kao shi.” Both sound the same, but the former refers to a mid-semester examination, while the latter refers to an end-of-term examination. As said, it is only possible to distinguish the meanings of the homophones by looking at their characters; when characters have similar forms, then their pictographic elements need to be carefully examined.
An article composed entirely of homophones provides one example of homophones in the Chinese language. The article was written in traditional Chinese by Mr. Zhao Yuanren (1892-1982), a great Chinese philologist. It contains 91 characters and is called Shi Shi Shi Shi Shi (History of Mr. Shi Eating Lions). Not surprisingly, it tells the story of a poet named Shi who ate a lion. All the characters in the essay are pronounced “shi,” and when people read it, listeners only hear the sounds “shi shi shi,” which makes it difficult for them to understand the poem’s meaning. However, reading the poem’s Chinese Characters reveals an imaginative and intriguing story. In other words, it is a work of fiction that can only be read, not heard.
shī shì shí shī shǐ
施 氏 食 狮 史
shí shì shī shì shī shì ， shì shī ， shì shí shí shī 。
石 室 诗 士 施 氏 ， 嗜 狮 ， 誓 食 十 狮 。
shì shí shí shì shì shì shī 。
氏 时 时 适 市 视 狮 。
shí shí ， shì shí shī shì shì 。
十 时 ， 适 十 狮 适 市 。
shì shí ， shì shī shì shì shì 。
是 时 ， 适 施 氏 适 市 。
shì shì shì shí shī ， shì shǐ shì ， shǐ shí shī shì shì 。
氏 视 是 十 狮 ， 恃 矢 势 ， 使 十 狮 逝 世 。
shì shí shì shí shī shī ， shì shí shì 。
氏 拾 是 十 狮 尸 ， 适 石 室 。
shí shì shī ， shǐ shì shì shí shì 。
石 室 湿 ， 使 侍 拭 石 室 。
shí shì shì ， shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī shī 。
石 室 拭 ， 氏 始 试 食 是 十 狮 尸 。
shí shí ， shǐ shí shì shí shī shī ， shí shí dān shī shī 。
食 时 ， 始 识 是 十 狮 尸 ， 实 十 石 狮 尸 。
shì shì shì shì 。
试 释 是 事 。
A poet named Shi lived in a stone house and liked to eat lion flesh, and he vowed to eat ten of them. He used to go to the market in search of lions, and one day at ten o’clock，he chanced to see ten of them there. Shi killed the lions with arrows and picked up their bodies, carrying them back to his stone house. His house was dripping with water, so he requested that his servants proceed to dry it. Then he began to try to eat the bodies of the ten lions. It was only then he realized that these were, in fact, ten lions made of stone. Try to explain the riddle.
2.2 Visual symbols
Chinese Characters make up a set of marvelous visual symbols. The beauty of the characters provides a unique aesthetic pleasure and adds an extra artistic dimension to the enjoyment of any piece of literature or calligraphy that has been created using them. Indeed, handsomely written Chinese Characters can strengthen or deepen a reader’s literary appreciation of a piece of writing.
For example, the visual images of the characters in idioms such as “同舟共济” and “风雨同舟” help the reader to understand and appreciate their meanings. “同舟共济” is an idiom that reminds us that when people make a joint effort and work together, they can overcome great difficulties. In this idiom, “舟 zhou” means “a small boat” (the marks of some ancient pictographic characters can still be discerned within its form). "同舟 tongzhou" means "sitting in the same boat.” “济 ji” means "crossing a river.” So "同舟共济" means people sitting in the same boat cross a river. The idiom "风雨同舟" has a similar meaning with "同舟共济." In this idiom, "风 feng" means wind and "雨 yu" means rain. It also has a strong pictographic element.
These beautiful lines reveal a fresh and tranquil artistic vision of bright moonlight filtering through the branches of pine trees and clear spring water flowing and rippling over the pebbles. The ten characters present us with a distinctive visual image by their shapes.
Mei Yaochen (1002-1060), was a famous poet during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). He was known for his fresh and elegant poems and was good at enhancing his artistic compositions by making use of the visual impact of Chinese Characters. For instance, he wrote a poem that contains the line “鸦 ya 鸣 ming 鹊 que 噪 zao 鹳 guan 鹆 yu 叫 jiao.” This line features successive characters that have the radical “鸟 niao (bird)” and three with the radical “口 kou (mouth).” When people read this poem, the characters give the reader the impression that the world is full of the calls of a multitude of birds. Another example of the power of the visual symbolism of Chinese Characters is provided by the following verses from a famous work titled Tian Jing Sha Qiu Si (Thoughts in Autumn) by Ma Zhiyuan (1250-1321), a poet of the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368).
“Withered vines are hanging on old branches, Returning crows croaking at dusk. A few houses are hidden beyond a narrow bridge. And below the bridge, a quiet creek is running. Down a worn path, in the west wind, a lean horse comes plodding. The sun dips down in the west. And the lovesick traveler is still at the end of the world. ”
The first three verses illustrate nine things using pictographic characters and conjure up a desolate landscape in the reader’s imagination. The description of the setting sun emphasizes the sadness of the traveler it describes. Overall, the verse’s pictographic characters significantly enhance its artistic impact.
Square Chinese Characters are somewhat mysterious, and, as can be seen from the examples above, much of this enigmatic quality derives from the pictographic elements hidden in their square forms.