Chinese character

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classical Chinese script
Chinese calligraphy

Chinese characters are symbols used to write the Chinese and Japanese languages. In the past, other languages like Korean and Vietnamese also used them. The beginning of these characters was at least 3000 years ago, making them one of the oldest continuously-used (meaning it has not fallen out of use) writing systems in the world. In Chinese they are called hanzi (汉字/漢字), which means "Han character". In Japanese they are called kanji and in Korean hanja.

Chinese characters are an important part of East Asian culture. Chinese characters may be considered to be abstract art, because of how the characters are made up of lines and dots. The art of writing Chinese characters is called calligraphy.

Writing[change | change source]

Chinese characters are a type of logogram; they mainly represent words instead of sounds. Most earlier Chinese characters were pictographs, which are simple pictures used to mean some kind of thing or idea. Today, very few modern Chinese characters are pictographs, but are a combination of two or more simple characters, also known as radicals. While many radicals and characters show a word's meaning, not all characters neatly fit that description. Sometimes a radical or even an entire character itself hints at the word's pronunciation, instead of its meaning.

To better explain the purpose of different Chinese characters, Chinese scholars have divided Chinese characters into six categories known as liushu (六书/六書) literally translated as the Six Books, or the six categories of writing. The six types of Chinese characters are:

  • Pictograms, xiang xing (象形): characters that use a simple picture, or one radical, that directly represent concrete nouns, like persons, places, and things. Examples include:
Chinese

character

(traditional/

simplified)

Pīnyīn

(Mandarin

pronunciation)

Meaning Looks like
shān mountain 3 peaks
rén person/people/humanity a creature standing on 2 legs
kŏu mouth an open mouth
dāo sword/knife a blad
wood a tree
sun/day a sun with a cloud in the middle
yuè moon/month same as 日, but in the shapeof a crescent
woman/girl/female person with large breasts
zi/zĭ child a child wrapped in a blanket
馬/马 horse a horse with a head, a mane, a body, a tail, and 4 legs
鳥/鸟 niǎo bird a creature with a head and a wing with feathers
eye an eye with 2 eyelids
shuǐ water three streams of water
  • Simple ideograms, zhi shi (指事): characters that use a simple picture, or one radical, one radical to represent simple ideas or abstractions. Examples include:
Chinese

character

(traditional/

simplified)

Pīnyīn

(Mandarin

pronunciation)

Meaning Looks like
one 1 line
èr two 2 lines
sān three 3 lines
big/large/great a person 人 holding out his/her arms as wide as possible
tiān heaven/sky/day like 大, but one line above, so the greatest of the great
xiǎo little/small fingers holding onto a needle
shàng up/above/previous a plant's stem and leaf above the ground
xià down/below/next a plant's roots
běn root a tree 木 with its roots showing underground
apex a tree 木 with one extra line on the top, so the very top
  • Complex ideograms, hui yi (会意), or characters that use more than one picture, or more than one radical, to represent more complex ideas or abstractions. Examples include:
Chinese

character

(traditional/

simplified)

Pīnyīn

(Mandarin

pronunciation)

Meaning Looks like
míng bright/light/tomorrow a sun 日 and a moon 月 next to each other, indicating that tomorrow happens after the sun and moon passes
hǎo good a woman 女 and a child 子 next to each other, indicating that a woman with a child is good
xiū rest a person 亻(人) next to a tree 木
lín woods two trees 木 next to each other
sēn forest three trees 木 next to each other
  • Phonetic loan characters, jia jie (假借), or characters that borrowed a radical from other characters because they sound similar, not because they have the same meaning. These are called rebuses, or pictures/letters/numbers/symbols that are used to represent a word with the same pronunciation. For example, someone writes the sentence, "I see you tonight" as "⊙ C U 2nite". Sometimes, a new character is made for the original word to avoid confusion between the different words.
Chinese

character

(traditional/

simplified)

Rebus word

(Mandarin

pronunciation)

Original word New character for the original word
來/来 lái "to come" lai "wheat" 麥/麦 mài
"four" "nostril(s)" 泗, can also mean "mucus/sniffle"
běi "north" bèi "back (of the body)"
yào "to want" yāo "waist"
shǎo "few/little" shā "sand" 沙 and 砂
yŏng "forever/eternity" yŏng "to swim"

Examples of words with phonetic loan characters that are common in today's world are the names of countries, such as Canada, which is pronounced Jiānádà (加拿大) in Chinese. While the third character 大 , which has the meaning "big/large/great", seems to describe Canada well, since it is a big country, the first two characters 加 jiā, meaning "to add", and 拿 , meaning "to take", have no obvious relation to Canada, so it is safe to say that these characters were chosen only because the pronunciation of each character sounds similar to the syllables of the English name of the country.

  • Semantic-phonetic compounds, xing sheng (形声), or characters that have at least one radical that hint at the word's meaning and at least one radical that hint at the word's pronunciation. Most Chinese characters are these. For example, the character 媽/妈 means mother, and the character is made of 2 radicals, 女 and 馬/马 the semantic radical 女 means female/woman/girl, since the word's meaning is related to the radical. and even though the meaning of the phonetic radical 馬/马 has little to do with with the word's meaning, if any at all, but because it sounds similar to the word 媽/妈 mā,it is used to help the reader remember the word's pronunciation. Other examples include:
Chinese

character

(traditional/

simplified)

Pīnyīn

(Mandarin

pronunciation)

Meaning Semantic radical Phonetic radical (meaning)
qīng clear 氵(水) water qīng (greenish-blue)
jīng eye 目eye qīng (greenish-blue)
cài vegetable/food dish 艹 (艸) grass/plant cǎi (harvest)
to wash oneself 氵(水) water (wood)
lín to pour 氵(水) water lín (woods)
嗎/吗 ma yes-no question marker (word that ends the sentence of a yes-no question) 口 mouth (interjections and particles often have this radical) 馬/马 (horse)
  • Transformed cognates, zhuan zhu (专注), or characters that used to be variants of other characters, but have later taken on a different meaning.
Cognate word Original word New pronunciation and meaning of cognate word
lăo "old" kào “test, exam”

Nobody knows exactly how many Chinese characters there are, but the biggest Chinese dictionaries list about fifty thousand characters,[1] though most of them are only a bit different from each other and only seen in very old texts. For example, the character 回 (huí) has also been written as the variant characters 迴,廻,囬,逥,廽,and 囘, although most Chinese people only know and use the variant 回. Studies in China show that normally three to four thousand characters are used on a daily basis, so it is safe to say that one needs to know three to four thousand characters to be functionally literate in Chinese, or can be able to read an everyday text without serious problems.

Characters are a kind of graphic language, much different from languages that use a alphabet such as English. The correct way tell between them is to remember the structure and meaning of every character, not pronunciation because there is very close relationship between meaning and structure of characters. Example: 房(house)=户+方. 房 is a shape-pronunciation character. 户 is for shape and 方 is for pronunciation. 户 means 'door'. 房 means 'A person lives behind a door'. 方 pronunciation is fang and tone is 1, and with the tone mark it is written as fāng. 房 pronunciation is also fang, but tone is 2, with the tone mark it is written as fáng.

There are still many Chinese characters that are used in Japanese and Korean. Generally the education level of a Japanese person is decided by the amount of Chinese characters understood by this person. While Koreans nowadays mostly write in hangul, the native Korean alphabet, people have found that some meanings cannot be expressed clearly by just hangul, so people need to use Chinese characters as a note with a bracket. Before 1446, Korean people only used Chinese characters.

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