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The Chinese Writing System (2)



Characters are psychologically the most significant unit of the written language for Chinese speakers. Ordinary Chinese discuss or analyse their language in terms of characters (字 ). Sentences effectively consist of unbroken strings of single-syllable characters, each having their own particular meanings. For this reason, Chinese is popularly regarded as a 'monosyllabic language' -- a language composed exclusively of single-syllable words. There are major problems and inconsistencies involved in this way of perceiving Chinese.


From the point of view of lexicon, while this perception was arguably true for the lexicon of Classical language, in the modern language the situation is not so simple.

Of course, there are many monosyllabic words in Chinese, just as there are in English. Some examples are:

Word Pronunc. Meaning   Word Pronunc. Meaning
shān 'mountain'   gǒu 'dog'
rén 'person'   kuài 'quick, fast'
chī 'to eat'   kàn 'to see'

But not every character can be regarded as a single word. There are a huge number of words that consist of multiple syllables (polysyllabic words), mostly two syllables (disyllabic).

Polysyllabic words may be inherently polysyllabic, or they may be the result of combining two or more monosyllables.

1) Forms that are inherently polysyllabic

Inherently polysyllabic words cannot be split into smaller units. Some examples:

Pronunciation Characters Meaning   Pronunciation Characters Meaning
pútáo 葡萄 'grape'   hútu 糊涂 'muddled, confused, bewildered'
méiguì 玫瑰 'rose'   gāngà 尷尬 / 尴尬 'awkward, embarrased'
zhīzhū 蜘蛛 'spider'   bōli 玻璃 'glass'

The individual syllables in these cases are meaningless on their own and always occur in tandem; there is no such thing as a 蛛 zhū or a 萄 táo, and no-one has ever been observed being 尷 / 尴 gān. Breaking these words up into multiple characters, as the writing system does, is akin to breaking the English word 'rabbit' into two words as 'rabb' and 'it'.

This creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy -- being written separately, each syllable has come to be regarded as an independent unit, regardles of its original status. (See Note: 'Self-fulfilling prophecy': How Chinese characters confer independent status on elements that were not originally independent).

2) Characters combining to make words:

Much more common is the case where two or more characters combine to make words. Sometimes this is simply a case of adding a suffix or prefix to a character. In others, meaningful characters go together to form 'compounds'.

Suffixes/Prefixes: Many words (mainly nouns) that stood alone in Classical Chinese now add a suffix, especially in the spoken language. Suffixes include 子 -zi ('child'), 頭 / 头 -tou ('head') and 兒 / 儿 -r ('son, child'), the latter common in Beijing speech. For instance:

Individual Characters Word Meaning
+ 子 鼻子 bízi 'nose'
zhuō + 子 桌子 zhuōzi 'table'
mu4 + 頭 / 头 tóu 木頭 / 木头 mùtou 'wood'

Often the suffix is obligatory. 鼻 , for instance, cannot be used on its own as a word. However, there is a tendency to avoid purely spoken forms as much as possible in formal written texts. For instance, 木頭 / 木头 mùtou 'wood' is likely to be replaced by more precise terms, such as 木材 mùcái 'timber, lumber', in a written context.

In modern times Chinese has adopted prefixes and suffixes modelled on European languages, such as 化 huà '-ise, -isation', as in 現代化 / 现代化 xiàndài-huà 'to modernise, modernisation'.

Compound words: In 'compound words', meaningful characters join together to form larger words.

Compound words are extensively used in Chinese. In everyday speech, a number of words that were originally monosyllabic have become disyllabic through this process, e.g., 月亮 yuèliang ('moon' + 'bright' = 'moon') and 雲彩 / 云彩 yúncai ('cloud' + 'colour' = 'cloud' - informal language).

Historically, compound words were used to translate Indian Buddhist terminology (e.g., 世界 shìjiè 'world') and to translate Western learning introduced by the Jesuits around the 17th century (e.g. 幾何學 / 几何学 jǐhé-xué 'how many-what-study' = 'geometry'). They were given a huge boost when the Chinese started importing concepts of science and civilisation from the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many essential compounds like 社會 / 社会 shèhuì 'society' and 科學 / 科学 kēxué 'science' were created in this period. Below are some examples of compound words.

Word Individual Meanings Total Meaning
地板 dìbǎn 'ground + board' 'floor'
窗戶 / 窗户 chuānghu window + opening/door' 'window'
皮鞋 píxié 'leather + shoes' 'leather shoes'
路口 lùkǒu 'road + mouth' 'intersection'
天氣 / 天气 tiānqì 'sky, day, weather + air, spirit, energy' 'weather'
興趣 / 兴趣 xìngqu 'mood, interest + interest, delight' 'interest'
明白 míngbái 'bright + white' 'to understand'
神祕 shénmì 'god, divine, mysterious + secret' 'mysterious'
信息 xìnxi 'news, information + news' 'information'
政府 zhèngfǔ 'government, politics + govt. offices' 'government'
主義 / 主义 zhǔyì 'master, principal + justice, significance' 'principle, -ism'
非政府主義 / 非政府主义 fēi-zhèngfǔ-zhǔyì
'non + government + ism' 'anarchism'

Since many compounds are fairly transparent combinations of independent words, they give the impression that they are thrown together quite freely. This is how Chinese tend to perceive them. But compounds are, in fact, integral units with their own independent existence, not simply convenient combinations created on the fly. Take the following examples, in which the meaning of the whole is somewhat more than the meaning of the parts.

In fact, many characters can never occur alone, always forming compounds with other characters, e.g., 喜 ('joy') and 歡 / 欢 huān ('pleasure, welcome') are found together in the word 喜歡 / 喜欢 xǐhuān ('to like'). Both characters only ever occur in combination with other characters, in words such as 喜悅 xǐyuè 'joy, pleasure'; 歡迎 / 欢迎 huānyíng 'welcome', etc. They never occur by themselves as 喜 or 歡 / 欢 huān. Neither has the full independence and freedom of a word.

The old tendency to deal with the language as made up of characters is still quite apparent in dictionaries, which deal principally with the Chinese lexicon. In pre-modern Chinese dictionaries, each character (字 ) had its own entry. The entry would have an indication of pronunciation along with an explanation of the meaning/meanings. Each character was considered to have its own inherent meaning.

Modern Chinese dictionaries are still arranged in terms of characters. The major difference is that, in addition to information for the character as a whole, there is a list of 词 / 詞 (words) and longer combinations in which the character occurs. For example, the entry for the character 龙 / 龍 lóng 'dragon' might look like this, in drastically simplified form (note, for tidiness, only traditional characters are shown in the body of the entry):

龍 (龙) lóng: (1) Legendary creature with scales, beard, horns, and legs; can fly and swim; (2) In palaeology, a dinosaur; (3) In ancient times, a symbol of the Emperor, used on objects associated with the Emperor; (4) A metaphor for great ability; (5) A long, thin object resembling a dragon (e.g., a queue).

龍船: (1) A dragon boat; (2) a boat used by the Emperor.

龍燈 A long lantern used in folk performances.

龍鳳 Dragon and phoenix.

龍宮 Mythical palace of the dragon king.

龍骨 (1) Name of a plant; (2) keel of a boat or plane; (3) breastbone of a bird.



The general meanings given for the character 龍 / 龙= lóng attempt to cover all its different meanings. This includes 龍 / 龙 lóng as an independent word and 龍 / 龙 lóng as the mere component of a word, without any clear distinction drawn. Notice that one of the general meanings of 龍 / 龙 lóng is given as 'dinosaur'. This is slightly misleading: 龍 / 龙 lóng is indeed found in words like 恐龍 / 恐龙 kǒnglóng ('terrible dragon' = 'dinosaur') and 翼手龍 / 翼手龙 yìshǒulóng ('wing hand dragon' = 'pterodactyl'). But dinosaurs by themselves are not referred to simply as 龍 / 龙 lóng.

The listing of compound words starting with 龍 / 龙 lóng is a major advance over traditional dictionaries. In fact, it is absolutely essential because, as we have seen, the meaning of a compound is often not predictable from the constituent characters. For instance, it is not possible to tell that a 龍骨 / 龙骨 lónggǔ or 'dragon bone' refers to the keel of a boat!


More importantly, perhaps, grammatical analysis is almost impossible if each character is treated as a single word. For instance, the sentence below is difficult to analyse for either grammar or meaning if each character is treated as a separate word. It has three verbs and the meaning looks like 'I plural polish and pursue this piece asking topic'.

們 / 们


這 / 这
個 / 个
問 / 问
题 / 题
I plural polish pursue this (one piece) ask title/topic
Pronoun (Subject) Plural Particle Verb Verb Demonstrative Classifier Verb (?) Noun (Object?)

In fact, the sentence is easily understood as a simple Subject-Verb-Object structure with 'we', 'study', and 'problem' handled as single words:

我們 / 我们
這個 / 这个
問題 / 问题
We study/research this issue/problem
Pronoun (Subject) Verb (Demonstrative + Classifier) Noun (Object)

This is how modern Chinese grammarians analyse Chinese grammar, using the concept of the 'word' or 詞 / 词 . Despite this, there is still a strong residual tendency to think of Chinese sentence as consisting of characters (字 ).

The following example, photographed at a metro station in Shanghai, illustrates how both lexicon (the way characters are combined) and grammar (the way sentences are built) can can combine to produce radically different meanings.

Dānchéng piào dàngrì běnzhàn yǒu xiào
Single tickets valid for the date (of issue) in this station
(Note: 单 = traditional 單, 当 = traditional 當)

The four characters in the middle form the two words 当日 本站 dàngrì běnzhàn ('that-day this-station'). A different breakup would yield the (nonsensical but grammaical possible) 当 日本 站 dāng Rìběn zhàn 'as a Japanese station'. Words in Chinese are a very real phenomenon, not merely the result of temporary associations of free characters into sentences.



For more information on the Chinese writing system, see Links. See also the Japanese Writing System and the Vietnamese Writing System.

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