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The Chinese Writing System (3)



The original forms of letters in English is not normally regarded as important. It may be interesting that the letter 'A' derives from the ancient Phoenician letter aleph, which is derived from the Egyptian character for 'ox', but it's not highly relevant.

For Chinese characters, form is very important. Without some attention to form, learning thousands of characters would be impossible.

Characters as pictures (graphic representation of meaning): Many people are under the impression that characters are 'pictures' or 'symbols' of objects or concepts. There are, indeed, some straightforward pictorial or symbolic representations. Some well-known examples:

Character Pronunciation Meaning Analysis
shān 'mountain' Graphic representation of three peaks.
quǎn 'dog' (formal) Originally the graphic representation of a dog, now virtually unrecognisable.
shàng 'above, on top of, rise' Sign pointing up (symbolic representation).
xiū 'to rest' Person ⺅ resting under a tree 木.
yǒu 'friend' Originally two hands reaching towards each other, now unrecognisable.
míng 'bright' The character for 'sun' plus the character for 'moon'.
jiā 'house, home' Pig ⾗ under a roof ⼧.

The meaning of such 'graphic' characters is not always evident to the untrained eye. The original form may have been distorted or ignored during the character's evolution, and can only be rediscovered through painstaking scholarly research. Sometimes the origins are simply unknown. However this kind of pictographic character now forms only a small proportion of the total stock of Chinese characters.

The phonetic element (the role of sound in creating characters): From the very beginning, sound has played a vital role in Chinese characters. The classic example in ancient times was the character 其 (now pronounced ), originally a type of bamboo basket or dustpan. Based on the similarity of sound, this character was borrowed to write the more abstract (and less easily representable) word (in its modern pronunciation) meaning 'other'. 其 thus came to mean either 'dustpan' () or 'other' (). Later on, in order to dispel any ambiguity, the bamboo radical ⺮ was added to create a new, separate character for 'dustpan': 箕 . (For convenience I've used the modern pronunciations. Scholars have reconstructed the sound system of ancient Chinese, but no-one is really sure how it was actually pronounced.)

This method of adding a meaningful element (or 'radical') to indicate the character's general meaning became one of the most important ways of forming new characters. Such characters indicate a combination of meaning and pronunciation. (See Note: The addition of a meaning element (radical) in creating new Chinese characters.)

For instance, the character 伯 consists of ⺅ meaning 'person' and meaning 'white'. Contrary to what you might expect, this character does not mean 'white person'. The⺅element indicates a connection with 'people', indicates the rough pronunciation. 伯 actually means 'uncle', pronounced or bǎi. The two elements ⺅ and thus have different functions:

Character Components Function
/ bǎi
'uncle (father's elder brother)'
⺅ 'person' Meaning: 'person'
'white' Pronunciation: / bǎi

While not as consistent as an alphabet, there is a certain system about the way characters of this type are created. There are whole families of characters with a common phonetic element. For instance, is found as a phonetic in the following:

Character Analysis Pronunciation Meaning   Character Analysis Pronunciation Meaning
'white' bái, bó 'white'   木 'wood/tree'
+ 'white'
bǎi, , 'cypress'
⺅ 'person'
+ 'white'
bó, bǎi 'uncle (father's elder brother)'   舟 'boat'
+ 'white'
⻌ 'walk, move'
+ 'white'
pò, pài 'to compel, force, press'   ⺘ 'hand'
+ 'white'
pāi 'to clap, pat'
⺡ 'water'
+ 'white'
bó, pō 'to anchor, moor' / 'pool', lake'   ⺖ 'heart (emotion)'
+ 'white'
'to fear'

Despite a drift in pronunciation in the two thousand odd years since many of these characters were created, the phonetic element still provides a fairly effective crutch to reading and writing the characters, and one that is consciously used by Chinese speakers.

The semantic element, on the other hand, gives only a broad hint of the meaning, like a thesaurus category -- a general indicator of the area of knowledge referred to, e.g. 'human affairs', 'water-related', 'botany', 'manual actions', 'emotions', etc. Unless the word is already known, the meaning cannot usually be guessed purely from looking at the character. Some radicals include: ⺅ 'person', 口 'mouth', 子 'child', 山 'mountain', ⺖ 'heart, emotion', ⺣ 'fire', ⺘ 'hand, manual action', 木 'tree', ⺡ 'water', 言 (simplified ⻈) 'speech', 車 (simplified 车) 'vehicle', ⺾ 'grass', ⺮ 'bamboo', and ⻌ 'movement, walking', etc. Traditional dictionaries classify characters by their radicals, which are still an important method of looking up unknown characters.



The mastery of Chinese writing has always been a formidable task, achieved in the past only by an educated elite. To make them easier to learn, the Mainland government has simplified many characters since the 1950s. For example, 传 chuán or zhuàn is a simplification of the original character 傳. Many other examples can be found on this page, marked with an asterisk. The simplified characters are standard in Mainland China and Singapore while the traditional characters are used in Taiwan and Hongkong.

As part of the simplification, the government also:

1) Amalgamated some character forms. For example, the characters 里 'mile, neighbourhood', 裡 'inside' and 裏 'inside' were amalgamated into the character 里 . The characters 準 zhǔn 'standard, accurate' and 准 zhǔn 'allow, grant' were amalgamated into the character 准 zhǔn. (This creates problems converting between simplified and traditional characters. See Note: Mainland Chinese getting it wrong with traditional characters, and vice versa.)

2) Abolished many alternative readings. For instance, 波 'wave' was traditionally read or , and still is on Taiwan. On the Mainland, only is now recognised.

The existence of two character standards, traditional and simplified, complicates things for learners. Computers also have to deal with two character sets, GB for simplified characters and Big5 for traditional characters. (This problem has largely been solved with Unicode).

On the printed page, the two different standards are not difficult to tell apart. The traditional characters, using more strokes and thus more ink, have a heavier blockier look and tend to bristle off the page. The simplified characters have a cleaner look and leave more open space. The traditional characters in Taiwan and Hongkong are often printed in the traditional format, with lines running down the page. The first line is at the right side of the page, meaning that pages are read from right to left. Under this system, books have their front cover at what we would regard as the back of the book. On the Mainland, the old Chinese format has been abandoned: Simplified characters are printed across the page from left to right and the page is read from top to bottom, as in English.

Understandably, the simplified characters are not universally liked, especially outside the Mainland. People in Taiwan and Hong Kong find them ugly and difficult to read. Even in Mainland China, many people profess to find the older forms more attractive. But despite a resurgence of traditional characters on the Mainland, the simplified forms are well established and have the advantage of being convenient and economical to write.



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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