A short introduction to Chinese writing

This text is in its first draft and unedited. To give feedback on this version please mail me: kees@ketmia.net.

A longer introduction is here.

In Chinese writing, monosyllabic words and single syllables are written with unique signs. Those signs have more or less arbitrary shapes, like the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. in English. Just like we memorize that 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. point to the words {zero}, {one}, {two}, {three}, {four} etc., students in China must memorize that their signs point to certain words.

Multi-syllable words are written like complex numbers in English. In English the word {forty-eight} is written by combining “4” and “8” to “48”. In Chinese the multi-syllable word {jiànpán} is written by combining the signs 鍵 and 盤 to 鍵盤. (To understand why the Chinese signs often are much more complex, read on.)

Not all signs in Chinese have completely arbitrary shapes. Some are abstract pictures. Mostly you have to be told what one of those signs should represent, because the pictures have been simplified greatly. For example, the sign 人 pictures a person seen from the side. The sign 木 pictures a tree. The sign 手 represents a hand. The sign 刀 represents a knife. And so on. There are only a couple of hundred of these signs, but you will see them a lot, partly because they are for frequently used words, but mainly because they are used as components to build more complex signs.

Some of the complex signs were originally made as a kind of puzzles. For example, the sign for “tree” 木 was used to create the sign 本, which adds a small line to suggest the “root” or “foundation”. Likewise, the sign “knife” 刀 was used to create 刃, in which a mark indicates the “blade” of the knife.

Full signs were combined to make little stories, as in combining “foot” 止 (symbolizing “marching”) to “dagger-ax” 戈, creating 武 for the word “warrior”.

These puzzles signs are not very numerous, but just like the picture signs they have been used as components in yet more complex signs.

About 90% of all signs in Chinese are complex signs that consist of at least two components with different functions. In that type of sign, one of the components is supposed to give a hint for the pronunciation of the word or syllable it points to, using the rebus principle.

To understand the rebus principle, compare English “4 U 2”. We can read that as “for you too”. To achieve this we’ve used the sign “4” to write the word {for} instead of the word {four}, and the sign “2” to write the word {too} instead of {two}.

Normally we use “4” to write the word {four}. The word {four} has a meaning, “number four”—and a pronunciation, a sound, something like /fɔɹ/ (in the USA). If we ignore the meaning, we can use the sign “4” also to write other words that sound like /fɔɹ/, like the word {for}. In ancient Chinese this principle was used to write words with difficult to visualize meanings.

For example, the sign 其 was a picture of a kind of basket, and pointed to a word “sieve”. It sounded a bit like the Chinese word for “that”. Using the rebus principle, they adopted 其 to write this somewhat abstract word as well.

Using signs to write different words can be confusing. For example, I could write “2 2 sth 4 U” to mean “to do something for you”, but the two times “2” might be confusing. The scribes of ancient Chinese thought so, and decided to combine the rebus with an additional sign to clarify which word they meant. For example, they used 其 to write “that”, but added the sign ⺮ (an abbreviation of “bamboo” 竹) to 其 to create 箕 when they wanted to write “sieve”.

This method of combining a rebus (a hint for the sound) with another component (to hint at the meaning) underlies about 90% of all signs that are being used in Chinese writing. However, since Chinese writing is millennia old, lots of hints for the sound have become less accurate or even incomprehensible as a result of changes in the language. For other reasons the components that are supposed to hint at the meaning of the intended word might not be helpful anymore as well.

A rough estimate is that about half of the signs in Chinese are arbitrary with regard to the relation of their shape and the word they point to. The remaining half give some hint with regard to the word they point to.

In a practical sense, most Chinese signs consist of familiar components that make it easier to remember the sign as a whole. About half of the signs also contain a rough hint for the meaning or the pronunciation of the word or syllable they are being used for.

An example sentence Chinese

Xīnxiān de shuǐguǒ bùduàn de cóng guówài sòng jìn nóngmào shìchǎng.
Fresh fruit is constantly being sent to the farmers market from abroad.

Break down into words and phrases

The graphical history of individual graphs

The signs of Chinese writing are thousands of years old. In that time their shapes evolved at lot. The functions of the different components of signs often changed over time as well. Modern signs are often simplified to the point that it is difficult or even impossible to recognize their original significance. Since there are so many signs that you have to learn if you want to be able to read and write Chinese the abstract nature of the signs can make it difficult to remember them. Knowledge of their graphical development might help. That knowledge might also be interesting on its own. For that reason I will try to add sections that detail the graphical etymology of the most frequent signs on this site.

A longer introduction is here.
An explanation of terminology used on the website is here.