Chapter 3:The Chinese writing system:an overview

Updated:Sat, Oct 20, 2012 22:57 PM     Related:Chinese writing system

In this chapter we present an overview of Chinese writing system. All Chinese characters contain a radical, a sequence of strokes. The classification of Chinese characters identifies six categories based on structure and representation of meaning.


1. Traditional and simplified characters

Although transcription systems can be used to write Chinese, Chinese characters are the basis of written communication in China. This chapter presents an overview of Chinese characters.

There are two standard systems of characters in current use: traditional characters and simplified characters. Simplified characters are the official characters used in mainland China and Singapore. Traditional characters are the official characters used in Taiwan and other parts of the Chinese speaking world.

Most characters in the traditional and simplified systems are identical. However, in the simplified character system, many frequently used characters have been simplified from their traditional, more complex form. Here are some examples.

Simplified Pronunciation Meaning
guó country
dōng east
chē car
mǎi buy
xiě write

A simplified way of writing characters has existed for hundreds of years. Simplified characters were used in informal documents and in some forms of calligraphy before they were adopted by mainland China as the official form. Therefore, although the two forms now have some political significance, you may encounter simplified characters in use in Taiwan and traditional characters in use in mainland China.

2. The structure of Chinese characters: the radical and the phonetic

2.1 The radical

All Chinese characters contain a radical, a sequence of strokes that broadly categorize the character in terms of meaning.

In the set of traditional characters, there are 214 radicals. In the set of simplified characters, there are 189 radicals. Some radicals may occur as independent characters. Others only occur as part of a character.

Here is a list of some of the most common radicals, including their simplified form if there is one.

Traditional radical Alternate form Radoca;s with simplified forms meaning
  eat, food

When a radical is simplified, the simplified form is used in all of the characters in which it occurs. Here are some examples.

Simplified Pronunciation Meaning
huà speech
qián money
gpng steel
fàn rice
饿 è hungry

2.2 The phonetic

Some characters are radicals by themselves. Examples include:

水 shuǐ water; 木 mù wood; 人 rén person

However, most characters include a radical and additional strokes. Often, these additional strokes provide a hint at the pronunciation of the character. When they do,they are called the phonetic.

Here are examples of characters with phonetics. As you can see, the pronunciation of the phonetic may be identical with or similar to the pronunciation of the character.

Character   Phonetic:the character soundslike...  
问/ wèn to ask 门/mén door
间/jiān between 简/jiǎn simple
们/men plural marker    
清/qīng clear 青/qīng blue or green
情/qíng situation, sentiment    
请/qǐng to request    
河/hé river 可/kě approve, can
哥/gē older brother    

Noting phonetic information is a helpful way to remember characters. However, the

phonetic rarely provides complete information about the pronunciation of a character.

3. The traditional classification of characters

Chinese characters originated during the early Shang dynasty or the late Xia dynasty,in the seventeenth century bc. One of the earliest Chinese dictionaries, the Shuowen Jiezi, compiled in ad 121, established a classification of characters that is still used today. The classification identified the following six categories based on structure and representation of meaning.

3.1 Pictographs 象形 xiàngxíng

Pictographs originated as pictures of objects. They represent only a small portion of

Chinese characters. The modern forms are stylized versions of the ancient forms. Here are comparisons of the Shang Dynasty forms with the modern forms of the same characters.

Shangform Modernform Meaning
(picture not shown) 水 shuǐ water
  日 rì sun
  目 mù eye

3.2 Ideographs 指事 zhí shì

Ideographs represent abstract meanings, often having to do with spatial orientation. Only a small number of characters are ideographs. Examples are presented here.

Shangform Modernform Meaning
(picture not shown) shàng above
  xià below
  zhōng middle (picture of a target hit by an arrow)

3.3 Associative compounds 会意 huì yì

The meaning of these characters is reflected in the meaning of their component parts.

Character Composedof
好 hǎo  good 女 nǚwoman + zǐ child
话 huà speech 言 yán  language + shé tongue

3.4 Phonetic compounds 形声 xíngshQng

Phonetic compounds are the most common type of Chinese character and are dis- cussed in 2.2 above.

3.5 False borrowings 假借 jiǎjiè

False borrowings involve the use of a character to refer to another word with identical pronunciation but different meaning. For example, the word for wheat, written as 来, a picture of the wheat plant, was ‘borrowed’ to write the abstract concept ‘come,’ which, at the time, had the same pronunciation as the word for wheat. The character for wheat was later revised to distinguish it from the character for come. In present day writing, ‘wheat’ is written as 麦 mài and ‘come’ is written as 来 lái. The similarity in the characters can be seen in the traditional form of the characters. Note that the pronunciation of the two words is no longer identical, though they still rhyme.

3.6 Semantic derivations 转注 zhuǎnzhù

Characters are considered 转注 zhuǎnzhù when they are used to represent a meaning that is derived from the original meaning of the character. For example, the character 网 wǎng, originally a picture of a fishing net, is used to refer to networks in general. It is the character used in one of the Chinese translations of the World Wide Web:万维网 wàn wéi wǎng. The simplified character for net,网, is the older form of the character.

4. Character stroke order: 笔顺 bíshùn

4.1 Basic rules of stroke order

Each Chinese character contains a precise number of strokes written in a fixed order. Below are the basic rules of stroke order for the writing of Chinese characters.

Rule Example
1. Horizontal (横  héng) precedes vertical ( 竖 shù).
2. Left falling stroke (撇 piě) precedes right falling stroke (捺 nà).
3. First top, then bottom.
4. First left, then right.
5. First outside, then inside.
6. First complete the inside of a box, then seal the box.
7. First center, then sides.
8. First horizontal (横 héng), then left falling stroke (撇 piě), then right falling stroke (捺 nà).

4.2 Special stroke order rules

Rule Example
1. Write the dot (点 diǎn) last if it is positioned at the top right corner of a character.
2. Write the dot (点 diǎn) last if it is positioned inside a character.
3. If the character includes the curved left-falling stroke (横 héng  zhé  piě) and one other component, write the curved left-falling stroke last.
4. If the character consists of more than one horizontal stroke (横 héng) and vertical stroke (竖 shù), write the vertical stroke first, and the horizontal stroke at the bottom last.
5. If a character has a horizontal stroke (横 héng) in the middle, write the horizontal stroke last.




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