Chinese characters

Chinese Characters | The stylish writing system

Chinese characters, also known as Hanzi (漢字), are the oldest continuously used writing system in the world. These characters have been in use for over 3,000 years and are an integral part of Chinese language and culture. Each character represents a word or a concept and has its own unique meaning and pronunciation.

Chinese characters for chinese characters

The exact number of Chinese characters is unknown. Different dictionaries will give different number of characters. The Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典), often used as the standard reference, contains 47,035 characters. However, studies shown that knowing between 3,500 to 4,000 characters is enough to understand 90% of written contents in China or Taiwan.

Chinese characters are also an integral part of the Japanese language, and are still commonly present in Korea and Vietnam (Korean and Vietnamese both used to be written using Chinese characters).

History of Chinese Characters

The origin of Chinese characters can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BCE). The earliest Chinese characters were pictographic and were used to represent objects and animals. Over time, these characters evolved into more abstract forms, and the use of radicals, or common components, was developed to provide clues to the meaning of the character.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), a system of writing known as Seal Script was developed. This system is characterized by its small and round characters, and it was primarily used for official documents and inscriptions on bronze and stone.

In the 3rd century CE, a new style of writing known as Clerical Script emerged. This script is characterized by its sloping, elongated characters and was used for official documents and calligraphy.

In the 5th century CE, a new style of writing known as Regular Script was developed. This script is characterized by its neat and orderly appearance and is the basis for the modern Chinese script.

From then, Chinese characters remained relatively unchanged until 1949 when the government of Communist China promulgated the “Simplified Characters” in the hope if increasing literacy in China. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao sticked to the original set of characters, which are today often called “Traditional Characters”.

The seven standard forms of Chinese Characters

Chinese characters have evolved across their 3,000+ years of existence. The seven main forms are: Oracle Bone Inscriptions (甲骨文), Bronze Inscriptions (金文), Small Seal Characters (小篆), Official Script (隸書), Regular Script (楷書), Cursive Writing or Grass Stroke Characters (草書), and Freehand Cursive (行書).

Here are an example of each script using one of the most ancient character; , meaning turtle.

Oracle Bone Inscriptions (甲骨文) were the earliest form of Chinese characters and were used during the Shang Dynasty for divination.

Bronze Inscriptions (金文) were characters inscribed on bronze objects from the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Small Seal Characters (小篆) were used during the Qin Dynasty and were a result of the simplification and unification of different scripts used in different parts of China.

Official Script (隸書) was the formal written language of the Han Dynasty, which evolved over time.

Regular Script (楷書) became dominant during the Southern and Northern Dynasties and reached maturity in the early Tang Dynasty. While it has undergone some developments in the art of calligraphy and character simplification, it is still considered the mainstream script and is widely used in modern days.

Cursive Writing (草書) first appeared at the beginning of the Han Dynasty. The earliest cursive writings were variants of the rapid, freestyle form of Official Script. Cursive Writing is not in general use, being a purely artistic, calligraphic style. Some Simplified Characters took inspiration from their cursive form.

Freehand Cursive (行書) is a form of semi-cursive script which follows the standard form of characters more closely than traditional cursive script.

Character Structure and Meaning

The Chinese writing system differs from alphabetic systems in that it is composed of thousands of characters rather than a small number of letters. There is a common misconception that each single Chinese character represent a picture. While it used to be the case at the very beginning, nowadays pictographic characters only represent about 4% of all characters. The majority of Chinese characters are formed with a combination of radicals and phonetic elements. Radicals are the components of a character that provide clues to its meaning, while phonetic elements indicate the pronunciation of the character.

Pictographic Characters

As mentioned above, those are characters that represent a picture of something; such as an animal or an object.

Idiographic Characters

Those are characters that represent abstract ideas.

Picto/ Ideo-Phonetic Characters

Those characters are a combination of a radical, giving out a clue about the meaning of the word, and a phonetic element, giving out a clue about the character’s pronunciation.

Chinese characters are not only complex but also convey a wealth of meaning in a single character. Learning them can be challenging, but it is also a rewarding and enlightening experience. Understanding the origin, structure and meaning of Chinese characters will give you a deeper appreciation of the language, culture and history of China.

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