Many Chinese language learners feel each Chinese character is a complicated picture or puzzle. Even if they spend considerable time to recognize and practice writing the characters – after a few days – their memory of those characters is gone without a trace. The next time they see the character again, some learners are completely lost and don’t even recognize the character. For some lucky learners, they might have the feeling of deja vu (literally “already seen”) (note 1) — they notice that the character seems so familiar, and they are so sure they saw it or read it somewhere. However, the exact meaning of the character or how to sound out that character is uncertain. In order to solve those character recognition frustrations, I would suggest you to take some time to learn the rules about Chinese character formation and usage.
How many Chinese characters do you have to learn? The 康熙字典 (kang1 xi1 zi4 dian3 Kangxi Dictionary) was the standard Chinese dictionary during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it contains more than 47,000 characters. Some of the characters in it are archaic, and obscure, and only a quarter of these characters are now in common use. It is estimated that a Chinese language learner needs to only master about 3000 – 4000 characters to be able to communicate effectively in most settings and conduct daily conversation effectively. In English, there’s only 26 alphabets, however, a person will need about 5000-7000 vocabulary words before one can be considered a fluent reader. Chinese characters have radicals, just like English words has roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Dividing character components in Chinese, just like chunking the words in English, is the first step you need to do for reading. Understand the common radicals, just like knowing your ABC in English, is essential task you need to master before learning Chinese characters. Please read my post about Chinese radicals under categories.
Chinese characters, 汉字 hanzi，
The formation and usage of Chinese characters is known as 六书 Liu Shu (six writings). There are six types of characters in the terms of their formation and usages: pictograph, indicatives, ideographs, phonetic compounds, mutual explanatory, and phonetic loans. The first four rules refer to the ways of composing Chinese characters, while the last two refer to the ways to use them. Understanding the six rules of how Chinese characters were made and used will increase your capability of observing the characters’ structure, ability to memorize, write Chinese characters meaningfully and logically, and will also help you use characters more accurately.
1 Pictograph or pictogram (象形,xiang4 xing2). 象形 :象 xiang4 means looks like, and 形xing2 means the shape, so these two characters together mean: look like the shape (of the object).
Generally speaking, most Chinese characters originate from picture writing. Pictographs are created by mimicking the outer shape of the material objects. The meaning of words in language is either concrete matter or abstract concept. Concrete matters are drawable, however, abstract concepts are formless. The abstract matters can’t be expressed with a pictograph and that is why there are other character formation methods; the other methods are based and developed on the pictograph method.
Pictograph is not a picture. Pictures are vivid and with a lot of details, but pictographs are only some rough sketches of shape of the object.
For example: the character 日 ri4 means the sun. Originally, the sun was written as
a circle with a small straight stroke inside the circle .
The circle is the shape of sun, and the stroke inside the circle signifies that the circle is not empty but with essence inside it. In ancient times, there was no paper or paintbrushes. The carving on the oracle bone or bamboo is difficult to make circles, thus, later the curve of circle gradually become straight lines.
The character 月 yue4 means moon, and it is depicted at its waning crescent phase.The two strokes inside the moon, also means moon is not empty, but concrete. As time went by, the curving at the top and the bottom got straightened, and become today’s 月 yue4.
2. Indicatives or ideogram 指事 (zhi3 shi4) zhi4 means to point, zhi4 means the matter, together they mean “point to the matter”.
Indicatives or ideogram refers to the method of forming abstract characters with symbols or indicating signs. There are two types of indicatives:
（1）Ｕsing a pictograph with an indicating sign.
For example, the word roots is written as 本 ben3. This word consists of two parts –木 and 一. 木 means the tree, and 一 the symbol or the indicative sign which is put at the place near the bottom to signify the place of basic or roots. So, we have a phrase called 根本 gen1 ben3.
Another character is 刃 ren4, the sharp edge of a blade. The word consists of two parts 刀 and the little stroke on the left side to show that it is the sharpest place of the knife. We have a phrase called 刀刃 dao1 ren4 which means the sharp edge of knife.
（2） Ｕsing symbols to express abstract concepts.
For example, using 一 yi1 二 er2 三san1 to express the meaning of 1,2, and 3 or 上shang4 下 xia4 to refer to above and below. In the character 上, the 一 mean the thing, and by putting the other element on top of the 一 to express the meaning — above. 下 refers to below. In the character 下 xia4, the 一 mean the thing, and by putting the other element below of the 一 to express the meaning — below.
3. Combined ideogram 会意 hui4 yi4, hui4 means to figure out, yi4 means the meaning; these two characters together mean — figure out the meaning of the compound ideographs.
In 会意 hui4 yi4 characters, they are created by combining two or more existing characters or radicals. The combining arrangement can be either two or more characters side by side, or one on top of another. Putting together the basic word components, the reader can get clues, and by connecting the clues together, the reader will be able to tell the meaning and definition of the whole character.
For example, the single character or radical 木 mu4 means a tree, two trees standing side by side, 林 lin2 refers to a group of trees or woods , and three trees piling together 森 sen1 means a lot and a lot of tree — a forest.
The character 明 ming2 consists of two radicals or two characters 日 ri4 the sun and 月 yue4 the moon. We know that 日 ri4 is bright and shining in during the day, and 月 yue4 is dazzling with silver light at the night; thus together, 明 ming2 means brightness.
Another 会意字 hui4 yi4 word is 男 nan2. This characters contains two radicals, one is 田 （tian2， field） and the other is 力 （li4， strength）. In ancient China, women stayed at home taking care of house chores and raised children, and the men had to go to the field and used their strength to plant the seeds, weed the weeds, or harvest the crops. Thus, by connecting the meanings of two radicals together, 男 nan2 — laboring on the field — naturally refers to men.
4.Phonetic-semantic compounds or ideogram phonetic compounds 形声 xing2 sheng1, xing2 means shape, sheng1 means sound; so this formation consists of two radicals: one radical that has semantic meaning while the other phonetic radical provides the sound.
For example, 芬 fen1 consists of two radicals: the top semantic radical means grass or plants, while the bottom radical provides the 分 fen1 sound. This whole character means fragrance. In ancient China, people gathered the fragrance from plant extract, thus, the grass radical provides the general meaning (this character has something to do with plants).
Another example is 蚊 wen2. 蚊 Consisting of two radicals, the semantic radical 虫 chong2 means bugs, while phonetic radical 文 provides the sound 文 wen2. Together, the whole character means mosquitoes. Mosquitoes belong to bugs, annoying buggy pests.
One drawback about this creating method is that the semantic radical doesn’t provide the exact meaning of the whole character, and it only has some general semantic meaning. There are many characters that share the same semantic radicals. For example:
菜 cai4，萍 ping2， 莲 lian2，花 hua1，草 cao3，蓝 lan2，and 菊 ju2. All of these characters share the same radical 艸 cao3 (grass, plants), but their pronunciation and meaning are different due to their different phonetic radicals.
The phonetic elements in some phonetic-semantic compounds can also be semantic. That is to say, the phonetic element can be meaningful, and not just present the sound only. For example, the word 菜 (cai4 vegetable), has two radicals: 艸 cao3 (grass, plants) and 采 （cai3， pick). The 采 cai3 is the phonetic element in this character, however, it is also meaningful; cai3 采 is a hui4 yi4 character (combined ideogram, with the top part means the hand, and the lower part means the tree). Cai3 采 stands for a person using hand to pick something from a tree. For we know that cai4 菜 is the thing that we pick from plants. So, cai3 采 has two functions – both semantic and phonetic.
The sounds in the phonetic element and the whole character can be totally the same, such as 莲 lian2 and 连 lian2; can have same pronunciation elements but with different tones, such as 菜cai4 采cai3; can be slightly different from each other, such as 冷 leng3 and 令 ling4. The reason for this is that language is constantly developing. In the process of language growth, many factors can impact it, such as when people relocate to a new place, the language adaptation process happens, and so the pronunciation of characters gets changed somehow. However, most dialects keep more pure pronunciation of Chinese characters’ ancient pronunciation. For example, 冷 leng3 and 令 ling4 are pronounced the same as ling4 in Hokkien （福建 Fu Jian） dialect.
It is estimated that phonetic-semantic compounds accounted for 90% of the total characters in the origin of Chinese Characters. Thus, it is important to know the sound elements, and the way to know them is to study some basic Chinese radicals and to know their pronunciation as well as their meanings.
Other 福、请、颜、朗、锦、视、胡、晕、菜、资、盤、固、閡,闻、薺 etc..
5. Mutual explanatories or transfer 转注 (zhuan3 zhu4, zhuang3 means turn, zhu4 means explain -zhu4 shi4 注释; turn to each other, and mutually explain）
According to 许慎 Xu Shen， the method of mutual explanatories is that if some characters share the same semantic radicals, then they can become mutually explainable. For example, 考 kao3, 老 lao3 both have the same radical – 耂 , and so they are mutually explainable. In Xu Shen’s 说文解字 Shuo Wen Jie Zi (Discussing writing and explaining characters), it says ” 考 means 老”and 老 means 考”.
However, mutual explanation is a way to explain the meaning of characters, but it does not associate with the formation of characters. It is just a way of using existing characters. The other transfer characters are 舟 船,至 到,詈 骂 etc..
6. Phonetic loans 假借 jia3 jie4， jia3 and jie4 have same meaning, all means borrow.
Phonetic loan is another way of using existing characters. It was used under these two situations.
Phonetic loans can be an inscriber’s typo or intentional mistake due to temporarily forgetting the word he or she intended to write. Thus, it leads to accidentally replacing the original one with other characters just for their same or similar pronunciation.
For example, 归 quai1, originally means women got married, but it got borrowed to use as give, just for the similar pronunciation as 馈 kui1 which means give.
Another example is 蚤 (zao3, flea) was borrowed to use as 早zao3 early, just for the same pronunciation.
Other loan characters are:
“伸” and “信”；
“飞” and “蜚”；
“屎” and “矢”;
“叛” and “畔”；
The character originally had a completely unrelated meaning, but because there were not enough characters at the early period of writing, the inscriber borrowed a character to use it in a new meaning which is expressed by a similar sound in the spoken form. Later, the word that got borrowed developed a new meaning, however, no new character was created.
For example, the phrase 因为 (yin1 wei4, because), at the time, this phrase was used in spoken language, but the words was not yet written. The inscriber borrowed 因 and used it as the 因 in 因为. Originally, 因 means mattress made by grass, the square is the shape of a bed, and the 大 is the person lying on the grass made mattress bed; the 因 itself is a character that belongs to combined ideogram 会意字 category. Since it got borrowed, people got used to think the 因 as the 因 in 因为, and so, the 因 developed a new meaning as 因为 (yin1 wei4, because). People gradually forgot the original meaning of 因 means grassbed, and later, a new character 茵 got created to replace the lost 因 as mattress bed.
Another example is 自 zi4, 自 is a pictogram which looks like the shape of nose, and its original meaning is “ nose ” of course:) But, later, it got borrowed to be used in 自己 zi4 ji3 self, and later when people saw 自 zi, they only thought of it as 自 zi4 which refers to self; that is why a new character for nose was created －－ bi2 鼻。
The third example is 来 lai2, the character 来 lai2 is a pictograph which means wheat, but it was borrowed to be used as the meaning “come” as the result of phonetic loan. Later 麦mai4 got created to replace 来 as the meaning of wheat.
Phonetic loan is not a very good term for 假借 jie3 jie4. For in 假借字 jia3 jie4 zi4, the borrowing was either done because two characters had the same pronunciation, or two characters that were totally different in pronunciation and meaning. For it would be good just to translate it as loan, as the characters mean — 假借 jia3 jie4 (borrow) .
Other -假借 jia3 jie4 characters are 然燃，乎呼，莫暮，且祖 etc..
Dear readers, now you know the formation and usage of Chinese characters, so next time when you see Chinese characters, try to take a few moments to analyze them so you will have a better understanding about the sound and the meaning of the characters which you encountered, and not just feel the overwhelming sense of deja vu.
Next step you should try — learn the basic Chinese radicals …..
Note 1: The term deja vu was created by a French psychic researcher, Emile Boirac (1851–1917) in his book L’Avenir des sciences psychiques (“The Future of Psychic Sciences”). When you feel something strangely familiar, or eerily familiar, and it seems that you encounter it somewhere in life or in a dream, then you can say you have the feeling of deja vu.
Note 2: references for Chinese character formation
A song for the boring Chinese character formation you might say? What song it might be? Hmmmm deja vu, just for fun! 🙂