Written Chinese

The most unique feature of Chinese is how its written. It is also probably the main reason people are afraid of studying Chinese.

Chinese characters

Unlike English, which uses letters as the building blocks of language, Chinese uses characters. Chinese characters have a history of over 3,000 years. Oracle bones that were used by shamans in divination rituals in the Late Shang Dynasty (1220-1050 BC) provide the earliest evidence of Chinese writing.

The first characters were pictographs. As the name suggests, they were drawings used to depict things. Over the next thousand years or so, characters similar to what we see today developed. By about 150 CE "modern" characters had developed.

Modern Chinese characters are composed of two parts: the "radical" (which suggests the meaning of the character) and the rest of the character (which often gives a clue regarding the sound of the character). For example, "木" means "wood." So, if a character has a "wood radical"--in other words, has "木" as its radical--it probably has something to do with wood. "本" (běn) contains the wood radical and means "book" (since paper is made from wood). "果" means "fruit" and "棒" means "club" or "stick." The radical in Chinese works like a Greek or Latin root does in English: for example, in English we know that "biometric" has something to do with a living thing because of the the root "bio." Chinese works the same way--only with symbols rather than groups of letters.

The other part of a Chinese character is usually a phonetic element. It doesn't tell us how to pronounce the character but may give us a hint: 清 (qīng) and 精 (jīng) have the same phonetic portion (on the right of the character) and sound similar. 景 (jǐng) and 凉 (líang) have the same phonetic (on the bottom of the left-most character and on the right of the other character) and have somewhat similar pronunciations--each ending with "ng."

Each Chinese character represents one syllable and one unit of meaning. Altogether Chinese only has about 400 different possible syllables. If each syllable can have four different pronunciations (based on the four tones) that means that Chinese has at most 1,600 basic syllables. (Not all possible syllable-tone combinations exist, though.) As a result, the actual number of different sounding Chinese syllables is less than 1,500.

So, since each of these syllables represents a meaning, does that mean Chinese only has about 1,500 characters? No! Chinese has about 50,000 characters at last count--although many of them are rarely used. What this means is that there is a lot of overlap in pronunciation among characters. The same basic syllable and tone can have many meanings. Having so many homonyms isn't a problem in written Chinese since the underlying characters are different, but can be a problem in spoken Chinese. Still, the problem has become less severe as Chinese has evolved into a largely disyllabic or polysyllabic language. In other words, many "words" nowadays are a combination of two or more characters. So, "呼吸" (hūxī) is now the word for "breathe" (a combination of characters meaning "exhale" and "inhale/breathe") and "犀牛" (xīníu) is the word for "rhinoceros" (it's a combination of characters meaning "rhino" and "ox"). That means there are fewer homonyms in everyday speech than in ancient China, when Chinese was a more monosyllabic language.

Writing Chinese

Chinese characters are beautiful and great calligraphy is highly esteemed. Even though unique calligraphy is prized, writing Chinese characters follows strict rules. Characters are composed of precise strokes that must be written in a certain order. In general, a character is "built" from left to right and top to bottom. Learning the proper number and order of strokes in a given character is necessary--in part because stroke number and order is the basis for looking up words in the dictionary.

In the early 1950s, the Chinese government simplified Chinese characters to help improve literacy rates. As a result, the number of strokes and complexity of many characters has been greatly reduced. Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the more complex characters--known as traditional characters.

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