How are Chinese Characters Formed?


Believe it or not, there’s actually a system to forming “complex” Chinese characters which has evolved over the last 2,000 years.

What then is this system of composing Chinese characters?

Chinese calligraphers and etymologists agree that the almost 50,000 Chinese characters in existence are classified into SIX forms of Chinese writing:

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To read a detailed description of each way of creating Chinese characters, click on each headline below.

1.Pictograms xiang4 xing2

These are "picture writing" in Oracle Bone script which depict common things like people, animals, natural objects, tools, rituals and vessels.

Here are 4 pictographs. Guess which characters these Chinese symbols represent? For answers, click on the headline above.

2. Ideograms zhi3 shi4

Pictographs refer to external objects. Hence their numbers are limited.

In order to express abstract ideas (as society advanced), ideograms were created.

id•e•o•gram: a symbol used in some writing systems, for example those of Japan and China, that directly but abstractly represents the thing or concept itself rather than the word for it.

In the Oracle Bone and Bronze Vessel inscriptions, the character gao1 looks like a two-storey building. The upper part of the building has a roof pointing upwards and the bottom part looks like a wall with a door in it.

This tall building gives gao its meaning of “high”. From this primary meaning arises the meanings “tall and big”, “high and far away”, “profound”, “advanced”, “brilliant” etc. You have gao1 ren2 “a profound person”, gao1 ling2 “advanced in age”, gao1 ming2 “brilliant”.

Bronze Vessel Script (left), Small Seal Script (right)

3. Composite Ideograms hui4 yi4

As the name suggests, these are compounds usually made up of two or more pictographs. Both material and abstract ideas can be expressed are expressed. Ideographs are adaptable hence there are many of them in Chinese writing.

sen1 consists of three trees meaning there is a thick forest. In the forest, one feels cloudy, gloomy and solemn, so sen also means “gloomy” and “stern”. You have yin1 sen1 “spooky” for example.

Oracle Bone Script (left), Small Seal Script (right)

4. Phonetic compounds xing2 sheng1

This is easy to understand.

In Chinese, I>xing sheng means form plus sound. It involves putting together a semantic (i.e. meaning) component (known as the radical) with a phonetic component (its pronunciation). By adding different phonetics to the radicals, large numbers of Chinese characters can be formed. In modern simplified form, phonetic compounds make up more than 80% of characters in Chinese writing.

qu3 is both an ideogram and a phonetic compound. The upper part of the character is qu3 “to get” while the bottom part is nu:3 “woman” so the word means to take a woman as wife. The upper part also serves as the phonetic while the bottom part is the radical. Hence, it’s also a phonetic compound.

5. Transferred characters zhuan1 zhu4

As a form of Chinese character composition, this is controversial. Transferred characters share the same radical and have the same meaning but their pronunciations are different. What happened is that a character was created to reflect a new pronunciation. Strictly speaking, no new characters are formed, just a new way of using an existing one.

This is the character hua4. (left)

It is derived from the word hui. (right)

Both mean the same thing: to draw.

6. Borrowed characters jia3 jie4

This is also, strictly speaking, not a way of forming new Chinese 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”. Even in ancient times borrowing was a fast way to solve an immediate problem.

Modern bei3 means “north”. In the oracle bone inscriptions the Chinese character looks like two men with their backs to each other, hence the original meaning “to be contrary to”. bei also means defeat. When an army is defeated its soldiers ran for their lives with their backs facing each other.

Oracle Bone script (left), Bronze Vessel scrip (middle), Small Seal script (right)

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