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The Chinese Writing System (5)



A writing system is a way of recording language on paper. In one sense, it doesn't matter what system is used, as long as it does the job. On the other hand, no writing system is neutral. Different systems embody different viewpoints and assumptions about language.

There are a number of ways, large and small, in which the characters have moulded the Chinese language. The following are some observations on the impact characters have had.

1. Psychological importance

Chinese perceptions of their own language are highly coloured by the characters, which are psychologically one of the most significant linguistic units. Ordinary Chinese discuss or analyse their language in terms of characters (字 ). The 'word', known to Chinese linguists as the 词 , is a relatively recent import from the West that is still very much overshadowed by the 字 . By concentrating attention on the individual syllable and its meaning, characters bring this level of language to the fore.

Were it not for the characters, words might be a more important unit of language in Chinese. For example, if 桌子 zhuō-zi 'table' were written zhuōz in Roman letters as some have suggested, people might gradually lose their consciousness that 桌子 consists of two separate elements.

On the other hand, it may be the perception that words are made up of independent 'building blocks' that keeps the language so flexible. For instance, the word for 'lift / elevator' is 电梯 diàn-tī 'electric ladder'. Compounds are created freely to indicate different kinds of lift: 客梯 kètī 'guest lift', 货梯 (貨梯) huòtī 'goods lift', 服务梯 (服務梯) fúwùtī 'service lift', etc. Colloquially, a lift is known as a 梯子 tīzi 'ladder'. The characters are at once a reflection of this flexibility and a factor that keeps it that way.

'Idioms': There is a very important class of expressions which relies heavily on the identity of characters as independent meaningful units. These are 成语 (成語) chéngyǔ, so-called 'idioms', which tend to be four-characters long. 'Idioms' range from common colloquial expressions to cultivated literary phrases. Some examples:

Characters Pronunciation Individual Meanings Overall Meaning Comments
乱七八糟 / 亂七八糟 luàn-qī-bā-zāo 'chaos-seven eight-mess' 'in a mess' (more a colloquial saying than a classical idiom) Very common colloquial expression
偷工减料 tōu-gōng-jiǎn-liào 'steal-work reduce-materials' 'cut corners in construction' Structure is simple (verb + noun, verb + noun) and meaning is quite straightforward.
杞人忧天 / 杞人憂天 Qǐ-rén yōu tiān 'Qi-person-worry-sky' 'have groundless fears that the worst will happen' From the story of a man from Qi who feared that the sky would fall.
刻舟求剑 / 刻舟求劍 kè zhōu qiú jiàn 'notch-boat-seek-sword' From the story of a man who accidentally dropped his sword in the water and made a notch in the side of the boat to mark where he dropped it. Purely a literary expression, not often used but known to all schoolchildren. Meaning understandable only if you know the story.

Such idioms often embody Classical grammar and vocabulary. In one sense they stand like islands of Classical Chinese in the modern language. Idioms run into the thousands and are a conspicuous feature of Chinese prose and conversation. They help give Chinese writing both its characteristic pithiness and, because of the element of hyperbole, its tendency to 'purple prose'. Idioms have been largely neglected by linguists, but if there is anything in Chinese that justifies giving precendence to 'characters' over 'words', it is the idioms, which are very difficult to grasp without an appreciation of the meaning of each individual character.

2. Encouragement of a terse written language

The characters encourage a terse written style. Because each character has a meaning, it is possible to use a single character in writing where a longer expression would be expected in speech.

A simple example is the sentence 我已经写完了 / 我已經寫完了 wǒ yǐjīng xiěwán le 'I have already finished writing', which can be quite intelligibly abbreviated to 我已写完 / 我已寫完 wǒ yǐ xiě wán. The word 已经 / 已經 yǐjīng 'already' is abbreviated to 已 . Although the syllable is potentially associated with many different meanings, 已 removes any ambiguity because it specifies quite clearly that 'already' is meant. The final 了 le, a modern-language colloquial particle indicating completed action, can also be omitted.

This kind of written style owes much to the terseness of Classical Chinese.

3. A Bridge to Tradition

The Chinese take their characters very seriously as a bridge to their own tradition. The written language facilitates access to several thousand years of literary tradition (although the key word is 'facilitates' -- reading Classical Chinese is not a snap for modern Chinese speakers, who require training to understand it).

The idioms noted above are a good example of the Classical influence that still permeates the language. Although Mandarin is supposed to be based on the spoken language of the north, it is still filled with literary expressions, many of them not immediately intelligible in speech. Characters keep this tradition alive. If they were abolished, arguably much of this tradition might gradually disappear.

To take a superficial example, Chinese has a number of expressions meaning 'known far and wide', e.g., 远近闻名 / 遠近聞名 yuǎn-jìn wén-míng 'far near hear name'. A relatively obscure example is 遐迩驰名 / 遐邇馳名 xià-ěr chí-míng 'far near spread name'. The first two characters, 遐迩 / 遐邇 xià-ěr, are literary forms only likely to be used by someone with a comfortable mastery of the written language. If Chinese were written in an alphabet, would this kind of expression survive?

Theoretically, every character that has ever been recorded in the Chinese tradition can be used in modern Chinese. Of course, many old characters are long-dead variants of current characters and are unlikely to be resurrected. On occasion, however, this theoretical possibility is put to startling use. Visit an exhibition of old bronzes and you may find yourself face-to-face with modernised versions of ancient characters referring to types of bronze vessel -- characters for which even the pronunciation has been lost!

4. Word-building based on characters

Most new vocabulary, especially in technical fields, is created with characters. Creating new words is thus a visual rather than an aural exercise. Spoken intelligibility is secondary. Take this obscure but telling example:

Originally the word 鹂 / 鸝 on its own meant 'oriole'. In modern Chinese the bird is known as 黄鹂 / 黃鸝 huánglí or 'yellow oriole'. on its own has other meanings and is not readily understood as 'oriole'.

When naming the Maroon Oriole, a species from the forests of southwest China, some scientists called it 朱黄鹂 / 朱黃鸝 zhū-huánglí, literally 'vermilion yellow-oriole'. Having a 'vermilion yellow' bird' is rather incongruous but huánglí, as a single linguistic unit, managed to override this. Eventually, however, 朱鹂 / 朱鸝 zhū-lí 'vermilion oriole' won out and became the standard technical name. Zhū-lídoes away with the incongruous 'vermilion yellow' wording and is a compact two-character expression. More importantly, it is instantly recognisable when written thanks to the character 鹂 / 鸝. The disadvantage is that zhū-lí is poorly understood as a spoken expression.

The interesting question is, to what extent did characters tip the scales in favour of zhū-lí? Without the character 鹂 / 鸝 to indicate the meaning 'oriole', and without the character 黄 to spell out the concept of yellowness, might not the aurally comprehensible zhū-huánglí have won out instead?

5. A Bridge Between Dialects

This is an important function that is imputed to characters. It is dealt with separately on another page of this site.

6. Characters are less versatile than an alphabet in representing new words

Creating new characters is inevitably more involved than coming up with new spellings in an alphabet. First, the character must be invented, then it has to win widespread acceptance. This hinders the instantaneous deployment of new characters.

There are two areas where this may have had an impact:

1. Dialect words: There are many dialect words for which no character exists. In the case of Hokkienese (Southern Min), for instance, at least 25% of the vocabulary remains unwritten. This is partly due to political and cultural resistance to the idea of writing in dialect, but the difficulty of inventing and winning acceptance for new characters hasn't helped. Despite the fact that characters theoretically form a much-vaunted 'bridge' among dialects, apart from Mandarin and Cantonese the difficulty of deploying large numbers of suitable characters has arguably hindered the wider written use of dialects.

2. Foreign words: Chinese in the past has been able to find ways to represent foreign words, particularly after they are assimilated, e.g., 旮旯 gālár 'corner', originally from Manchurian. But the number is, relatively speaking, not large.

Present-day Chinese generally represents foreign words phonetically, with characters used for their sound value. This creates a certain tension since meaning is normally regarded as an integral part of a character. For instance, writing 'microphone' as 麦克风 / 麥克風 màikèfēng 'wheat conquer wind' is felt to be a makeshift device. In the long run, words like màikèfēng tend to be replaced by native compounds that make more sense (e.g., 话筒 / 話筒 huà-tǒng 'speech cylinder'). One can only speculate whether foreign words would not be absorbed more easily if new characters were easier to create and propagate (or if Chinese were written with an alphabet).


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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