The basic elements of the Chinese writing system. 漢字, known as hànzì in Chinese, kanji in Japanese, hanja in Korean, and Chu nho (Chữ nho) in Vietnamese.

Each character is made from a number of strokes and contains one "radical" which is used as a key for dictionary lookup. The radical can be anything from a single stroke on simple characters, to what appears to be an entire "sub character" in complex characters composed of several simpler characters crammed into a one-character space.

In complex characters there are often different pieces which serve different functions. One piece may serve to provide meaning and another may serve as a pronunciation hint. These sound hints are generally a simple sub-character with the same or similar sound to the character of which they are part. Unfortunately many of these sound relationships are ancient and because this was a subtle feature, the sounds or pronunciations of the complex character and the sub-character hint have diverged over the centuries to the point where they are now too obscure to help a learner. To linguists they do provide valuable etymological information however.

There are several types of characters: pictograms/pictographs, ideograms/ideographs, and phonograms/phonographs.

An early Chinese dictionary contained almost 50,000 characters, most of them rare variants. An educated Chinese today will recognize approximately 6,000 characters, while only 4,000 characters are necessary for reading a newspaper on Taiwan. In mainland China knowledge of 3,000 characters is required to read a newspaper.

On the mainland literacy for peasants is defined as knowledge of 1500 characters, while knowledge of 2,000 characters is required for literacy among the workers.

The origins of Chinese characters are essentially lost to the mists of time (around 5,000 years), and as such, a great many myths exist to tell the story of their creation.

One such myth, the most popular, details how Cāng Jíe, a historian to the legendary court of the Emperor Huáng Dì, strolled one day in the Imperial garden contemplating nature. In a grove of high trees, he observed a patch of earth that lay both uncovered by undergrowth, and protected from the wind. The fragrant loam showed clearly the spoor of many animals and birds.

Noticing how each hoof or claw print conveyed clearly the type of creature that had disturbed the ground, and how each was unique yet similar in basic form and tightly contained, it is said that he decided to try a new form of line drawing. Starting with a complex picture of an object, Cāng Jíe slowly and carefully reduced the number of lines that he needed to convey convincingly and uniquely the object drawn. He was not satisfied until he had the absolute minimum of strokes that would still say "tiger" or "fire" or "mouth" to a fellow courtier. These were the first pictographs.

This story can be traced to an incredibly important figure in the development of Chinese Characters, one Xǔ Shèn (30 CE - 124 CE), a lexicographer whose character classifications are still used today. Following are seven modern examples of these early ideograms where you can still clearly see the initial minimalist drawing of the actual object. You may have to manually change your encoding and/or download either Simplified or Traditional Chinese fonts for best effect below.

sun
moon
mountain
mouth
fire
eye
tiger

Hints: Sun, moon, mouth and eye are easier to "see" if you imagine them more or less rounded, with eye also lying on its side. Tiger can also be seen, if you lay it first on its left side, then imagine that the long curved line now at the bottom has legs as it originally did. Then it's all there: the upward pointing long tail; the stripy side; the low-set and large head.

Although features of the Chinese writing system often appear crazy coming from a 26 letter background, it neither conveys more or less "information" than "spelling" systems, nor is it more or less "rich". It is simply vastly different. To quote the historian John Man, "Only the ignorant or arrogant would put one down from the perspective of the other."

Of course, it needs to be said that ideograms like these make up only a small part of modern Chinese writing, but the basic system of non-phoneme representation of words is usually explained as starting in this wonderfully visual manner.


Please be sure and check out the other writeups in this node - they're all good!

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