introduction chinese characters

Introduction to Chinese characters

Chinese characters are one of the oldest forms of writing. How many are there and how to understand China's complex writing system?

Chinese characters represent one of the oldest forms of writing we have ever witnessed. “Character”, in Chinese, is written 汉字 and pronounced hànzi.

This writing system still has an unspecified number of characters; over the years, dictionaries have collected an increasing number of characters. From the 9,353 characters of the first dictionary of the second century A.D. (the 说文解字 Shuōwén jiězì), the most recent dictionaries count about 55,000 characters.

In this article, we are going to shed some light on the complex Chinese language system.

The Chinese characters, 汉字 hànzi, are a graphemic fixation system used by the sinophone populations; they are therefore used not only in China, but also in Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

The characters constitute a logographic system: each single element (the character) represents a morpheme, often a word.

Did you know that…

People from the West use logographic systems as well! An example are the Arabic numbers: despite the pronunciation of 1, 2, 3, etc. varying from language to language, their semantic concept remains unchanged in all cultures.

Chinese characters ARE NOT (only) ideograms. Chinese characters “form words”, not only concepts. An example is the colour “red”. In Chinese there are two different characters to define “red”, hóng and chì; they are not ideograms because there are two different referents (红 and 赤) for the same concept (the colour “red”).

Moreover, the two characters graphically represent two different lexemes of the Chinese language instead of a chromatic concept independent of the lexeme.

It is impossible to precisely quantify all the characters that exist, or have existed, from antiquity to the present day. Quantitative estimates approximate the number of Chinese characters used throughout history to 60,000.

The inventory of Chinese characters developed “by accumulation”: “new” characters were simply added to the list of the already existing ones.

Sinologists agree that the number of characters actually used in each single historical period does not exceed the threshold of 10,000; in practice, only a certain part of the total number of characters existing at a certain moment has been used.

A quick glance at the most important dictionaries and rhyming dictionaries published over time can give us an idea of the process of “accumulation” of the Chinese characters:

  • Shuōwén jiězì 说文解字 (2nd century A.D.): 9,353 characters
  • Qièyùn 切韵 rhyming (601 A.D.): 16,917 characters
  • Guǎngyùn 广韵 dictionary (1008 A.D.): 26,194 characters
  • Kāngxī 康熙字典 dictionary (1716 A.D.): 47,035 characters
  • Zhōnghuá dà zìdiǎn 中华大字典 dictionary (1915 A.D.): 49,905 characters
  • Hànyǔ dà zìdiǎn 汉语大字典 dictionary (1986 A.D.): 54,676 characters
kangxi dictionary chinese characters

If you want to start studying Chinese, want to work with it, or “simply” learn it, consider that the Chinese school system provides that, at the end of 6 years of primary school, children must know about 2,800 characters; an average Chinese adult does not know more than 6,000 characters, while you only need 3,000 characters to read newspapers.

So, if you can read 7,000 characters and can write at least 3,000 characters, don’t worry, your Chinese is better than a lot of Chinese people!

The most interesting aspect about characters is understanding the logic behind the character’s formation. Knowing the theory of characters’ composition greatly in fact helps in the study of the language, and in memorizing pronunciation and writing.

The traditional classification of characters dates back to Shuōwén jiězì 说文解字 by Xu Shen (许慎), around 120 A.D. In his work, Xu Shen identifies 6 categories of character composition, the “six principles of writing” which take the name of liù shū 六书.

Pictograms, 象形 xiàngxíng, are graphic representations of concrete referents. In other words, they are images depicting objects. Examples of pictograms are the characters:

= sun

yuè = moon

shān = mountain

rén = person

Ideograms, 指事 zhǐshì, are iconic representations of abstract references and they represent abstract concepts. Examples of ideograms are:

shàng = above

xià = below

èr = 2

zhōng = centre

Complex ideograms, 会意 huìyì, are composed of 2 or more simple characters that, if combined, create a new character and a new meaning. Examples of complex ideograms are:

(woman) + 子 zi (child) = hǎo (good, well)

(sun) + 月 yuè (moon) = míng (bright)

(tree) + 木 (tree) = lín (forest)

rén (person) + 木 (tree) = xiū (to rest)

Phonetic-semantic compounds形声 xíngshēng, are characters consisting of an element indicating the semantic field of the character-word and an element indicating its phonetic/pronunciation. Some examples of phonetic-semantic compounds are:

yáng (ocean)
Semantic component (水 shuǐ, water) on the left, phonetic component (羊 yáng) on the right.

gōng (success)
Semantic component (力, strenght, energy) on the right, phonetic component (工 gōng) on the left.

huā (flower)
Semantic component (艹 cǎo, grass) above, phonetic component (化 huà) below.

Semantic component (皿 mǐn, container) below, phonetic component (合 ) above.

bìng (desease)
Semantic component (疒, desease) on the outside, phonetic component (丙 bǐng) in the inside.

wèn (to ask)
Semantic component (口 kǒu, mouth) in the inside, phonetic component (门 mén) on the outside.

The category of meaning extensions, 转注 zhuǎnzhù, indicates similar characters in the drawing, linked in meaning, with a similar etymological root, but with different pronunciation.

An example is given by the characters: lǎo and kǎo linked by their meaning of “old”, “aged”, “ancient”.

Loans, 假借 jiǎjiè, identify characters that, due to their homophony, have assumed a different meaning, completely different from the original one.

Examples of loans are:

wàn (in traditional Chinese)
Originally, the character had the meaning of “scorpion”; nowadays, it means “ten thousand”.

The character 我 indicated a type of saw; nowadays, it means “I” (first person singular).

The character 来 originally indicated a type of cereal; nowadays, it means “to come”.

单 indicated “a weapon for hunting or combat”; nowadays, it means “single”, “simple”, “odd (number)”.

  • Basciano B., Ceccagno A., Shuobuchulai. La formazione delle parole in cinese, Bologna, Serendipità, 2009.
  • John Jing-hua Yin, Fundamentals of Chinese Characters, Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Qiu Xigui, Chinese Writing, Early China Special Monograph Series, n. 4, Chinese Popular Culture Project, 2000.
  • Wieger L., Chinese Characters, Dover Publication Inc., 2000.


You may also like: