The Formation of Chinese Characters

BY CchattyArticleComprehensive Chinese
Release time:2018-05-04
Tag: Chinese Characters
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The article of the formation of Chinese Characters is the article of how the Chinese Characters have been created.
part 1

The Formation of Chinese Characters

The Formation of Chinese Characters

The article of the formation of Chinese Characters is the article of how the Chinese Characters have been created. Chinese Characters originated from drawings, with the earliest Chinese Characters being only paintings of the things that people saw in front of them. However, the total number of Chinese Characters now has exceeded 50,000. It is, of course, entirely impossible to form so many characters just using drawing. In fact, the resourceful people of ancient China learned to create Chinese Characters using four methods. They created Chinese Characters pictographically, by indication, as associative compounds, and as phonograms.

part 2

The Development of the “Six Categories”

The Development of the “Six Categories”

Shuowen Jiezi (Origin of Chinese Characters) is a famous study of ancient characters, written during Shuowen Jiezi (Origin of Chinese Characters) is a famous study of ancient characters, written during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). It is one of the oldest dictionaries in the world and laid the foundations for our understanding of how Chinese Characters are formed.

1. Xu Shen Wrote Shuowen Jiezi

In the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD), Emperor Han Wudi (on the throne 140-87 BC) adopted the thoughts of Confucius (551-479 BC) and Mengzi (372-289 BC) as the basis of his feudalist approach to government. He also promoted Confucian philosophy to strengthen the unification of the state. As a result, the study of the Confucian classics became popular.

To support the study of Confucian thought, the emperor established the Taixue Imperial College in his capital Chang’an (present-day Xi’an, Shaanxi). He also appointed “five-classics court academicians” (equivalent to modern-day professors) to teach the five Confucian classics, namely the Classic of Poetry, the Book of Documents, the Book of Rites, the Classic of Changes and the Spring and Autumn Annals.

At that time, the classics were written in the popular Lishu style, which belongs to the school of “modern characters.” As a result, these classics were called “modern-character classics.” However, at the end of the reign of Emperor Han Wudi, some classics written in Dazhuan (i.e. “ancient characters”) were found inside the walls of Confucius' old house. These texts have become known as “ancient-character classics.”

The existence of two different kinds of characters created controversy about the interpretation of Confucius’ work. The controversy led to disputes between those who championed the modern-character classics and those who championed the ancient-character classics. These disputes lasted for at least 200 years.

To get a better understanding of the ancient-character and modern-character classics, Xu Shen (58-147) spent 22 years writing the Shuowen Jiezi (Origin of Chinese Characters). Xu Shen championed the ancient-character classics. He lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) His book was based on his analysis of the structures of ancient characters. In Shuowen Jiezi, Xu Shen used the concept of the “six categories” to analyze and summarize existing Chinese Characters. This approach provided an integrated understanding of their forms, pronunciations, and meanings and made a great contribution to China's paleography.

2. The Shuowen Jiezi - the First Dictionary of Ancient Characters

The Shuowen Jiezi consists of 15 volumes. These collect together 9,353 characters that are classified into 540 categories.

Using Xiaozhuan as the primary character type, Xu Shen analyzed the forms and structures of written Chinese. He comprehensively explained the forms, pronunciations, and meanings of Xiaozhuan, which made the book the first Chinese dictionary of ancient characters.

Shuowen Jiezi provides an explanation of the meanings of Xiaozhuan characters based on their forms. It, therefore, offers a wonderful opportunity to learn the structures of Chinese Characters and to grasp their original meanings. Although Xu Shen did not assess any Jiaguwen characters (which brings into question the reliability of his analysis regarding some characters in the book), his book’s basic contents are correct, and it remains a handy reference book on ancient writing, even today.

Xu Shen pioneered the study method of integrating forms, pronunciations and meanings. In Shuowen Jiezi he also created an indexing system based on the components of Chinese Characters. These two ground-breaking ideas, and the enormous amount of material about ancient characters that Shuowen Jiezi contains, makes this title one of the most precious treasures for the study of Han philology.

3. The Formation of the “Six Categories"

In Shuowen Jiezi, Xu Shen discussed the formation of the “six categories” of Chinese Characters. These categories are pictographic characters, indicative characters, associative compounds, phonograms, mutually explanatory characters, and phonetic loan characters. Currently, the first four of these categories are regarded as being linked to the way in which the characters they contain are formed.

Using these six categories, Xu Shen analyzed the formation of 9,353 Chinese Characters. This work made a very significant contribution to the philology of ancient characters in China. Even today, the "six categories" play a role in analyzing the forms and structures of modern Chinese Characters. Indeed, almost 50 percent of the current simplified characters that are read and used today can be analyzed using the principle of the "six categories.”


The system of components was established to make dictionary references easier. It was another of Xu Shen’s great inventions. In Shuowen Jiezi (Origin of Chinese Characters), Xu Shen classified the 9,353 characters he collected into 540 categories. The characters within each category shared the same component, with the first character in each category being that shared component. Therefore there were 540 shared components.

The establishment of the component system not only made it easier to look up characters in a dictionary but it also gave prominence to the function of expressing the meanings of Chinese Characters. It is also a great help to anyone who wants to learn and use Chinese Characters.

Other major Chinese dictionaries later put the system into use. For example, there are at present 214 components in Ci Yuan (Origin of Vocabularies), 200 in Hanyu Dazidian and Hanyu Dacidian (Grand Chinese Dictionary), 250 in Ci Hai (The Sea of Vocabulary), 189 in Xinhua Zidian (Xinhua Dictionary), and 201 in Xiandai Hanyu Changyong Zibiao (Table of Common Characters in Modern Chinese Language).

part 3

How Chinese Characters were Formed

Discovering the Origins of Chinese Characters

Chinese Characters can be formed in many different ways. These different formation methods were categorized to make it easier to describe the characters and how they are written. In other words, the development of the “six categories” described above was preceded by the development of Chinese Characters and not vice versa.

1. Pictographic Characters

Pictographic characters look like drawings and use lines to represent things directly. There are relatively few Chinese Characters of this type that still serve as the basis for the characters themselves. Pictographic characters have a singular form that cannot be divided into two or more characters, so they are also known as “independent characters.”

1). Readable “Drawings”

Chinese people in ancient times created some drawing-like pictographic characters. These were based on people, animals and other natural things that they saw around them. These characters were, initially, all nouns. They not only indicated meanings but also showed how they should be pronounced. For example, “(日)” looks like the sun and is pronounced rì; “(山)” looks like mountain peaks and is pronounced shān; “(人)” looks like the profile of a person and is spoken as rén; and “(鹿)” looks like a small running deer and is articulated as lù. They can all be read and pronounced, which marks them as characters, instead of merely drawings.

2). Drawing out the Features of Things

The ancient pictographic characters are analogous to paintings because they represent the typical features of the things they represent. For example, the character for the sun “(日)” is round, the one for the moon “(月)” is bent, the one for the mountain “(山)” is stable and the one for water “(水)” is flowing. Many of the pictographic characters for people and animals have key features of the things they represent. For example, the character for person “(人)” stands upright; the one for girl “(女)” has a shape like a girl’s posture; the one for boy “(子)” has a big head; the one for deer “(鹿)” has horns; the one for horse “(马)” has a mane; the one for ox “(牛)” has straight horns; the one for sheep “(羊)” curved horns; the one for an elephant “(象)” a long trunk; the one for a dog “(犬)” a rolled-up tail; the one for a pig “(猪)” a fat body and a downward-pointing tail; and the one for a mouse “(鼠)” teeth and a long, thin tail. All of these characters were painted vividly and in a lively way. They are like exquisite artworks and are a pleasure to look at again and again. The pictographic formation method was adopted for the simplification of modern Chinese Characters. Some simplified characters are therefore closer to pictographic characters in form than their corresponding complex characters.

Line Art of Chinese Characters:

Chinese Characters are a kind of line art. Those from the time of Jiaguwen (inscriptions on animal bones or tortoiseshell) to the present day are all structures and forms of lines. Lines are both the foundation and the most important feature of Chinese sculptural art, as well as a traditional aesthetic representation of the Chinese spirit. The profound mystery of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy is in its lines. It is worth mentioning in this context that some great western painters, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Gauguin, drew inspiration from the lines of oriental art and created some of their finest works accordingly.

3). Abstract Line Art

As they are based on ancient pictographic characters, pictographic Chinese Characters are different from those used by other cultures. They use short lines that provide both an abstraction and a representation of the typical features of things.

4). Pictographic Interest

Ancient Chinese Characters have a strongly pictographic nature, and even the Kaishu characters of today, although not pictographic, can have some pictographic elements. For example, the Kaishu character for a smile “笑 (xiao)” looks just like a real smile (indeed, it can make a reader smile when they see the similarity). The character for happy “喜(xi)” also looks like an opened-mouth smile. The character for cry “哭 (ku)” looks like a loudly-crying person and can impart a sad feeling. The character for cast “甩 (shuai),” which is placed on the doors of shops that are having a sale, looks like a hand throwing things out onto the street and indicates that the store-keeper wants to give away money. In the smoke of the marketplace, the character for kebab “串 (chuan)” resembles a great big mutton kebab and therefore helps to attract customers. Even people who do not know Chinese characters can understand “凸 tu” (protruding) and “凹 ao” (concave). The character for a spoon “勺 (shao)” has a handle and contains food. Also, some phrases make use of the forms of the characters they contain to describe the features of things. For example, 国字脸 (a face that looks like the character “国”), 八字胡 (a moustache that looks like character “八”), 八字腿 (a graphic representation of a pair of legs using “八”), and 丁字尺 (a ruler that looks like the character “丁”).

It is impossible for pictographic characters to be used to represent all things, especially as any language must include many abstract concepts. There are relatively few pictographic characters in Chinese. Among the 9,353 characters in Shuowen Jiezi, there are only about 300 pictographic characters. However, they are still important, primarily because they provided the basis for the formation of other categories of Chinese Characters.

2. Indicative Characters

Indicative characters indicate meaning using symbolic signs or pictographic characters to which indicative elements have been added. Like pictographic characters, they are also “independent characters.”

Numeric characters such as “一 yi (one),” “二 er (two),” and “三 san (three)” are typical indicative characters which contain symbolic graphic elements. “(本) ben (root),” “(刃) ren (blade),” and “(甘) gan (sweet)” are all indicative characters in which indicative elements have been added to pictographic characters.

For example, the sign for the root (本) of a tree is formed by adding a cross line at the bottom of the pictographic character “木 mu (tree).” The character for the blade “刃” of a knife is made by adding a dot at the edge of the pictographic character “刀 dao (knife).” Adding a cross line inside the pictographic character, “口 kou (mouth)”, it becomes “甘 gan” which means sweet. Other characters such as “(上) shang (up)”, “(下) xia (down)”, “(末) mo (end)”, “(亦) yi (also)”, and “(血) xue (blood)” are all typical indicative characters that have indicative elements. Indicative characters can express some simple abstract concepts, but it is hard for them to show complex concepts. There are therefore only a few indicative Chinese Characters, and just about 100 in the Shuowen Jiezi.

3. Associative-compounds Characters 

Associative-compound characters were formed by combining two or more independent pictographic characters to create a new character which expresses a new meaning. Therefore, both the forms and meanings of these characters are compounds. However, associative-compound characters are more than the sum of their respective pictographic and indicative characters. In general, associative-compound characters have a well-crafted structure and are, arguably, the most interesting of all the Chinese Character types.

To see how associative-compound characters are formed, consider the character “爨 cuàn (cook).” This character is composed of many pictographic characters and features many strokes. Its upper part is the Xiaozhuan character “甑 zèng (a vessel for steaming food)” which resembles the double handles on a kitchen range. The character’s lower part resembles two hands that are putting burning logs into a kitchen range. The whole character depicts the process of cooking. A person who does not know this character can therefore still guess its meaning. This character is one of the most complex and interesting associative-compound characters. However, it is rarely used today, and it has no simplified form.

Associative-compound characters are divided into two types: same- and different-compound characters. Different-compound characters are the most common type.

Same-compound characters are composed of several identical characters. For example, “(林) lín”, which means “a wood made of many trees,” is composed of two “木mù” characters (which mean “tree”). Similarly, “(森) sēn,” which means “forest” (i.e., a wood made of many trees), is composed of three “木 mù (tree)” characters. The meanings of these same-compound characters are therefore derived from the combination of the meanings of the characters they contain. Other common characters such as “北 běi (north),” “从 cóng (follow),” “炎 yán (very hot),” “磊 lei (heap of stones),” “淼 miǎo (expanse of water),” and “晶 jing (brilliant)” are all same-compound characters.

Different-compound characters are composed of several different characters. For example, “(休) xiū,” which means “have a rest,” is composed of two different characters. These are: “人 rén (a person),” and “木 mù (tree).” Its meaning is therefore derived from the idea of a person relaxing against a tree. Similarly, “(明) míng,” which means “bright” or “an abundance of light” is composed of two shining characters, i.e. “日 rì (sun)” and “月 yuè (moon).” The meanings of these different-combined characters are derived from the combination of the implications of the characters they contain.

Some words consisting of different-compound characters are particularly interesting. For example, “忐忑 (tǎn tè),” which means “mentally disturbed” is composed by two different-compound characters, the combined meanings of which describe a situation in which the heart bounces up and down, indicating that someone feel uneasy. As the saying goes, “(His heart seems to him) like a well in which seven buckets are drawn up, and eight dropped down— an unsettled state of mind.”

Because they can convey such a vast array of meanings, many Chinese Characters are different-compound characters.

Some of the most interesting different-compound characters (decoded from ancient Jiaguwen characters) are detailed below:

见 (jian, see)

"见(見)" is composed of "目 mu (eye)" and "人 ren (person)." It depicts a big eye to indicate the act of seeing something, i.e., something shining before one’s eye. “见 jian (see)” is different from “看 kan (look).” The former represents the result, and the latter describes the action. The eye was given prominence to express the result, and it is very artful!

祭 (ji, offer sacrifice)

This character is composed of “示 (sacrificial altar),” “(手, hand),” and “(肉, meat).” It depicts a hand placing a piece of meat on a sacrificial altar as part of an act of worship. It is used in common words such as: “祭祀 ji si (sacrifice),” “拜祭 bai ji (worship and sacrifice),” “祭奠 ji dian (to hold a memorial ceremony for),” and “公祭 gong ji (a public memorial service).”

盥 (guan, to wash one’s hands)

This character is composed of “手 (hands),” “水 (water),” and “皿 (utensil).” It depicts water between a pair of hands over a basin. “盟” means to wash one’s hands and face. On the door of some public toilets in China, you will see a plaque on which is written: “盥洗室 guan xi shi” – “洗” means “wash” and “室” means “room.”

涉 (she, wade)

The ancient character “涉 she (wade)” shows a river running between two feet, and depicts a person wading across a river. The character “涉” therefore means to cross a river on foot.

灾 (zai, fire as a disaster)

The ancient Jiaguwen character “灾” is composed of “宀” and “火.” It depicts a burning and means “fire disaster.” It has been adopted as a simplified modern character. The character can also be used to express catastrophes, such as “水灾 shui zai (flood),” “旱灾 han zai (drought),” “风灾 feng zai (hurricanes),” and “虫灾 chong zai (plagues of insects).”

进 (jin, advance)

“进 (進)” is an excellent example of an associative-compound character and reflects the fact that ancient people had a strong visual awareness of things. In Jiaguwen, the character “进” has a bird (the character “隹”) uppermost and a foot (the character “止”) beneath, indicating that the bird is walking or hopping forward on the ground. As a bird cannot walk backward, so this character means to advance. Later “止” became “辶,” and this formed the complex character “進.” Now, this character has been simplified to “进” which is more pictophonetic.

牧 (mu, herd)

"牧" means a herd of livestock. The ancient character “牧” is very intriguing. It features an ox behind which there is a hand that is driving it with a stick or branch. There are some words, which include “牧” and are related to herding. These words include “放牧 fang mu (herd),” “游牧 you mu (nomadism),” “牧羊 mu yang (shepherd),” “牧马 mu ma (the corralling of horses)” and “畜牧业 xu mu ye (livestock raising).”

逐 (zhu, chase)

"逐" means chase. In ancient times, it had a very artistic formation and featured a running wild boar (the character “豕”) being followed by the foot of a chasing hunter (the character “止”). Later the character “止” changed to the component “辶” which has the meaning “walk.”

津 (jin, ferry)

The character “津” means ferry. In Jiaguwen, the character is a sketch of a ferry that shows a boatman standing at the back of a boat, punting his vessel powerfully across a river using a pole in his hands. Later, the character dropped the “船 (舟) (boat)” element, and simply became a combination of “河水(氵) (river)” and “竿 (聿) (pole).” Despite this simplification, the meaning of the character is still clear.

梦 (meng, dream)

In Jiaguwen, “梦 (夢)” depicts a man lying on a bed and having a dream He is opening his eyes very wide, and raising his eyebrows, as though he is “seeing” something in his sleep. Later people omitted the “床 (bed),” added the “夕” indicating evening, and altered the sleeper’s eyebrows. Now the simplified character is “梦” in which we can no longer see anything that looks like someone having a dream.

寒 (han, cold)

This character is composed of “宀 (屋) (wu, house),” “艹 (草) (cao, grass),” “人 (ren, person)” and “冫” (冰) (bing, ice).” It depicts a man crouching in the grass inside his house. It shows that there is ice on the ground, which gives the impression of cold. In modern Chinese, many phrases indicating extreme cold include the character “寒”, such as “寒冷 han leng (very cold)”, “寒风 han feng (cold wind)”, “严寒 yan han (chilliness)”, “寒假 han jia (winter vacation)”, and “天寒地冻 tian han di dong (the weather is cold, and there is ice on the ground)”.

妻 ( qi, wife)

This character, which means “wife,” depicts a large hand grabbing a woman's hair, which vividly highlights the custom of “marriage by capture,” prevalent in China’s ancient patriarchal clan societies.

春 (chun, spring)

The Jiaguwen character “春” is composed of “日 ri (sun),” “木 mu (tree),” and “屯 zhun (bud).” Its last “屯” is used as a phonetic character and means the buds on the ground. The character “春” shows a vibrant spring scene, in which the sun shines, and plants grow. It is both an associative compound character and a pictophonetic character.

焚 (fen, burn)

This character, which means “burning,” depicts wood with a raging fire beneath it. It is a lively depiction of the slash-and-burn cultivation (i.e., burning forests to cultivate the fields) in ancient times.

疑 (yi, confused)

The Jiaguwen character “疑” is quite interesting. It depicts a man standing with a stick. He is looking left then right and has no idea about which direction in which to go. Its meaning was originally limited to “confused” and “hesitating,” but this was later extended to include “doubt” and “suspicion.”

旅 (lv, force)

In Jiaguwen, it is composed of a flag and two persons, just like the others gathering advance under the guidance of the fluttering military flag. It initially means army but was later extended to travel. What’s interesting is that the ancient character “旅” vividly depicts a common scene in the modern society: A tour conductor guides visitors during the travel, holding a small flag.

Some different-compound characters derive their meaning from the positioning of their separate parts. For example, “小 xiao (small)” and “大 da (big)” form the character “尖 jian (sharp),” and “上 shang (up)” and “下 xia (down)” combine and become “卡 ka (get stuck).”

Some different-compound characters express meaning directly by repeating the compounds. For example, “小土 xiaotu (small)” forms “尘 chen (dust)”, “小鸟 xiaoniao (small bird)” forms “雀 que (sparrow)”, “不正 buzheng (not central)” forms “歪 wai (devious)”, “不好 buhao (not good)” forms “孬 nao (bad)”, “不用 buyong (do not)” forms “甭 beng (don’t)”, “山石 shanshi (mountain stone)’’ forms “岩 yan (rock)”, “山高 shangao (high mountain)” forms “嵩 song (lofty)”, “大力 dali (great power)” forms “夯 hang (ram)”, and a development of “手 shou (hand)” forms “拜 bai (do obeisance)”, whereas a separation of “手 shou (hand)” forms “掰 bai (breakoff)”.

Among the simplified characters that are used today, many associative-compound characters are worth mentioning. For example, “泪 lei (tear)” actually looks like an eye with a running tear, and “笔 bi (pen)” resembles a brush-pen, with a bamboo stem and bristles. Other simplified characters, such as “灶 zao (kitchen range)”, “双 shuang (double)”, “对 dui (answer)”, “尘 chen (dust)”, “ 体 ti (body)”, “国 guo (state)”, “孙 sun (grandson)”, “宝 bao (treasure)”, “帘 lian (curtain)”, “阴 yin (shade)”, “阳 yang (bright)”, and “盖 gai (cover)” are all new associative-compound characters that have been skillfully created (drawing, in part, from ancient common forms).

When studying the associative-compound characters, it is important to note that the way in which the independent characters that make them up are pronounced does not influence the way in which the compound character is pronounced. For example, “休 xiu (rest)” is composed of the independent characters “人 ren (person)” and “木 mu (wood).” It is pronounced “xiu” rather than “ren” or “mu.” In other words, the radical of associative-compound characters is generally no longer phonetic, although it does reflect the meaning of the characters that contain it.

From the above descriptions, it is clear that associative-compound characters can convey an immense range of meanings and ideas. It is also clear that the way in which they are formed encapsulates much of the heritage and wisdom of the Chinese people. The fact that the meaning of these types of characters can be deciphered from the way in which they are formed makes it a particularly pleasant experience to learn them.


4. Pictophonetic Characters

The pictographic, indicative and ideographic approaches have been used to create a wide variety of Chinese characters, but they have their limitations. For example, it was not possible to use these methods to convey the nuance of meaning embodied in the characters “妈 ma (mother),” “姑 gu (aunt),” “姐 jie (elder sister),” and “妹 mei (younger sister).” These type of characters - which are known as pictophonetic characters - were developed using a different approach which incorporated “sound elements” that indicated how a character should be pronounced. “妈”, “姑”, “姐”, and “妹” were formed by combining “女 nv (female)” with the sound components “马 ma (horse)”, “古 gu (ancient)”, “且 qie (moreover)” and “未 wei (have not)”. “妈,” “姑,” “姐” and “妹” are therefore pictophonetic characters.

As in the above case, a pictophonetic character is generally composed of a form-component that indicates meaning and a sound-component that indicates pronunciation (which is also known as “character of combination”). This composition differentiates pictophonetic characters from other categories of characters, whose components only indicate meaning. The development of pictophonetic characters, therefore, broke new ground. A huge number of characters can be formed in this way, so this method became the principal way of creating characters. More than 85 percent of the Chinese Characters are pictophonetic characters.

4.1 Two Methods of Forming Pictophonetic Characters

4.1.1 Mark Sounds on Drawings

Many pictographic characters are created using ready-made characters to indicate how they should be pronounced. For example, the character “湖 hu (lake)” is formed in this way. To create the character, “氵 (水) (water) is used as a form component to indicate something of which water is a part, and the ready-made character “胡” is used as a sound component to indicate its pronunciation. If the sound component is changed, then the character related to water will have a different pronunciation, such as “泳 yong (swim)’’, “淋 lin (pour),” “源 yuan (source),” “液 ye (liquid),” “洋 yang (sea),” “汗 han (sweat),” and “酒 jiu (wine).” This formation method makes full use of the distinctiveness of pronunciation.

4.2.2 Match Sounds with Drawings

Many pictophonetic characters that have the same or similar pronunciation are made matching one character, a sound component, with characters (form components) that have various meanings. For example, the character “包 bao” is a sound component, and many pictophonetic characters with the same or similar pronunciations can be formed from it, such as “抱 bao (hold in one’s arms),” “跑 pao (run),” “泡 pao (steep),” “炮 pao (cannon),” and “苟 bao (bud).” The form of these characters indicates their meanings: “抱,” needs a hand, “跑” needs foot and “泡” needs water. This formation method makes full use of the distinctiveness of meaning.

4.2.3 Structure of Pictophonetic Characters

There are six ways of combining the sound and form components of pictophonetic characters: form on the left and sound on the right, form right and sound left, form positioned up and sound down, form down and sound up, form out and sound in, and form in and sound out. The most commonly used is the first mentioned, in which the form component is on the left and the sound component on the right. The next most frequently used approach is to have the form element up and the sound element down.

The pictophonetic approach to character formation is still used in the simplification of Chinese Characters today. Indeed many simplified Chinese Characters are pictophonetic. These have simple forms, exact pronunciations, and definite meanings. Examples of these new pictophonetic characters include: “拥 yong (embrace)”, “护 hu (protect)”, “担 dan (carry on a shoulder pole)”, “拦 lan (hold back)”, “栏 lan (railing)”, “战 zhan (battle)”, “惊 jing (be frightened)”, “响 xiang (echo)”, “吓 xia (scare)”, “xia (shrimp)”, “态 tai (attitude)”, “亿 yi (a hundred million)”, “忆 yi (recall)”, “艺 yi (plant)’’, “让 rang (allow)”, “坟 fen (tomb)”, “疗 liao (cure)”, and “园 yuan (garden)."

4.2.4 The Ideographic Element of Pictophonetic Characters

The pictophonetic approach is an advanced method of character formation. It allows a much greater range of meanings to be put across than do any of the approaches based on the drawing. Its introduction therefore significantly increased the number of Chinese Characters. As a result, pictophonetic characters have become the principal type of Chinese Characters. Although pictophonetic characters have components that indicate sounds (which implies that they developed phonographically), they are still, basically, ideographic characters.

The reason is that they incorporate many ideographic components which strongly indicate meaning, such as “女 nv (female),” in the character “妈 ma (mother).” Moreover, the sound components of pictophonetic characters are generally graphic characters that only serve to indicate pronunciation. For example, in the pictophonetic character “妈 ma (mother),” the sound component “马 ma (horse)” is a pictographic character. The appearance and frequent use of pictophonetic characters extended the use of graphics components in Chinese writing. It also strengthened the way in which graphic characters were used to indicate meaning. In fact, the existence of an enormous number of pictophonetic characters in the Han system, and the crucial graphics function of their form components is an important reason why Chinese Characters did not eventually become phonograms.

Pictophonetic characters have gone through a long period of evolution, which means that the sound components we see in many current pictophonetic characters do not represent the character’s exact pronunciation. This fact is worth bearing in mind when learning or using them.

4.2.5 Mutually Explanatory Characters and Phonetic loan Characters

Mutually explanatory characters and phonetic loan characters are two more types of Chinese Characters.

Mutually explanatory characters are treated as a particular case within the ancient “six categories’’, although they do not have a distinct formation mechanism. It is generally believed that the name refers to a group of characters that have the same components, the same meanings, and similar pronunciations. In the Shuowen Jiezi, the author used the two characters “老 Lao (old)” and “考 Kao (aged)” to illustrate mutually explanatory characters. Both characters incorporate the component of “老 Lao (old).” They also have similar pronunciations and the same meaning, i.e., old. In other words, “老” is “考,” and vice versa. People in ancient times used mutually explanatory characters as a way to explain one character by reference to another.

Phonetic loan characters are important in the development of Chinese Characters. In linguistic terms, they use a ready-made character to stand for a new homophone (a word that sounds the same as another word).

For example, the associative-compound character “北 bei” looks like two people standing back to back and originally meant “opposition” and “violation.” Over time a homophone with the pronunciation “běi” came into use that meant the “direction north,” however no character existed to represent this word. Because it shared the same pronunciation, the associative-compound character “北” was borrowed to represent the direction “north.” It, therefore, became a phonetic loan character. To differentiate between the loaned character’s new and original meanings, the form component “月 (肉) (flesh)” (in this case meaning body), was added to the character “北.” As a result, the character “背” was created to express the original meaning of “opposition and violation.” This process is an example of the formation of pictophonetic characters. In fact, initially, most pictophonetic characters were formed in this way. It can, therefore, be said that phonetic loan characters helped push forward the formation and development of pictophonetic characters.

In ancient times there were many phonetic loan characters, and many phonetic loan characters are still used in modern Chinese. These characters include: “甲 jia (first)”, “乙 yi (second)”, “丙 bing (third)”, “丁 ding (fourth)”, “东 dong (east)”, “西 xi (west)”, “南 nan (south)”, “北 bei (north)”, “之 zhi (modal particle)”, “乎 hu (modal particle)”, “者 zhe (modal particle)”, “也 ye (modal particle)”, “而 er (while)”, “其 qi (its)”, “且 qie (and)”, “又 you (again)’’, “咖啡 kafei (coffee)”, “纽约 niuyue (New York)”, “滴答 dida (tick)”, and “哗啦 huala (clatter)”.

part 4

The Form and Structure of Modem Chinese Characters

The Form and Structure of Modem Chinese Characters1

The form and structure of Chinese Characters are very organized. Most Chinese people have a good understanding of how Chinese Characters are formed and are therefore adept at writing them. Modern Chinese Characters are square characters that are composed of strokes. Their form and structure are organized into three levels: strokes, components, and characters. Components are their ‘core’ elements.

1. Strokes and the Order of Strokes

Chinese characters - stroke_order

Strokes are the various dots and lines out of which Chinese Characters are composed. There are eight basic strokes used in Chinese Characters: dots, horizontal strokes, vertical strokes, left-falling strokes, right-falling strokes, turning strokes, lifting strokes and hook strokes. Also, many of these basic strokes have variants. For example, there are short and long vertical strokes, as well as vertical left-falling strokes, vertical turning strokes, vertical lifting strokes, vertical hook strokes, and vertical turning hooks. Chinese Characters are composed of the basic strokes and their variants. Modern Chinese Characters are square. They contain no round strokes and very few arcs. Only their left-falling and right-falling strokes exhibit a small degree of curve, and the rest are mainly straight lines. For example, although the sun is round, the character “日 ri (sun)” is square and composed of straight strokes. Of all the various strokes, horizontal and vertical strokes predominate. The ability to reproduce these types of strokes is, therefore, a primary requirement for writing Chinese Characters. Each standard Chinese Character has a fixed number of strokes, whose form and position cannot be randomly changed.

To make the form of Chinese Characters balanced and beautiful, and to make them easier to write, strokes take on slightly different forms depending on how they are being used. For example, in a left component, when the last stroke is a horizontal stroke, it must change to a lifting stroke. This fact can be seen in the characters “地 di (earth),” “现 xian (appear),” “轮 lun (wheel),” and “孩 hai (child).” Conversely, in a left component, when the last stroke is a right-falling stroke, it must change to a dot. Such is the case with the characters “林 lin (woods),” “灯 deng (lamp),” “利 li (sharp),” and “剩 sheng (remnant).” When “月 yue (moon)” is a component of the lower part of a character, the first vertical left-falling stroke must change to a vertical stroke. It happens in the characters “青 qing (blue),” “前 qian (front),” “能 neng (ability),” and “谓 wei (tell).” These examples show that it is important to pay attention to the formation of strokes when writing Chinese Characters.

1.1 The Order of Strokes

There is a specific order that must be followed when writing the strokes in a Chinese Character. The rules are as follows: a horizontal stroke prior to a vertical one (as in “十 shi, ten”); a left-falling stroke prior to a right-falling one (as in “人 ren, person”); a upper stroke prior to a lower one (as in “二 er, two”); a left stroke prior to a right one (as in “川 chuan, river”); an outer part prior to an inner one (“月 yue, moon”); and a central stroke prior to those on either side (as in “小”). There is another rule which can best be described as “entering before closing the door” (as in “国 guo, country”).

Writing the strokes of Chinese Characters according to the prescribed order makes the formation of the characters easier and quicker. For example, when the strokes of the character “进 jin (enter)” are written in the correct order the “井” is made before “辶.” When this is done, the pen is positioned in just the right place to make the next stroke. Writing strokes in the correct order also makes their structure easier to understand.

Not writing strokes in the correct order is known as using “inverted strokes.” Writing in this way makes it difficult to accurately grasp the structure of the characters being written and makes it difficult to write quickly and correctly.

2. Components 

Generally speaking, components are composed of strokes and are called “偏旁 pian pang.” Components are the basic elements from which Chinese Characters are formed. They are bigger than strokes and smaller than Chinese Characters. They are divided into character components (elements that are independent characters) and non-character components (which are variants of independent characters). In modern combined characters, each part of a character is a component. For example, the character “好 hao (good)” is composed of “女 nv (female)” and “子 zi (baby)” which are both character components. The character “谢 xie (thank)” is composed of a non-character component “讠” and the character components “身 shen (body)” and “寸 cun (1/3 decimeter)”. These three parts are all components. The components of “衫 shan (sleeveless jacket)” are “衤” and “彡” which are both non-character components.

More than 1,000 years ago, the Shuowen Jiezi (Origin of Chinese Characters) by Xu Shen analyzed the form of Chinese Characters according to their components.

By studying a character’s components, students of the Chinese language can understand the elements that indicate that character’s meaning and that influence its pronunciation. Also, understanding components is quite useful when students want to looking up characters in a dictionary.

Components have also been instrumental in the development of computer software that can use and display Chinese Characters. It has been made possible using the “way of radicals,” which was developed through analyses of components.

3 Radicals

As already described above, Xu Shen invented “radicals”. In his dictionary, he classified characters that shared the same components into categories. This shared component is the first character listed in a category and is known as a radical. Examples include: “木 mu (tree)” and “人 ren (person).” This method means that all the characters in the category with the radical “木 mu (tree)” contain the component “木,” and all the characters in the category with the radical “人” contain the component “人.” To put it simply, a radical can be regarded as the “head of a category.” Generally speaking, radicals are components, but not all components are radicals. For example, the sound component of a pictophonetic character is a component, but it indicates pronunciation and is not a radical. Most radicals are ideographic form components.

A radical represents a broad category of characters. Radicals are therefore used to organize the listing of words in a dictionary. In Chinese dictionaries, there are usually more than 200 categories grouped under more than 200 radicals. Each category includes many specific items, so these 200-plus radicals lead to tens of thousands of Chinese Characters. For example, the names of trees, various parts of trees and wood products are listed under the category designated by the radical “木 mu (tree).”

4 Whole Characters

Whole characters are composed of several parts and have the following characteristics: form, pronunciation, and meaning. Whole characters are either single- part characters (independent characters) or multi-part characters (combined characters). In modern Chinese Characters, there are only a few single-part characters. These characters make up less than 10 percent of the Chinese script. The other 90-plus percent are multi-part characters. Of these, the majority are composed of three parts. Three-part characters make up over 40 percent of the total number of characters.

Single-part characters only have one part and are known as “independent.” Although there are not many independent characters, those that exist are in common usage and perform a vital function in the Chinese script.

Multi-part (or combined) characters are composed of two or more parts. They can be a combination of independent characters (for example “明 ming (bright)” and “森 sen (forest)”) or a combination of independent characters and components that have been changed from independent characters (for example “抱 bao (hold in arms)” and “笔 bi (pen)”). Combined characters have three main types of structure. These are “left and right,” “up and down,” and “encircled.” Most combined characters are composed of left and right parts.

part 5

The Square Form of Chinese Characters

The Square Form of Chinese Characters

Among all the forms of writing from across the world, the square forms of Chinese Characters have a unique charm.

1. The Development of the Square Form

When Chinese Characters were first created, the ancient Chinese used the square form. Many of the early characters found in primitive rock paintings and on ancient pottery are almost all square. The earliest character, the symbol “旦” from the Dawenkou Culture, is a rectangle. The earliest mature characters (i.e., the Jiaguwen) nearly all had irregular rectangular forms. The Xiaozhuan characters, standardized by Emperor Qinshihuang of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), were rectangular and were relatively regular. After the “Change of Lishu,” the square form of Chinese Characters gradually became fixed. Today, the Kaishu characters used in modern China have a regular square form.

The square form of Chinese Characters is thought to have resulted from a kind of “natural selection” based on visual appeal.

The square form has enormous visual appeal. The form has a central point that endows characters written in this way with a strong sense of stability. This center point is a focal point for all the strokes in a character and serves to balance the “forces” at play within a character. Indeed, if a character’s composition deviates from the square form, then it will lose this sense of balance. Writing Chinese Characters inside a pane shaped like the character “米 mi (rice)” illustrates this point. The center of a “米”-shaped pane is the intersecting point of four axes which gives it stability and strength. When Chinese Characters are properly composed, their major strokes should at least approximately accord with these axes. For example, the major strokes of the character “水 shui (water)” accord with these axes, and the whole character has an overall frame. If the character “水” is used as a component, then the three strokes of “three-point 水” also point towards the center point of the axes.

Also, to obtain the desired level of visual balance when writing characters, it is also necessary for the strokes to be symmetrical on both sides or over and above the “十” axis. For example, “水 shui (water),” “木 mu (tree),” “林 lin (woods),” and “扮 ban (to be dressed up as)” are all symmetrical to the left and right of the axis. “显 xian (apparent),” “安 an (safety),” “胃 wei (stomach),” and “吕 lv” are all symmetrical vertically. This arrangement imparts a strong visual impression of stability. Of course, this symmetry is not the only one, as the left and right strokes, or those that go up and down, do not entirely cover the same area. However, it does result in a strong visual balance and stability. From an aesthetic point of view, this impression of stability can be enhanced if the lower or right part of a square form is bigger or heavier. Because of this, Chinese Characters with the most stable form are usually smaller at the top and broader at the bottom, or smaller on the left-hand side and bigger on the right.

2. The Central Role of the Ideogram in Chinese Characters

The use of visual forms to indicate meaning is the fundamental feature of Chinese Characters. The space in which Chinese Characters are drawn—the canvas of “up, down, left and right” — is therefore important.

Alphabetic writing is different. Its characters (i.e., letters—such as a, b, c,d, etc.) only indicate pronunciation. Their form is straightforward, and the words they make up have a linear arrangement. Therefore the space in which such letters are written is of much less important than it is for Chinese Characters. For example, the English word “dragon” is a linear arrangement of six alphabetic letters, whereas the corresponding Chinese Character “龙” developed from a drawing of a dragon. The character also has a specific composition within a square space. Indeed, all of the Chinese Characters that developed from ideograms need an appropriate area within which they can achieve visual balance.

2.1 Independence of Syllables

Chinese Characters are the basic structural units with which the Chinese language is recorded. They provide information on both pronunciation and meaning. Generally speaking, each character records one syllable, and each syllable represents one morpheme (the smallest grammatical unit in a language). For example, the character “书” represents the syllable “shū,” and this syllable, in turn, represents the morpheme of “书 (book).” The syllables of the Chinese language are independent and cannot be combined with other syllables, which is why individual Chinese Characters are independent and cannot be put together with, or be transformed into, other characters. In other words, the independence of Chinese syllables is why Chinese Characters became independent square forms. Chinese Characters are therefore very suitable for the practical expression of the Chinese language. For example, the word “汉语 hanyu (Chinese)” consists of two syllables “hànyǔ,” which are represented by two characters (one character per syllable).

2.2 Unhindered by China’s Numerous Dialects

Another reason why Chinese Characters are perfectly suited for the expression of the Chinese language is brought to light when you realize that the language incorporates many dialects and a considerable number of homonyms.

Chinese Characters indicate their meanings by the use of drawing-like forms, and these give the reader a visual impression of meaning, which means that misunderstandings caused by different Chinese Characters indicate their meanings by the use of drawing-like forms, which give the reader a visual impression of its meaning. It means that misunderstandings caused by different dialects can be avoided. It also means that Chinese people who speak different dialects can understand the people from other regions. For example, the following sentence in Mandarin (Putonghua) “又有油, 又有肉 (there is both oil and meat)” would be pronounced as “you you you, you you you” in Shandong dialect. However, the six square written characters can be understood everywhere across the country.