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The history of Chinese characters

When did it start?

The history of the Chinese scripts started in Sheng Dynasty (1600 - 1100 B.C.). People engraved
symbols or pictures onto the shells of turtles to express their views or feelings. Later, they engraved
them onto the bamboo. Those symbols or pictures were shaped and developed through the Chou
Dynasty ( 1027 - 222 B.C.), Chin Dynasty ( 221 - 201 B.C.) and it was not till the Han Dynasty
(202 B.C. - 220 A.D.), that the shapes of symbols and pictures were developed to a formal script
which we are using nowadays. Chinese writing made a great leap with the discovery of paper
making by Choi Lan ( 100 A.D.) and the use of a brush made from bamboo and goat hair.

How many Chinese characters are there?

In the dictionary made during the Han Dynasty, there were over 9,000 characters. The most recent
dictionary developed in the Ching Dynasty (1800 - 1911), included nearly 48,000 characters but
some of these words are rarely used. Knowledge of about 4,000 characters is necessary for reading
a newspaper and for most other common purposes. The most common computer encoding system in
Taiwan and Hong Kong incorporates about 13,000 characters and the system in China incorporates
about 6,5000 character.

In Taiwan and Hong Kong, people are still using the traditional fonts for writing. In Mainland
China, they use the simplified fonts which contain fewer strokes per character - this was developed
by the Chinese Communist Party in 1952.

Does Chinese have an alphabet?

No. It is different from English, Chinese characters are not formed from alphabets. They are formed
by strokes. Every character corresponds to a single or a few syllables in Chinese.

How are the characters drawn?

The art of drawing chinese characters is called calligraphy. The characters are made up from eight
basic strokes. See how these strokes are drawn by watching this Chinese stroke animation. Also see
how the character for 'forever' is drawn - this character is made up by all eight basic strokes.

Is the size and shape of the characters important?

Yes. Essentially a complete character needs to be written within a square. This may mean that when
the complete character is drawn different parts of it may be squashed or even simplified to fit the
shape of a square.

Does it matter how long you draw each individual stroke that makes up a character?

Yes. Different 'words' can be made up of exactly the same strokes. The length of each stroke, the
position in relationship to each other and whether they touch or overlap will determine the meaning
of the character. Look at the examples below.
soldier soil

is not end

sun say

knife force

eight enter people

Chinese often uses opposing words to create 'new' concept words.

The Formation of Chinese characters


You can see how some simple 'words' are drawn here. e.g. the characters for one, two, three, ten,
up, down, big, small.
• Learn how to compose Chinese characters from their individual
strokes. In this game your task is to pick one of the characters on the left (one, people, big,
wood, white, hundred, forever). Next choose the correct stroke one by one from the strokes
at the top. Remember that the order of drawing strokes is left to right and top to bottom.

Also a flash animation of how to draw the Chinese numbersfrom 1-10 here.

There are six kinds of characters. Listed below.

• Pictographs
• Ideographs
• Aggregates
• Borrow
• Complexes
• Transform.

Pictographs

These characters are derived from drawings - examples below.

Word Symbol Picture Explanation

the sun is
sun
round

the new/half
moon
moon

the course of
water
water
fire the flame

hill the peak

rain drops of rain

a cow with
cow
two horns

a goat with
goat
two horns

a body with
two legs

see an
animation
here of how
this picture
changed over
time from the
horse Shang
dynasty
(2500BC) to
the Hang
dynasty (1st
century AD)
and how to
draw the
modern
character

a trunk with
tree leaves and
roots

bottom is tree,
fruit
top is 'fruit'
Ideographs

Some things have the shape but can not be drawn. An arrow or pointer is added to illustrate the
character.

Derived
Object/Idea Ideograph Explanation
from

a dash is
added to point
blade
out the 'blade'
knife See animation

add a line
which
wood
literally
(material)
means 'this is'
tree See animation
one a single stroke
a double
two
stroke

three a treble stroke

Logical aggregates

Pictograph + Ideograph Aggregate

tree people rest

one
sun festival day
leaves on a pick
hand tree

tree tree a wood

tree a wood forest

Borrowing

It gives an unrelated meaning to a character. A spoken word which has the same pronounciation as
the borrowed character but lacks its won character.

Examples:

1. translation of western names in using the same sound

Transliteration
English Chinese
into Cantonese

Mark 'mug hark'

Washington 'wah sing dun'

George 'jaw zi'

Mary 'ma lay'

2. use the character which has the sound of the westernised items
English
Chinese
items

tank

coffee

cocoa

pound

3. pick a part from a character to create a new character

where
the
which
e.g. top
means
nose part is
'self'.
taken
as

Phonetic complexes

This combines the meaning of one character with the sound of another.

Phonetic
Character + 'Sound'
complex

water sound river

water sound lake


dog sound monkey

insect sound butterfly

tree sound plant

rice sound puddings

Associate transformation

This extends the meaning of a character into a related concept.

is
which
e.g. derived
without means
sell from
'out'
buy

Opposing words in Chinese.

In English, words of opposite meaning are rarely used together. We have some sayings such as 'the
long and the short of it' (meaning the summary of something), 'it's not black or white' (meaning it's
not clear-cut) and 'blowing hot and cold' (meaning someone who has mood swings). Opposite
words are called 'autonyms'.

In Chinese, autonyms are frequently used to represent a concept. Often these autonyms become a
'new' phrase synonym. e.g. opposite words 'buy' and 'sell' when used together are used
synonymously with 'business'. The chart below shows some more examples.

Chinese words Concept Example


How is your
buy/sell?
'Business'
How is your
business?
Buy Sell

Much/little
'How money?
much?' How much is
that?
Much Little

What is your
shoes' big/small?
'Size'
What is your
shoe size?
Big Small

You don't know


'Morality' the black/white.
(truth) You don't know
the truth of it.
Black White

What is your
'Movement'
advance/retreat?
(progress or
What progress
planning)
have you made?
Advance Retreat

Look at
'Whole'
above/below.
(object or
Look at the
situation)
whole situation.
Above Below

Turn on (or off)


'Light the open/close..
switch' Turn on (or off)
the switch.
Open Close
What is the
success/failure?
'Outcome'
What is the
outcome?
Success Failure