As mentioned earlier, this is not a way of creating new Chinese character forms. It’s a way of borrowing characters.
This way of churning out Chinese characters had a big impact on the way Chinese writing developed.
So, what are borrowed characters?
An existing character acquires a new meaning but the pronunciation remains the same.
A long time ago, when the number of characters was limited, many concepts had to be expressed by “borrowing characters” to create new words with entirely different meanings but with similar sound.
This is also called “phonetic loan”.
Basically, the character is borrowed for the same sound, disregarding the meaning.
In fact, it is estimated that 70% of oracle bone inscriptions 4,000 years ago were borrowed characters.
For example, today bei3 means “north”.
In the oracle bone inscriptions the Chinese character looks like two men with their backs to each other.
Oracle Bone script (left), Bronze Vessel scrip (middle), Small Seal script (right)
The original meaning is “to be contrary to” and is pronounced bei4.
Keeping the pronunciation, it was borrowed to denote the direction north.
But once a character was borrowed, does it still mean what it did before or the new meaning?
To avoid confusion, and to keep the original meaning, a part representing the “body/flesh 月” was added below 北 to create 背bei4.This new character has the original meaning of “back to back”.
And it’s made up of a sound part and a meaning part.
Voila! We are “back” to phonetic compounds, the fourth way of forming Chinese characters we encountered earlier.
So what happened in history is that the practice of borrowing characters led to the use of sound and meaning compounds to create Chinese characters.
And greatly increased the numbers of Chinese characters in use.
Isn’t it amazing how things come full circle?
Borrowing characters is used not only in ancient times but also today.
Lots of Chinese characters we use in daily life are borrowed characters.
It’s just that we are unaware of them!