Introduction to the Chinese Script

       The Chinese script is one of the oldest and most widely used writing systems in the world. It has a history of five or six thousand years, and is used by about one fourth of the total population on earth. The creation and evolution of Chinese characters are closely interwoven with the development of Chinese culture. Chinese characters are the basic carriers of the traditional Chinese culture, and, as an important tool for extending, spreading and exchanging ideas, they have played a critical role in the long history of the Chinese nation. One may well argue that without Chinese characters Chinese culture would not have achieved the splendors it did.
       The Chinese script is an ideographic writing system, in which the graphic structure is directly related to the meaning. Hence the first step toward mastery of Chinese characters is to learn the characteristics of their composition.
       In the study of the composition of Chinese characters, there is a traditional theory known as Liu Shu (six writings). That is, there are six types of characters in the terms of their composition: pictographic, indicatives, ideographs, phonetic compounds, mutual explanatory, and phonetic loans. Strictly speaking, only the first four refer to the ways of composing Chinese characters, the last two are concerned with the ways to use them. The traditional view that Liu Shu is a summary of the different ways of composing characters, therefore, is not very accurate. Nevertheless the Liu Shu theory is basically correct in revealing the general pattern in the creation and development of Chinese characters. It may help learners better understand the composition of Chinese characters and their original meanings, and hence use them more accurately.
       1. Pictographs        A pictograph is a depiction of a material object. Chinese characters mostly originated from picture writing. In other words, most Chinese characters were originally pictures of objects. However, there is a fundamental difference between pictographs and pictures: the former, usually rough sketches of objects(e. g. "sun" sun, "moon" , "mountain" , "river" , "man" , "big" ) or consisting of a characteristic part only (e.g. "ox" , "sheep" ), are much simpler than the latter. More important is that pictographs are associated with definite meanings and pronunciations, and have become symbolic, and as a result of increasing simplification and abstraction, pictographs of the later ages are quite deferent from their originals. Compared with those in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions, pictographs in the Regular Script are no longer picture like. In a sense they are not really pictographic, but simply symbolic.
       Pictographs are based on the external form of material objects, but the abstract concepts in language are formless, which renders it impossible to depict them. This impossibility inevitably hinders the growth of pictographs, and that is why their number is limited. However, pictography remains the most important method of composing Chinese characters. The others are only developments on this method and variations.
       2. Indicatives        Indicatives refer to the way of forming abstract characters with indicating signs. There are two subtypes of indicatives: one is composed of a pictograph and an indicating sign, e.g. (knife-edge) , (root) , (treetop) ; the other is composed purely of abstract sign, e.g. (on the top) , (underneath) , (one), (two) and (three).
       Indicatives account for the smallest percentage of Chinese characters. The reason is that for most characters there are simpler ways of composition: characters referring to material objects may be composed pictographically and those expressing abstract concepts may be composed ideographically or by way of phonic-compounding.
       3. Ideographs        Ideographs are compounds, composed of two or more existing characters. In terms of structure, an ideograph is a composition of two or more characters side by side or one on top of another. In terms of meaning, an ideograph is also a composition of the meanings of its component characters. For example, the single character stands for a tree, two trees together refers to a group of trees: grove, and the character made up of three trees means a place full of trees, a forest. And the character consists of (man) and (tree), signifies that man is taking a rest against a tree.
       4. Phonetic-semantic compounds        A phonetic compound consists of a semantic radical and a phonetic radical. The semantic radical indicates its semantic field and the phonetic radical gives its pronunciation. For example, phonetic-semantic compounds with (tree) as the radical like (pine), (cypress), (peach) are all names of trees; those with (hand) as the radical like (push), (pull), (lift), (press) all refer to actions performed by the hand. However the semantic radical only shows the general semantic class of the character, not its specific meaning. The specific meanings of the characters sharing the same radical are differentiated by the phonetics they each have. The phonetics in some phonetic-semantic compounds may also be semantic, e. g. the phonetic in is also meaningful in the sense of "take".
       There are many objects and abstract ideas which are difficult to express through pictography or ideography. For example, the general term for birds, but there are thousands of types of birds in the world, and it is impossible to differentiate each of them by way of pictography or ideography. But this is easily achieved in phonetic-semantic compounds by adding different phonetics to the radical , e.g. (pigeon), (crane), (chicken) and (swan). Thus there is an enormous number of phonetic compounds in Chinese, and this number is growing larger and larger in the modern period. Statistics show that phonetic-semantic compounds accounted for 80% of the total characters in the book (Shuo Wen Jie ZiŁ¬ which means Origin of Chinese Characters, from the Han Dynasty) By (Xu Shen), 88% in the book (Liu Shu Lue, which means Aspects of the Six Categories of Chinese Characters, fom the Song Dynasty) by (Zheng Qiao), and 90% in the (Kang Xi Zi Dian, which means KangXi Dictionary, from the Qing Dynasty). In the modern simplified form characters currently in use, phonetic compounds make up an even larger percent.
       5. Mutual explanatories        According to (Xu Shen)'s definition in his book (Origin of Chinese Characters), mutual explanatories are those which share the same semantic radicals and are mutually explainable. For example, the characters and , both having the age radical () and meaning the same, are mutual explanatories. Thus the (Origin of Chinese Characters) says, " means " and " means ".
       Strictly speaking, mutual explanation is a way to explain the meaning of characters through comparison. There is no new character created in this way. Hence mutual explanation is not a way of composing new characters, but a way of using existing ones.
       6. Phonetic loans        The phonetic loan is another way of using existing characters. (Xu Shen) defined it as a character which is used in a new sense on account of its pronunciation. In other words, it is an internal borrowing on the basis of pronunciation: a character is used in a new meaning which is expressed by a similar sound in the spoken form. In this way an existing character has acquired a new meaning, but no new character is created. The phonetic loan, therefore, like mutual explanatories is not a way of composing Chinese characters.
       At the early stage, there were quite a few phonetic loans in the writing system. As the number of existing characters at that time was limited, many concepts had to be expressed by phonetic loans. For example, the character in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions was originally pictograph and referred to the nose, but it is now used in the sense of "self" as a result of phonetic loan. The character in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions was also a pictograph, referring to the wheat, but is now used in the sense of "come" as a phonetic loan.


The Development of Chinese Characters and Calligraphy



Bronze script
chin wen
15th - 11th centuries B.C.E.
Oracle-bone script
chia ku wen
12th - 11th centuries B.C.E.
Large-seal script
da chuan
c. 8th century B.C.E.
Small-seal script
hsiao chuan
2nd century B.C.E.
Clerical script
li shu
2nd century C.E.
Standard script
k'ai shu
since c. 4th century C.E.
Running script
hsing shu
since c. 4th century C.E.
Cursive script
ts'ao shu
since c. 4th century C.E.

C.E.: "Common era." This abbreviation came to replace the previously used A.D. (anno Domini, Latin for "in the year of the Lord") because of new knowledge regarding the date of the Christ's birth. The common era covers the time from Christ's birth to the present day.

B.C.E.: "Before common era." This abbreviation has come to replace the previously used B.C. ("before Christ"), and covers the period of history prior to the birth of Christ.

 Return to The Discovery From The Oblivion: Yi Guan Bei He Tong.

Maintained by

Chinese Archaic-Jade Shop

 © 2006 by the Chinese Archaic-Jade Shop