Chinese Writing

The origin of Chinese writing can be traced back to ancient China with a history of at least four thousand years. Chinese is not a phonetic language. Pronunciation is not closely related to the way how Chinese words (characters) are written. Originally Chinese way of writhing is related with painting; that’s why Chinese writing and painting are considered to have the same origin.

At the very first glance, Chinese seems to be difficult and complicated as it is very different from other languages. Chinese words are called pictographic characters. They are derived from a couple of hundreds of simple pictographs and ideographs in ways that are usually quite logical and easy to remember. For instance, the Chinese word for sun is 日. In the past, it was written as a circle with a dot in it, a pictograph like the sun with some sunspots. With a horizontal stroke underneath, it became another word, meaning morning. It is written nowadays as 旦 [dàn], just like the sun has risen above the horizon. The character for knife is written as 刀 [dāo] and the word for blade is written as 刃 [rèn], the short rising stroke indicating which part of the word 刀is meant. 田 [tián] means field, and it does look like as such. The examples given here are all simple words with few strokes. They are wholly pictorial in origin. However, the idea that all Chinese characters are either pictographs or ideographs is an erroneous one: many characters, especially characters with more than one part and many strokes, contain phonetic parts, and are composites of phonetic components and semantic parts, e.g.铜 [tóng] (copper) where 同 [tóng] is its phonetic component and the left part tells you that it is a kind of metal. 铜is written as 銅 in traditional Chinese. Its left part is 金 [jīn] (gold). Many other Chinese words for metals have the same ‘golden’ part, e.g. 铝 [lǚ] (aluminium), 钢 [gāng] (steel), 锰 [měng] (manganese) etc. In these words, their right parts indicate how they are pronounced, 吕 [lǚ] (a Chinese family name), 冈 [gāng] (ridge of hill) and 孟 [mèng] (a Chinese family name).

Spoken language use words to describe various events. Spoken words existed long before writing’s coming into being and are the mother of writing. Written words are recordings of spoken language. With the passage of time, writing proceeded from simple to complex and more expressive. In the case of Chinese language, it has also undergone the process of simplification as mentioned in Lesson Six in our email Chinese course. That’s how simplified Chinese came into being.