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The Number of Characters
Development of Chinese Script
Simplification and Variants
Six Types of Characters
Chinese Calligraphy
Loanwords and new characters
Other Writing Systems in China
Styles of Writing
Chinese and Dictionaries
Chinese and Computer
Replacing the Chinese script

The Chinese Script

is the only ideographic (symbol) script still in use today, and at the same time it is the oldest one in use (about 3200 years). Its great advantage is that is can be used by all Chinese dialect speakers in and outside of China that call the same thing with a quite different pronunciation that can hardly be recognized by somebody who only speaks the official standard language. People that can not communicate by language can make use of the characters to make an understanding possible. Even people that speak a language that is totally different Chinese, like Korean, Japanese (and Vietnamese), are (were) able to communicate with each other by using Chinese characters. The character of Chinese as a language with isolated syllables not having a declination or conjugation makes it possible to express every spoken word in a written form simply by writing one single character. One word corresponds to one syllable and to one single character.

The Chinese Language

But the great problem of Chinese language is that it has only very few syllables compared to languages with closed syllables (for example the European languages except English, the Altaic languages like Mongolian or even Korean and Japanese). There is an extremely high number of words that sound totally identical, even if Chinese language has four (dialects have more) pitches of tone (high, low, rising, falling). This homophony (equal sounds) in Chinese language comes the governmental official's language (guanhua 官話, in Portuguese called Mandarin) that developed during the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties in the northern capital in Peking. Officials that came different regions of the vast empire of China had to create a common language that based upon the smallest common denominator. Like most languages, Chinese thus shows the trend to simplification. Words that sounded very different two thousand years ago sound absolutely identical today.

The Number of Chinese Characters

Many people ask, how many characters (hanzi 漢字) build up the Chinese writing system. The most comprehensive dictionary ever made, the Hanyu da zidian 漢語大字典¸ 1990, contains more than 50.000 characters. But "normal" character dictionaries contain about only 10.000 characters. Many of this huge number of characters are used solely for special terms in poems, novels, or sciences or in old literature, a great amount of characters are used for dialect words and are probably never written in books, and many old characters have died out.
  • the character 崁 is only used for the old fortress Chikanlou 赤崁樓 in Tainan/Taiwan
  • the word 鷇 (殼 and 鳥) kou "nestling" is out of use
  • the character 浬 li "sea mile" has been replaced by the general term for "mile" 里
  • the meaning of the words (inscribed on a Western Zhou ding tripod) is unknown, even how to pronounce them, compare the oracle bone and bronze vessel inscriptions
The average modern Chinese people should know about 3000 characters, students even more.

The Development of Chinese Script

Mythology gives us different accounts of the origin of Chinese script. The simpliest version is the invention of script by Cangjie or Cang Jie 倉頡, a minister of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di or Huangdi 黃帝) who saw the traces of bird feet in the mud and used these imprints as example for a pictorial script. The book Laozi 老子 reports of the ancient times when people used tying knots (jiesheng 結繩) to communicate by "letter". Some people interprete the Eight Trigrams (bagua 八卦 and the resulting hexagrams of the divining book Yijing 易經 as a precursor type of script. Other stories report of a river tortoise with imprints or patterns on its back that served as idea for the development of a script by Fuxi (Fu Xi) and Emperor Yu the Great. These patterns are called "Markings of the Yellow River and Written Signs of the River Luo" (Hetu Luoshu 河圖洛書). The Chinese character for "literature" wen 文 originally means "pattern, mark", latter written with the silk radical 紋. Archeological findings gave proof of a pictorical stage of the Chinese script in shape of clan insignia. on pottery and the first bronze vessels of the Erlitou Culture.
The earliest traces of a real script are the so-called "oracle bone inscriptions" (jiaguwen 甲骨文) dating the 13th century BC during the Shang Dynasty. Oracles were written on cattle scapulae or turtle plastrons to divine the future. At the same time, bronze vessels were decorated with texts of enfeoffments, the type of script is called "Bronze Inscriptions" jinwen 金文.
For royal edicts and decretes, during the late Zhou (475-221 BC) time there was a new type of script developed that served especially for seals: the Seal Script (zhuanshu 篆書; the Large Seal Script dazhuanti 大篆體 is also called zhoushu 籀書). This type of script is very decorative and is still in use today for personal seals and for calligraphy. Its most famous examples are the Stone Drum Inscriptions (shiguwen 石鼓文). These writing styles were ingraved into bone, the clay mold, into stone, wood, and bamboo, with a metal pen or a bamboo feather. The First Emperor of Qin had conquered all other feudal states of the Zhou period. One measurement of the empire-wide standardization was the creation of the Small Seal Script (xiaozhuanti 小篆體). Meanwhile, new writing instruments and materials had developed, leading to a thoroughly new style of writing, the Chancellery Script (lishu 隸書). It was very common during the Han Dynasty. It is a script shaped by a writing instrument that has probably been in use since the oldest times, but of which we find no traces until the end of the Warring States Period: the brush (bi 筆, said to be invented by General Meng Tian 蒙恬). The Chinese character for "brush" shows a hand holding a writing instrument, on the top indicated with bamboo 竹 as material. the late Zhou (Warring States) time on, wooden or bamboo slips (jian 簡) served as writing material, the late Warring States time brought up silk (bo 帛) as writing material. Paper (zhi 紙) was invented during the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) and presented to the court by Cai Lun 蔡倫. The first paper was made mulberry bark, hemp, bamboo, different plant fibres, and silk refuses, later rice straw.
During the first few centuries AD, the writers and calligraphers developed many writing styles, some of them are named after one particular person that used it, like the calligraphies of Ouyang Xun 歐陽詢 or the Song emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (r.1101-1126). Block printing was invented during the Tang Dynasty (607-918), moveable letters in the 14th century.

Simplification and Variants

Measures to replace complicated characters by more simple ones are not new. The First Emperor of Qin (r.246-209) tried to standardize the characters used in the chancellery and governmental offices of his unified empire, the result was the Small Seal Script (xiaozhuanti 小篆體). The Han time dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 already lists old complicated characters under their contemporary "modern" counterpart:
  • the Large Seal style character for the Small Seal syle zhai "ascetic" (modern 齋)
  • the Large Seal style character (rain 雨, four "fields" 田 and two circles 回) for the Small Seal style lei 靁 "thunder" (rain 雨 and three "fields" 田 as phonetic part; modern character shortened to 雷)
  • the Large Seal style character (earth 土 and the phonetic part 隊) for the Small Seal style di "earth" (modern 地)
  • see examples of non-standardized styles for the character for "horse" (modern 馬), written in Oracle Bone Script, Large Seal Stone Script, Bronze Vessel Inscriptions of different age (oldest types on the top), and Small Seal Script on seals (standard character in the box).
The government of the People's Republic took great measures to simplify many often used characters:
  • 图 for 圖 tu, 单 for 單 dan and 检 for 檢 jian
  • simplifications for often used characters like 胡同 for 衚衕 "side street and adherent quarter (in Beijing)".
  • some people use their own abbreviations, like 旦 dan "dawn" for 蛋 dan "egg"
See a special table of character simplification (jiantihua 簡體化) in the People's Republic. In Japan, the same Chinese characters have been simplified already centuries ago, but in a different way:
  • 図 for 圖, 単 for 單 and 検 for 檢.
The consequence is that there exist three different characters for many words. And it is not really clear if the rise of literacy in China was due to the character simplification or just due to a better education system. In some cases, the simplification can even cause troubles because words of very different meanings are expressed by the same character.
  • gu, meaning "valley" and "grain" (traditional character 穀)
  • biao, meaning "grid, table" and "clock, watch" (traditional character 錶)
  • zhun, meaning "permitting, approving" and "level, standard" (old character 準)
  • kuai, meaning "happy" (快樂) or "fast", but sometimes not abbreviated if meaning "fast" (駃慢)
Still today, there exist variants for the same character that are mainly determined by a different phonetic part of the character:
  • 鯾 and 鯿 for bian "freshwater-bream"
  • 蹄 and 蹏 for ti "hoove"
  • 朞 and 期 for qi "time"
  • ban "boss" simplified as 板, a totally different character; the same with 礙 and 碍 ai "impeding"
  • 吴 and 吳 for the old state of Wu.
  • Variants of one character are often a simple a question of composition, like 群 or 羣 qun "herd, flock, a mass of", the radical 羊 "sheep" written to the right, or on the bottom of the phonetic part 君 jun.
  • Some radicals change their shape if they are standing alone or as radical-part of a character, like 艸 "grass" written with the top shape 草; or "water" 水, written with three dots 江.
  • Even the simplified characters have variations, like 处 simplified for 處. A calligraphy variant of the traditional character is (虍+勿 instead of the lower 处) , a variant of the simplified characters is (几 instead of 卜).
Hand writing is often done with character shapes that vary the normal book printing, partially by change of stroke order or connection of two strokes to one to make writing quicker and easier, partially to acheive a character appearance that is more beautiful (see calligraphy page). These character variants can often be found in hand written Buddhist printings and upon plates flanking a gate, but also in books with type setting.
  • direction of dots: 曾 or
  • dissolving of lines into dots: 照叫念呂 becomes
  • connecting of strokes: 所此馬黑母 becomes 黒毋
  • omission of strokes or dots: 爲 or 為
  • prolonging strokes or dots: 庶 becomes 庻
The traditional "complicated" characters are called 繁體字 fantizi, the simplified 簡體字 jiantizi. uses traditional characters that are still the writing style in Taiwan, Hong Kong and among the Chinese oversees communities. The People's Republic uses simplified characters,but in handwriting some abbreviations are also common elsewhere in Chinese communities.

Other Languages Using the Chinese Script

Korea and Japan introduced a governmental system that was modeled after the Chinese central bureaucracy. With this bureaucracy, the Chinese script was also used as an instrument of government. But it was not possible to write in Korean or Japanese language with characters that are based upon the very different Chinese grammar. For that reason, during the 10th century Japan created alphabets with abbreviated Chinese characters that served only as sound provider. Two alphabets are in use, the Hiragana and Katakana syllable alphabets. In school, there are taught roughly 2000 basic Chinese characters (jap.: kanji). Although Japanese language uses a high percentage of Chinese loanwords, it is possible to write them in Hiragana or Katakana alphabet if one does not know the respective characters. In Korea, king Sejong (r. 1418-1450) is said to have introduced a new alphabet called Hangul, totally independent the Chinese characters, to write texts in Korean language. Some 1800 Chinese characters (kor. Hanja) are taught in school, but less and less characters are in daily use, although Korean language uses many Chinese loanwords.
In Vietnam, the ruling class had adopted Chinese government styles and people of knowledge wrote in Chinese until the begin of the 20th century. But the 10th century on in the stream of national movements, there was a need to write Vietnamese words. Adopting the pattern of the ideographic Chinese script, Vietnamese scholars created the chữ nôm script (sometimes called "demotic script" - vernacular script) that used combined Chinese characters (chữ' Hán or chu' nho) to write down Vietnamese words, like 咹 an "to eat", combined 口 "mouth" and the Chinese sound of 安 an. 1637 on, Portuguese missionaries created a romanized transcription for the Vietnamese, called chữ' quốc ngữ (quốc ngữ is a Chinese loanword, meaning "language", chin. guoyu 國語) "national language script" that totally replaced the Chinese script 1945 on.
A similar problem like Vietnamese have Cantonese people that try to write their language with Chinesecharacters. The grammatical differences and the different word treasure makes it necessary to create new characters for many important words and grammatical particles, most of them with the radical 口 "mouth" or 人 "man", indicating that the syllable is taken phonetically: 佢哋 for kéuih-deih "they", 嘅 for ge "my, your, his, her", 嗰 for go "that", and so on.
The nomadic tribes of north China that adopted Chinese customs and ruling style, also used the Chinese writing system in their bureaucracy, and some of them copied the characters to create an own character style writing system, like the kingdoms of Xixia (Hsi-hsia),Khitan and Jurchen. Also southern tribes that were not so highly organized like the nomadic empires, created Chinese style character scripts, like the Lolo, Miao and Yao.

Loanwords and New Characters

A special field of adopting loan words and even creating new characters, is the field of chemistry. 氨 an "ammonium" is described with the character for 氣 "gas, air" and the phonetic part 安 an. 碘 dian "iodine" with the radical for 石 "stone" and the phonetic part 典 dian. 汞 gong "quicksilver" is decribed as a liquid thing 水 "water" called 工 gong ( mercurium). 酯 zhi "esters" are described with a bottle 酉 and 旨 zhi "tasty, fragrant", because many esters have a very aromatic perfume. The word for "carbohydrate" 醣 tang is combined of a bottle 酉 and the abbreviated character and sound for 糖 tang "sugar".
With the advent of Buddhism in China, Buddhist terms had to be transcribed Sanskrit to Chinese. In the course of translating the Buddhist Sutras into Chinese, many special characters have been created that are not included in a standard printing or computing character treasure. To produce these characters, mathematical symbols are used to describe the rare character, like [颱-台+(犮-乂+又)], meaning the storm 颱 without the phonetic part 台, and instead with the part 犮, but with 又 instead of the crossed lines 乂. The resulting, not printable of computer-visualizable character must look like this: 颰 (it is included in the Unicode system, but not in Guobiao or Big-5).

The Six Types of Characters

The Han time scholar Xu Shen 許慎 (d. 147 AD) who wrote the great dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 "Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters", divided the Chinese characters into six different types (liushu 六書):
  • xiangxing 象形: "depicting the shape", about 600 characters, pictures of concrete things or abstract things:
    • "sun" 日, "moon" 月, "evening" 夕
    • "child" 子, "wife" 女; "mother" 母 (wife with breasts)
    • "tree" 木, "rain" 雨, "dog" 犬, "bird" 鳥, "hand" 手 or 又, "foot" 足, "heart" 心
    • "eyebrow" 眉 (eye 目 and brow )
    • "exchange" 交 (old: ; two crossed legs)
    • "board" 片 (old: ; half of a tree 木, old: ).
  • zhishi 指事 (also called chushi 處事 or xiangshi 象事): "pointing at situations" ("placing situations" or "depicting situations"), marking a character with a dot or a stroke to indicate a part of it:
    • "above" 上; the "blade" of a knife 刃; the "root" of a tree 本; the four cardinal "directions" 方; the "center" of a butt 中; the "border" between fields 畺
    • "blood" 血 (blood in a vessel 皿 during an oath ceremony)
    • "deficient" 乏 (a "correct" 正 turned upside down; old ); "minister" 司, turned to 后 "empress".
  • huiyi 會意 (also called xiangyi 象意): "combining meanings" ("depicting meanings"), combined image of an abstract sense:
    • "dawn" 旦 (the sun 日 over the horizon)
    • "public" 公 (opening 八 a market place ㄙ)
    • "trusting" 信 (a man 人 speaking 言)
    • "bright" 明 (sun 日 and moon 月)
    • "burning" 炎; "flames" 焱 (two and three fires 火); "standing side by side" 竝 (double "standing"立, modern shape 並)
    • Sometimes one of the parts is abridged (sheng 省), like "lame, slow" jian 蹇 足 "foot" and 寒 "cold", leaving out the two dots.
  • zhuanzhu 轉注: "mutually interpretation (tautology)", creating a new character an old one to differ between words with the same meaning but with slightly different pronunciation
    • "old" 老 lao and "aged" 考 kao
    • "give back" 返 fan and "turn back" 還 huan
    • or "tip of a branch" 標 biao and "end of a stalk" 杪 miao. A rare type.
  • jiajie 假借: "false borrowing", borrowing a character for a word that is pronounced equally but has a totally different meaning:
    • 我 (a kind of axe 戈) for "me"
    • 來 (a kind of grain; modern form 麥) for "coming"
    • 足 "foot", also meaning "enough"
    • 卒 (a kind of slave clothing) for "slave", "soldier", "ending", "dead", "at last", "suddenly"
    Most of these characters have lost their original sense. Many grammatical particles without particular meaning are of this type, making it necessary to create a new character for the original meaning:
    • nai "breast", borrowed for nai "therefore", creating the new character 奶 for "breast, milk" with the radical 女 "woman"
    • qi "basket", borrowed for qi "his, her, its", creating the new character 箕 (modern pronunciation ji) for "basket" with the radical 竹 "bamboo"
    • The character 之 zhi originally means "to go", but it is also used as a genetive particle ("his"), an object pronoun ("him") and sometimes as demonstrative pronoun ("this"), without having lost its original meaning.
    • The character bi 辟 "standard" is used as a phonetic representative in place of the characters pi 僻 "unusual", pi 闢 "opening", bi 避 "avoiding", and pi 劈 "cleaving".
    This kind of character shows that Chinese characters could also be used only with their sound, thus creating a kind of syllable script. The Japanese Hiragana and Katakana alphabets follow the same pattern.
  • xingsheng 形聲 (also called xiesheng 諧聲 or xiangsheng 象聲): "shape and sound" ("harmonizing with sound" or "depicting sounds"), a combination of a "classifier", "determinant" or "radical" (sphere of word sense) and a sound:
    • li "pear" 木 "tree" and the sound 利 li
    • zhang "controlling" 手 "hand" and the sound 尚 shang
    Some of the phonetic parts are also used with their true meaning:
    • "the middle of three" zhong人 "man" and 中 zhong "middle"
    • "to lie" 誣 wu 言 "speaking" and 巫 wu "sorcerer"
    • or the character set of 包 bao "package": 苞 bao "bud" (with 艹 "grass"), 胞 bao "placenta" (with 肉 "flesh"), 雹 bao "hail" (with 雨 "rain"), 飽 bao "full stomach" (with 食 "eating"), 抱 bao "embracing" (with 手 "hand"), 泡 pao "foam" (with 水 "water"), all of them describing ball- or package-like things.
    Other characters use the phonetical part as a philosophical interpretation:
    • If a banished person was allowed to come back to his home, he was sent a half-circle jade ring. This type of ring was called huan 環 playing with the word huan 還 "to return".
    • Bats are thought to be ominous animals, bringing luck and prosperity (fu 福). Therefore, bats are called fu 蝠.

Styles of Writing

Chinese painters and calligraphers developed six styles of writing (shuti 書體).
  1. The oldest type is the 篆書 zhuanshu "Seal Script" used especially to be carved into stone or metal surfaces.
  2. The second type is the 隸書 lishu "Chancellery Script" used to write on bamboo or wooden stripes the Han Dynasty on, said to be invented by Cheng Miao.
  3. The third type is the 章書 zhangshu "Writing Script", a more cursive type.
  4. The fourth type is 草書 caoshu "Grass Script", a very cursive writing style to write on paper or silk.
  5. The fifth type is the normal hand writing type 行書 xingshu "Running Script", and finally,
  6. the book print type 正書 zhengshu "Correct Script", also called 楷書 kaishu "Pattern Script", said to be invented by the calligrapher Wang Xizhi. The most popular book printing type is called Songshu 宋書 or Songti 宋體.
An example for the six writing styles, beginning to the right with the Oracle Bone and Bronze Inscription style characters for "horse", then the Seal Script type, and so on:

Except these six writing styles, there are also lots of ornamental and magic scripts, like the "Jade Chopstick Script" (yujin zhuan 玉筋篆, "Lucky Mushroom Script" (zhiying zhuan) 芝英篆 "Bell and Tripod Script" (zhongding zhuan 鍾鼎篆), "Dropping Dew Script" (chuilu zhuan 垂露篆), and so on. See an example of hundred different ornamental script styles of the character shou "longevity".

Chinese Calligraphy

(See also the calligraphy page.) The beauty of letters or characters always led people to create an artist style of their writing components. Almost every culture script has a calligraphy style, like Arabian, Latin, Egyptian, the Maya Script, and of course, Chinese. Chinese is written in columns right to left, according to the natural material of bamboo strips - but already on the oracle bone inscriptions and bronze inscriptions, Chinese is written in columns. Still today, plates or rolls on the left and right side of entrances or paintings, and also the title on the spine side of a book are written in single columns. Horizontal plates are traditionally written right to left, like in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the overseas Chinese communities. In the People's Republic, the Western style to write in rows left to right, is generally adopted.

"Wishing good luck and prosperity"
(New Year's Roll, top to bottom)






Left: Beginning of the "Great Learning"
(in columns right to left).
Commentaries to the main text are often written
in smaller characters and in two columns within one.
"What the Great Learning teaches (commentary:
'Great Learning' means, the way to study by adult
, is to illustrate illustrious virtue;
to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest
excellence. The point where to rest being known,
the object of pursuit is then determined, a..."
Shiu Fat Machinery and Tools Co., Ltd.
(Hong Kong, right to left)
"Long live the People's Republic of China"
( left to right)
Chinese characters are written in virtual square boxes (fangkuaizi 方塊字), that means, that every character has the same size, and every part of a character has to be adjusted to this box, for example:
With the invention of the brush, the modern style of calligraphy developed with up to 16 different stroke patterns and several rules how to write a character and its elemens. Every character can be separated into a certain number of strokes, the simpliest being a horizontal stroke 一 "one", the most complex modern character, written with 48 brush strokes, is 龘, consisting of three dragons 龍: 龘. The stroke number is very important looking for a character in a dictionary. Most modern search indices are oriented in first place according to the radical, and then to the number of the strokes left over.
The stroke patterns are:
dot: 主凡rectangular bow right: 亂兒元已母出山
horizontal stroke: 十三丞vertical hook right: 说饭
vertical stroke: 中串十narrow angle open right: 絲幼
丿falling to the left: 木穆wide angle open right: 巡
rising to the right: 海求泰(horizontal double hook): 凸
falling to the right: 近走木(vertical double hook): 卐卍
rectangular hook right down: 司同口母double hook: 乃及
horizontal hook down: 之买欠vertical hook left: 子事
These stroke patterns are reduced to eight different strokes in calligraphy. The character 永 (see picture) contains all different stroke patterns, the character 札 too (except the dot), reducing the diagonal strokes four to two. 
horizontal (heng 橫, le 勒)right-slant (youxia 右, ze 磔)
vertical (shu 竖, nu 努)hook (tao 挑, yue 趯)
dot (dian 點, ce 側)丿down-slant (youxia 左下, lüe 掠)
丿left-slant (youshang 右上, zhuo 啄)up-slant (zuoshang 左上, ce 策)
The basic rules of stroke order are:
  • left to right: 林時川
  • top to bottom: 三去童近
  • inside to outside: 小肖水山木
  • outside to inside, but the closure stroke at the bottom comes last: 回(冂口一)國四司區日
  • a horizontal stroke before a crossing vertical: 十(一丨)木(一丨丿乀)草, the same with a couple of horizontal strokes, the vertical being the last: 書丰
  • diagonal right top to left bottom are written before a crossing diagonal: 文(丶一丿乀)父
  • cutting strokes are written last: 母舟
  • Many handwriting styles do not obey these rules if other stroke orders are easier or faster to write: 王 should be written 一十一, but it is written 一丨二 in handwriting
  • Stroke order also depends if writing in lines or columns: 右 is written 一丿口 in horizontal lines, but丿一 口 when written in columns.
  • Some characters have an extremely difficult stroke order to determine: 亞凹凸 or the Buddhist swastika 卍.
For more about calligraphy styles through the ages, see the calligraphy page.

Chinese Script and Dictionaries

  • The oldest dictionaries the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) were arranged in a semantic order. It was very hard to find a character in such an arbitrary order.
  • The already mentioned Han dictionary Shuowen jiezi arranged its characters in 540 semantic radicals (部首 bushou). These "radicals" or "determinants" are part of the character and describe a field of meaning:The 17th century dictionary 康熙字典 Kangxi zidian has reduced the radicals to 214. Modern dictionaries still use this system or have partly added their own radicals, especially dealing with simplified characters, like taking the grass radical 艹 (艸) for the abbreviated double fire in 劳 (traditional 勞), what is actually not correct considering the real meaning and pronunciation of the character.
    After finding out the radical of a character, the rest number of the brush strokes is counted:
    • 抱 "embrace" has 5 surplus strokes (包)
    • 採 "pluck" has 8 surplus strokes (采)
    • 擇 "choose" has 13 strokes left (四 and 幸)
    Of course, there will always be a long list of characters that belong to the radical "hand" and count 5 surplus strokes: 抨披抱抵拂押拏, and so on. This long list is ordered according to the shape of the first surplus stroke.
    Even knowing the radical system does not mean that it is easy to find out the radical of every character, for example:
    • The "grass" radical 艸 (艹) of the character 荊 jing is sometimes shortened and only written above the left part 开 of the phonetical part 刑 (xing). Unexperienced people could therefore assume the radical is "knife" 刀 (刂).
    • What is the radical of 麓 lu "foot of a hill" - 鹿 lu "deer" or 木 mu "wood"? the meaning, it should be "wood".
    • What are the radicals of the characters 執 or 舉? It is 土 and 臼.
    • The radical of the character 囏, pronounced jian, could have the old radical 喜 (=口+壴) "drum". In the Shuowen jiezi it is explained as "music during the offering of clay figurines". Therefore it is listed under the radical 堇 "clay" in the old 540 radical dictionary. In newer dictionaries, it is listed under under the radical 口"mouth". This character is a Seal Script alternative to the modern character 艱 "difficult". In modern dictionaries it is listed under the "artificial" radical 艮.
  • Sometimes it is difficult to find out the radical. In this case the user counts the number of brush strokes of the unknown character. Under a number heading, the characters are arranged in the order of five different brush stroke directions of the first two strokes: 一,丨,丿,丶 and 乛. This system is called Bihua bixing jian zi 筆畫筆形檢字 "Character index according to brush (stroke) number and appearance". But also this system is not very easy: the character 言begins not with a dot and a horizontal stroke like it is oftenly written, but with two horizontal strokes! Example:禮 話 starts with 一一, 草 with 一丨, 咸 with 一丿. The problem is that many characters start with the same kind of stroke, and you will have a long list under the headings of 一一, 一丨, or 一丿.
    Similar systems are called bushou yi hua 部首一畫 "Radical and the first stroke" and take the characters 永 and 札 as exemplarious because all four or five kinds of stroke are used to write them. (See an illustration of the different strokes that build up the character 永) The indices of this system are first oriented to the stroke shape and then to the radical.
  • Some indices use the stroke number of the whole character as first orientation, and then the radical.
  • Old dictionaries also worked with a system arranging characters in rime groups. The most comprehensive dictionary of this kind is the Qing time Peiwen yunfu 佩文韻府. Today, new prints of these dictionaries have a radical or other index to look after a character, because the rime system is only known to specialists.
  • Some dictionaries use the so-called "Four Corner System" (sijiao haoma 四角號碼). Every corner of a character has a special shape that is attributed to ten numbers (0-9). Every character is signified by a four figure number by which one can find it in a dictionary. Many characters have the same number, but not that much like characters with equal sound. This system is very useful, but not easy to learn as there are many specialities and exceptions.
  • A further system to classify characters is the so-called guixie 庋擷 "selection according to frames" system, invented by Yang Jialuo 楊家駱 for the Harvard Yenching indices. It classifies the characters according to their composition as 1) compact, like 木; 2) one part inside the other, like 國; 3) one part above the other, like 家; 4) left upper and right lower part, like 廣; 5) two parts side by side, like 打; the further distinction of the characters follows a system similar to the Four Corner System.
  • Modern dictionaries use also the phonetical system of Pinyin and Zhuyin transcription by which characters can be found very easily if one knows the pronunciation. If not, the pronunciation of many characters can be guessed because most Chinese characters are of the above mentioned xingsheng system, a combination of sound and radical.

Chinese Script and Computer

Letters that are contained in a "normal" ASCII or ANSI codes, have 8 bit coding. Such a coding would not be enough to cover all Chinese characters. Therefore, characters are coded in a 16 bit system, combining two 8 bit coded ASCII letters or signs. To interprete the two-letter-combination as a Chinese character, it is necessary to impose an interpreting code. For Chinese, there exist two main interpreting codes: the mainland China Guobiao code 國標 and the Taiwanese Big-5 code. The latter contains more characters. A third interpreting code is the international Unicode system that tries to cover all writing systems of the world. To input characters into an application, there are different possibilities if an input software runs parallel to the main application:
  • Input with sound system (e.g. Pinyin, Zhuyin or Cantonese pronunciation)
  • Input by radical.
  • Input by an intern code number like the hexadecimal Guobiao, Big-5 or Unicode number. But who knows the numbers of three thousand mainly used characters by heart, and how to look after them? The Unicode organisation arranges the characters according to the traditional radicals.
  • Input system Cangjie 倉頡, named after the mythical inventor of Chinese script. Main components of Chinese characters are laid upon the keys of the computer keyboard. With key combinations, an experienced user is able to input characters by this way very quickly. The Cangjie system is mainly used by newspaper and book printing companies.
  • Since a few years, there exist input boards with a software that recognizes characters that are written with a hard pencil on a recognition board.
  • Language recognition software for Chinese is a little bit difficult to develop because of the homophony of Chinese language. Simple texts could be easily recognized by a software if the speaker uses the official pronunciation correctly, but especially Chinese people the south have problems with the correct pronunciation of the Peking standard language.
  • Optical character recognition (OCR) software has made great improvements in the last years, that many texts in Chinese can be scanned and digitalized without too many wrong interpretations.
For more information about Chinese characters and computer, visit the homepages of Twinbridge, Chinese Star, Nanji Star, and Unicode.

Giving up the Chinese Writing System

The communists in mainland China have made great efforts to reduce illiteracy. During the sixties, there were even books were published that used the Pinyin romanization instead of characters. Many people propose to give up the character system totally. Their mean argument is that people can communicate orally without using characters. They are right, but my own experience is that most people are not able to use the Pinyin system correctly. A second and more weighty argument against giving up the complicated character writing system is, that although daily communication is possible without characters, it is not possible to write scientific books or even novels or poems without using characters. Modern Chinese language has only less than 1600 different syllables (including the four tone pitches). Very many words, even two-syllable words, sound totally equal. The picture-like characters help to understand quickly the meaning of a text, instead of a long guessing what some simple and confusing sound transcriptions could mean. Newest trends in mainland China show that one behaves even more up-to-date if one uses the traditional characters instead of the simplified characters.
When Atatürk introduced the Roman alphabet in Turkey, he successfully replaced the Arab alphabet that was not sufficient to cover the vowel-rich Turkish language. But introducing the Roman alphabet for Chinese language would mean that most inhabitants of China could not understand written texts because they pronounce the characters different the Pinyin system that bases upon the northern dialect.

Other Writing Systems in China

the many peoples and nationalities living in China, we can divide between nationalities with a national script, like the
  • Khitan: A "Large Script" was created around 920 AD, borrowed Chinese characters and invented new characters. The "Small Script" was created about 925 AD by a scholar named Diela and consisted of some 300 characters, some of them were pictograms, some syllables.
  • Jürjed: borrow the Khitan script and introduced in 1120. It contains some 720 characters or logograms.
  • Xixia: This Tangut people created their own script in 1037. Although the history of the Western Tangut empire is very short, the script survived until the mid-14th century. The Xixia script is known several multi-lingual steles with inscriptions in Chinese, Uighurian, Mongolian, Sanskrit, and Xixia. The Xixia script consists of ca. 125 syllable signs, 25 of these signs can also be used as pictures or ideograms. Some of the signs are modeled after Chinese characters. Manuscripts and prints of Xixia texts were discovered by the Russian scholar Kozlov.
  • Uighurians (East Turkestan, modern Xinjiang): Borrowed the Sogdian alphabet that is based on the Syrian alphabet (relative to Hebrew and Arabian alphabets). The Syrians used to write not only in rows but also in columns. The direction of Uighurian and Mongolian alphabet is therefore not necessarily an effect of Chinese influence. Nestorian and Manichean missionars tried to convert the Uighur people the 7th century on, bringing them this Western alphabet. A bilingual stele 781 AD in Xinjiang is written in Chinese and Syrian letters. the 15th century on, the Uighurian script was superseded by the Arabian alphabet.
  • Mongolians adapted the Uighurian alphabet in the 12th century. The Tibetian Lama priests and missionaries Saskya Pandit and Choskyi Odzer are said to have created the Mongol Galik alphabet. A modern form was created during the 18th century by the Chinese Qing emperors. The Mongol alphabet has letters, representing consonants and vowels. It is written in columns left to right (not like Chinese that is written in columns right to left!). Every letter has, like in the Arabian alphabet, an initial, medial and final form. In 1950, the Russian Kyrillitsa alphabet was adopted as official script in Mongolia.
  • Manchu: The Manchu published their own alphabet in 1599, modeled after the Mongol alphabet, and enriched with letters for the Manchu and Chinese language. The Manchu language was official subject of the state examinations until the 18th century.
  • Tibetians: the Tibetian script is derived an Indian Sanskrit alphabet that was traded to Tibet by Indian Buddhist missionaries. Tibetian as a Sino-Tibetian language has some sounds different with the Indian languages, and so some special letters had to be created. The modern type of Tibetian alphabet was created in 1269 by the Lama Pagspa. Although in elder times written in columns, most Tibetian texts are written in rows left to right, like other Indian alphabets too.
  • the Muslim minorities that use the Arab alphabet
  • Koreans
  • Russians, Jews, and Western Europeans
and the few peoples having a script but no historic state:
  • Lolo (or Yi): a people speaking a Tibeto-Burmese language, mostly living in Sichuan Province with a script that was only "discovered" in 1873. It is a syllabic and phonetic script with a few hundred signs that partially differ town to town. There exist some inscriptions and manuscripts of the Lolo script. The signs or letters resemble some Chinese characters, and texts are written in columns right to left. In the 1970s, the Chinese government created a standardized Lolo alphabet with 819 syllables that are included in the Unicode computing standardization.
  • Miao: Living in Yunnan and Sichuan Province, this people created a script with some 300 signs that are totally different to the Lolo signs. Missionaries have created a syllable alphabet to spread the Bible.
  • Yao: Neighbors to the Miao People with a scarcely known script.
  • Moso (or Naxi): This Tibeto-Burmese people living in Yunnan Province has created a script of about 1400 pictures or ideograms, and phonetical signs. Influences by the Chinese script are not known. This script called Dongba was solely used by priests and shamans to recite sacred texts. Another script of the Moso is called Geba. This syllable script is influenced by Chinese but not standardized. The People's Republic has published a Latinized Moso alphabet.
  • Dai: A people living in southern Yunnan Province and the neighboring states of Laos, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam. Using the Lanna script before (an alphabet script modeled after the Indian Pali scripts), the so-called Tai Lue (Dai Lü) script was standardized by the Chinese government. This script belongs to the circle of Indian scripts and looks a little bit like modern Burmese script.
  • In 1983, a women's script (Nüshu) was discovered in Hunan Province. It must have been created some centuries ago, and the oldest documents date the mid-19th century. This script could only be read by women that were not educated to read the Chinese characters. Most documents are written in verse as they are used during festivals and by storytellers. More information about the women's script can be found at:
    • http://www2.ttcn.ne.jp/~orie/intro.htm
    • http://wwwsshe.murdoch.edu.au/intersections/back_issues/nushu2.html
    • http://www.ancientscripts.com/nushu.html
Proposal for a digitalized description for non-digitalized characters
The oldest Chinese writings are full of characters that are out of use since more than two thousand years. Even during the time of standardization of Chinese script during the Qin and Han Dynasty, old characters were no longer valid or even unknown. On the neolithic or younger stone age clay pottery and on the first Shang bronze vessels, there are pictorial clan or personal insignia without literal meaning. But even in later times, especially with the advent of Buddhism in China, many new characters were created for the translations of Buddhist sutras. As these characters are used very seldom, there is no need to digitalize these characters in any computer encoding system.
There are two ways to visualize characters that are obsolete: the first way is, to picturize it, or to make a "picture" of the character. The second way is, to paraphrase, or to describe the character. A picturized version is better legible, but it takes space and time to load such a text a server or disk, and for saving the html page or the document, there will be lots of adherent picture files that can easily be lost. Therefore, to have the advantage of not missing any character together with a quick loading time, it is better to digitalize obsolete characters.
A good way to describe obsolete characters are mathematical symbols.
The easiest symbol is the addition mark (plus +). As most characters consist of an ideomatical and a phonetical part, it is easy to combine these two parts by a plus mark, like [米+for 粉.
Some character parts have two or more different shapes. To be sure to take the right shape, we can take the subtraction mark (minus -) and the addition mark, meaning a part of a character is replaced by another one, for example: [邠-分+丘] for 邱 (instead of [丘+邑]); other example for the replacement: [虎-儿+丘] for 虗.
Of course, the minus mark can also be used alone, like [錄-金] for 录. If you want the upper part of the character 录 be known in the other form, you would have to write [(錄-金)-彐+彑]. The round brackets, like in mathematics, symbolize that the first step 錄-金 is a unit and definitely done first.
Some character parts are standing side by side, others one below the other. If standing side by side, the plus mark is used: [米+巴] for 粑; if standing one under the other, the percent mark (%) is used: [比米  米] for 粊. Some radicals are naturally standing on top of the phonetical or second part (冖厂宀广戶气爪疒癶穴竹网艸襾門雨鬥鹿麻) or below it (廴辵走) or inside (匚), and it is needless to use the percent mark to indicate this case, like: [宀+夗] for 宛.
There are some few radicals or character parts that enclose others, like 國. These characters are described by the adress sign @, like [口@貴] for 圚. The reason is that the large box can easily mistaken with the smaller "mouth". To avoid the adress sign, you could use the replacement technique: [國-或+貴]. The round brackets are equally important like in mathematics. Without them, a very different character would be the result, like [(矢+巨)%木] for 榘. [矢+(巨%木)] would be a quite different character.
theory going to practice, let's look at some examples:
  • 獸 is easily described as [嘼+犬], or complicated (if the character 嘼 would not be digitalized), as [((口+口)%田%一%口)+犬].
  • 攳 can be described as [支+尋]. Although it is not exactly indicated that the 尋 part is written slightly above the right bend of the 支, it should be enough to describe the general outlook of the character. The right slant is only a question of calligraphy.
  • 浳 must be described as [(洞-同)+(弋%月)], first taking away the 同, then replacing it by (弋%月). Not laying stress on the three dot water shape, another possibility would be [水+(弋%月)].
  • A good example for the adress sign technique is the odd character 囶, describable by [四@土]. A calligraphy variant could be [國-或+仝].
  • 疊 can be described as [(壘-土)%冝]. The three "fields" 田 do not exist for themselves and have to be described with a subtraction (or by the voluminous formula [田%(田+田)]). If not finding the part 冝, a replacement would be necessary, and the formula would be longer: [(壘-土)%(宜-宀+冖)].
By these rules, almost every character can be described. There will still be some very antique characters that can not be circumscribed with mathematical rules.But in such cases, scholars are not sure about the real meaning of the characters and of what components it is made. Other cases of characters being difficult to describe by mathematical symbols,are very simple characters.
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