'Self-fulfilling prophecy': How Chinese characters confer independent status on elements that were not originally independent
(This is a side note to the page The Chinese Writing System)
By breaking polysyllabic forms into individual syllables, Chinese characters give them an independence they would not normally have. This has created something of a 'self-fulfilling prophecy', as though English broke 'rabbit' into two words, 'rabb' and 'it', and people then assumed that 'rabb' could be used freely to create new words like 'rabb-hunt' or 'rabb-stew'.
An excellent example of this is the naming of the wren-babblers in Chinese.
The Chinese word for 'wren' is 鷦鷯 jiāoliáo (simplified 鹪鹩) an age-old word that is written with two characters. Although consisting of two syllables and written in two characters, jiāoliáo is a single word -- the character 鹪 jiāo is never used alone or in any other character combination, and 鹩 liáo is used in the names of the mynahs but nowhere else. It is only the writing system that splits jiāoliáo into two parts.
It seems clear that the 'wren babblers', species of small birds that form part of a far larger group of 'babblers', were originally regarded as a kind of 'wren', 鷦鷯 / 鹪鹩 jiāoliáo, at least for naming purposes.
However, naturalists tend to feel uncomfortable with misleading bird names, so Mainland scientists understandably tidied things up. They added 鹛 méi 'babbler' to the names of the 'wren babblers' in order to make it clear that they are, in fact, 'babblers' and not 'wrens'. They then went on to create separate names for different species of wren-babbler using the two characters in 鷦鷯 jiāoliáo.
In this way, the single, originally indivisible word 鹪鹩 jiāoliáo, has been split into two individual parts for word-building purposes.
This kind of phenomenon is described by Hannas as follows:
(See Chinese Writing at Pinyin Info, which reproduces the first chapter from The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity by William C. Hannas, 2003.)
More on the writing of disyllabic words can be found at The addition of a meaningful radical in creating Chinese characters.