||This article contains Chinese text. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Chinese characters.|
|Left: "Chinese character" in Traditional Chinese. Right: "Chinese character" in Simplified Chinese. Pronounced as Hànzì, kanji, hanja, and Hán tự.|
|Quốc ngữ||Hán Tự (Sino-Viet.)
Chữ Nho (native tongue)
|Hán tự||漢字 (Sino-Viet.)
字儒 (native tongue)
|Spoken languages||Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese|
|Time period||Bronze Age China to present|
Oracle Bone Script
|ISO 15924||Hani, Hans, Hant|
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.|
|Simplified Chinese (2nd-round)|
|Hán tự (Vietnamese)|
|East Asian calligraphy|
A Chinese character, also known as a Han character (汉字 / 漢字; Hànzì), is a logogram used in writing Chinese (hanzi), Japanese (kanji), less frequently Korean (hanja), and formerly Vietnamese (hán tự), and other languages. Chinese characters are also known as sinographs, and the Chinese writing system as sinography.
The number of Chinese characters contained in the Kangxi dictionary is approximately 47,035, although a large number of these are rarely used variants accumulated throughout history. Studies carried out in China have shown that literacy in the Chinese language requires a knowledge of only between three and four thousand characters.
In the Chinese writing system, the characters are morphosyllabic, each usually corresponding to a spoken syllable with a basic meaning. However, although Chinese words may be formed by characters with basic meanings, a majority of words in Mandarin Chinese require two or more characters to write (thus are poly-syllabic) but have meaning that is distinct from the characters they are made from. Cognates in the various Chinese languages/dialects which have the same or similar meaning but different pronunciations can be written with the same character.
Chinese characters have also been used and in some cases continue to be used in other languages, most significantly Japanese (where a single character can represent several spoken syllables), Korean, and Vietnamese. Chinese characters are used both by meaning to represent native words, ignoring the Chinese pronunciation, and by meaning and sound, to represent Chinese loanwords. These foreign pronunciations of Chinese characters are known as Sinoxenic pronunciations, and have been useful in the reconstruction of Ancient Chinese.
In the last 50 or so years, inscriptions have been found on pottery in a variety of locations in China such as Bànpō near Xī'ān, as well as on bone and bone marrows at Hualouzi, Chang'an County near Xi'an. These simple, often geometric marks have been frequently compared to some of the earliest known Chinese characters, on the oracle bones, and some have taken them to mean that the history of Chinese writing extends back over six millennia.
However, because these marks occur singly, without any context to imply, and because they are generally extremely crude and simple, Qiú Xīguī (2000, p. 31) concluded that "we do not have any basis for stating that these constituted writing, nor is there reason to conclude that they were ancestral to Shang dynasty Chinese characters." Isolated graphs and pictures continue to be found periodically, frequently accompanied by media reports pushing back the purported beginnings of Chinese writing a few thousand years. For example, at Damaidi in Ningxia, 3,172 pictorial cliff carvings dating to 6000–5000 BC have been discovered, leading to headlines such as "Chinese writing '8,000 years old.'" Similarly, archaeologists report finding a few inscribed symbols on tortoise shells at the Neolithic site of Jiahu in Henan, dated to around 6,600–6,200 BCE, leading to headlines of "'Earliest writing' found in China.
In his comment released to the BBC, Professor David Keightley urged caution in the latter instance, pointing to the lack of any direct cultural connection to Shāng culture, combined with gaps between them of many millennia. However, in the same BBC article, a supporting argument is provided by Dr Garman Harbottle, of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, US, who collaborated with a team of archaeologists at the University of Science and Technology of China, in Anhui province in the discovery. Dr Harbottle points to the persistence of sign use at different sites along the Yellow River throughout the Neolithic and up to the Shāng period, when a complex writing system appears.
One group of sites of interest is the Dàwènkǒu culture sites (2800–2500 BCE, only one millennium earlier than the early Shāng culture sites, and positioned so as to be plausibly albeit indirectly ancestral to the Shāng). There, a few inscribed pottery and jade pieces have been found, one of which combines pictorial elements (resembling, according to some, a sun, moon or clouds, and fire or a mountain) in a stack which brings to mind the compounding of elements in Chinese characters. Major scholars are divided in their interpretation of such inscribed symbols. Some, such as Yú Xǐngwú, Táng Lán and Lǐ Xuéqín, have identified these with specific Chinese characters. Others such as Wang Ningsheng interpret them as pictorial symbols such as clan insignia, rather than writing. But in the view of Wang Ningsheng, "True writing begins when it represents sounds and consists of symbols that are able to record language. The few isolated figures found on pottery still cannot substantiate this point."
According to legend, Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie (c. 2650 BC), a bureaucrat under the legendary emperor, Huangdi. The legend tells that Cangjie was hunting on Mount Yangxu (today Shanxi) when he saw a tortoise whose veins caught his curiosity. Inspired by the possibility of a logical relation of those veins, he studied the animals of the world, the landscape of the earth, and the stars in the sky, and invented a symbolic system called zì—Chinese characters. It was said that on the day the characters were born, Chinese heard the devil mourning, and saw crops falling like rain, as it marked the beginning of the world.
The oldest Chinese inscriptions that are indisputably writing are the Oracle bone script (甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén, literally "shell-bone-script"). These were identified by scholars in 1899 on pieces of bone and turtle shell being sold as medicine, and by 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced back to modern Xiǎotún (小屯) village at Ānyáng in Hénán Province, where official archaeological excavations in 1928–1937 discovered 20,000 oracle bone pieces, about 1/5 of the total discovered. The inscriptions were records of the divinations performed for or by the royal Shāng household. The oracle bone script is a well-developed writing system, attested from the late Shang Dynasty (1200–1050 BC). Only about 1,400 of the 2,500 known oracle bone script logographs can be identified with later Chinese characters and thus deciphered by paleographers.
The traditional picture of an orderly series of scripts, each one invented suddenly and then completely displacing the previous one as implied by neat series of graphs in popular books on the subject, has been conclusively demonstrated to be fiction by the archaeological finds and scholarly research of the last half century. Gradual evolution and the coexistence of two or more scripts was more often the case. As early as the Shāng dynasty, oracle bone script coexisted as a simplified form alongside the normal script of bamboo books (preserved for us in typical bronze inscriptions) as well as extra-elaborate pictorial forms (often clan emblems) found on many bronzes.
Based on studies of such bronze inscriptions, it is clear that from the Shāng dynasty writing to that of the Western Zhōu and early Eastern Zhōu, the mainstream script evolved in a slow, unbroken fashion, until taking the form now known as seal script in the late Eastern Zhōu in the state of Qín, without any clear line of division. Meanwhile other scripts had evolved, especially in the eastern and southern areas during the late Zhōu, including regional forms, such as the gǔwén “ancient forms” of the eastern Warring States preserved in the Hàn dynasty etymological dictionary Shuōwén Jiézì as variant forms, as well as decorative forms such as bird and insect scripts.
Seal script, which had evolved slowly in the state of Qín during the Eastern Zhōu dynasty, became standardized and adopted as the formal script for all of China in the Qín dynasty (leading to a popular misconception that it was invented at that time), and was still widely used for decorative engraving and seals (name chops, or signets) in the Hàn dynasty onward. But despite the Qín script standardization, more than one script remained in use at the time. For example, a little-known, rectilinear and roughly executed kind of common (vulgar) writing had for centuries coexisted with the more formal seal script in the Qín state, and the popularity of this vulgar writing grew as the use of writing itself became more widespread. By the Warring States period, an immature form of clerical script called “early clerical” or “proto-clerical” had already developed in the state of Qín based upon thus vulgar writing, and with influence from seal script as well. The coexistence of the three scripts, small seal, vulgar and proto-clerical, with the latter evolving gradually in the Qín to early Hàn dynasties into clerical script, runs counter to the traditional beliefs that the Qín dynasty had one script only, and that clerical script was suddenly invented in the early Hàn dynasty from the small seal script.
Proto-clerical, which had emerged by the Warring States period from vulgar Qín writing, matured gradually, and by the early Western Hàn, was little different from that of the Qín. Recently discovered bamboo slips show the script becoming mature clerical script by the middle to late reign of Emperor Wǔ of the W. Hàn, who ruled 141 BCE to 87 BCE.
Contrary to popular belief of one script per period, there were in fact multiple scripts in use during the Hàn. Although mature clerical script, also called 八分 bāfēn script, was dominant at that time, an early type of cursive script was also in use in the Hàn by at least as early as 24 BCE (very late W. Hàn), incorporating cursory (sic) forms popular at that period as well as many from the vulgar writing of the Warring State of Qín. By around the Eastern Jìn dynasty this Hàn cursive became known as 章草 zhāngcǎo (also known as 隶草 / 隸草 lìcǎo today), or in English sometimes clerical cursive, ancient cursive, or draft cursive. Some believe that the name, based on 章 zhāng meaning "orderly", is because this was a more orderly form of cursive than the modern form of cursive emerging around the E. Jìn and still in use today, called 今草 jīncǎo or "modern cursive".
Around the mid Eastern Hàn, a simplified and easier to write form of clerical appeared, which Qiú (2000, p. 113 & 139) terms "neo-clerical" (新隶体 / 新隸體 xīnlìtǐ) and by the late E. Hàn it had become the dominant daily script, although the formal, mature bāfēn (八分) clerical script remained in use for formal situations such as engraved stelae. Some have described this neo-clerical script as a transition between clerical and standard script, and it remained in use through the Cáo Wèi and Jìn dynasties.
By the late E. Hàn, an early form of semi-cursive script appeared, developing out of a somewhat cursively written kind of neo-clerical script and cursive. It was traditionally attributed to Liú Déshēng ca. 147–188 CE, although such attributions refer to early masters of a script rather than to their actual inventors, since the scripts generally evolved into being over time. Qiú 2000, p. 140 gives examples of early semi-cursive showing that it had popular origins rather than being only Liú’s invention.
Standard script has been attributed to Zhōng Yáo, of the E. Hàn to Cáo Wèi period (ca 151–230 CE), who has been called the “father of standard script”. The earliest surviving pieces written in standard script are copies of his works, including at least one copied by Wáng Xīzhī. This new script, which is the dominant modern Chinese script, developed out of a neatly written form of early semi-cursive, with addition of the pause (顿 / 頓 dùn) technique to end horizontal strokes, plus heavy tails on strokes which are written to downward right diagonal. Thus, early standard script emerged from a neat, formal form of semi-cursive which had emerged from neo-clerical (a simplified, convenient form of clerical). It then matured further in the Eastern Jìn dynasty in the hands of the "Sage of Calligraphy" Wáng Xīzhī and his son Wáng Xiànzhī. It was not, however, in widespread use at that time, and most continued using neo-clerical or a somewhat semi-cursive form of it for daily writing, while the conservative bāfēn clerical script remained in use on some stelae, alongside some semi-cursive, but primarily neo-clerical.
Meanwhile, modern cursive script slowly emerged out of the clerical cursive (zhāngcǎo) script during the Cáo Wèi to Jìn period, under the influence of both semi-cursive and the newly emerged standard script. Cursive was formalized in the hands of a few master calligraphers, the most famous and influential of which was Wáng Xīzhī. However, because modern cursive is so cursive, it is hard to read, and never gained widespread use outside of literati circles.
It was not until the Southern and Northern Dynasties that the standard script rose to dominant status. During that period, standard script continued evolving stylistically, reaching full maturity in the early Táng dynasty. Some call the writing of the early Táng calligrapher Ōuyáng Xún (557–641) the first mature standard script. After this point, although developments in the art of calligraphy and in character simplification still lay ahead, there were no more major stages of evolution for the mainstream script.
Although most of the simplified Chinese characters in use today are the result of the works moderated by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s and 60s, character simplification predates the PRC's formation in 1949. One of the earliest proponents of character simplification was Lu Feikui, who proposed in 1909 that simplified characters should be used in education. In the years following the May Fourth Movement in 1919, many anti-imperialist Chinese intellectuals sought ways to modernise China. In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that character simplification would help boost literacy in China. In many world languages, literacy has been promoted as a justification for spelling reforms. The People's Republic of China issued its first round of official character simplifications in two documents, the first in 1956 and the second in 1964. In the 1950s and 1960s, while confusion about simplified characters was still rampant, transitional characters that mixed simplified parts with yet-to-be simplified parts of characters together appeared briefly, then disappeared.
There are numerous styles, or scripts, in which Chinese characters can be written, deriving from various calligraphic and historical models. Most of these originated in China and are now common, with minor variations, in all countries where Chinese characters are used. These characters were used over 3,000 years ago.
The Shang dynasty Oracle Bone and Zhou dynasty scripts found on Chinese bronze inscriptions being no longer used, the oldest script that is still in use today is the Seal Script (篆书 / 篆書 zhuànshū). It evolved organically out of the Spring and Autumn period Zhou script, and was adopted in a standardized form under the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. The seal script, as the name suggests, is now only used in artistic seals. Few people are still able to read it effortlessly today, although the art of carving a traditional seal in the script remains alive; some calligraphers also work in this style.
Scripts that are still used regularly are the "Clerical Script" (隶书 / 隸書 lìshū) of the Qin Dynasty to the Han Dynasty, the Weibei (Chinese: 魏碑; pinyin: wèibēi), the "Regular Script" (楷书 / 楷書 kǎishū) used mostly for printing, and the "Semi-cursive Script" (行书 / 行書 xíngshū) used mostly for handwriting.
The Cursive Script (草书 / 草書 cǎoshū, literally "grass script") is not in general use, and is a purely artistic calligraphic style. The basic character shapes are suggested, rather than explicitly realized, and the abbreviations are extreme. Despite being cursive to the point where individual strokes are no longer differentiable and the characters often illegible to the untrained eye, this script (also known as draft) is highly revered for the beauty and freedom that it embodies. Some of the Simplified Chinese characters adopted by the People's Republic of China, and some of the simplified characters used in Japan, are derived from the Cursive Script. The Japanese hiragana script is also derived from this script.
There also exist scripts created outside China, such as the Japanese Edomoji styles; these have tended to remain restricted to their countries of origin, rather than spreading to other countries like the standard scripts described above.
The earliest known Chinese texts, in the Oracle bone script, display a fully developed writing system, little different functionally than modern characters. It can only be assumed that the early stages of the development of characters were dominated by pictograms, which were the objects depicted, and ideograms, in which meaning was expressed iconically. The demands of writing full language, including words which had no easy pictographic or iconic representation, forced an expansion of this system, presumably through use of rebus.
The presumed methods of forming characters were first classified c. 100 AD by the Chinese linguist Xu Shen, whose etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字 / 說文解字) divides the script into six categories, the liùshū (六书 / 六書). While the categories and classification are occasionally problematic and arguably fail to reflect the complete nature of the Chinese writing system, this account has been perpetuated by its long history and pervasive use.
Four percent of Chinese characters are derived directly from individual pictograms, though in most cases the resemblance to an object is no longer clear. Others are ideograms, compound ideograms, where two ideograms are combined to give a third reading, or rebus. But most characters are phono-semantic compounds, with one element to indicate the general category of meaning and the other to suggest the pronunciation. Again, in many cases the suggested sound is no longer accurate.
Contrary to popular belief, pictograms make up only a small portion of Chinese characters. While characters in this class derive from pictures, they have been standardized, simplified, and stylized to make them easier to write, and their derivation is therefore not always obvious. Examples include 日 rì for "sun", 月 yuè for "moon", and 木 mù for "tree"....
There is no concrete number for the proportion of modern characters that are pictographic in nature; however, Xu Shen (c. 100 AD) estimated that 4% of characters fell into this category.
Also called simple indicatives or simple ideographs, these characters either modify existing pictographs iconically, or are direct iconic illustrations. For instance, by modifying 刀 dāo, a pictogram for "knife", by marking the blade, an ideogram 刃 rèn for "blade" is obtained. Direct examples include 上 shàng "up" and 下 xià "down". This category is small.
Translated literally as logical aggregates or associative compounds, these characters symbolically combine pictograms or ideograms to create a third character. For instance, doubling the pictogram 木 mù "tree" produces 林 lín "grove", while tripling it produces 森 sēn "forest". (It is interesting to note (see below) that 林 and 森 both have the same reconstructed Old Chinese final *-ǐǝm.) Similarly, combining 日 rì "sun" and 月 yuè "moon", the two natural sources of light, makes 明 míng "bright". Other commonly cited examples include the characters 休 xiū "rest", composed of the pictograms 人 rén "person" and 木 mù "tree" and 好 hǎo "good", composed of the pictograms 女 nǚ "women" and 子 zǐ "infant".
Xu Shen estimated that 13% of characters fall into this category.
Some scholars flatly reject the existence of this category, opining that failure of modern attempts to identify a phonetic in a compound is due simply to our not looking at ancient "secondary readings", which were lost over time. For example, the character 安 ān "peace", a combination of "roof" 宀 and "woman" 女, is commonly cited as an ideogrammic compound, purportedly motivated by a meaning such as "all is peaceful with the woman at home". However, there is evidence that 女 was once a polyphone with a secondary reading of *an, as may be gleaned from the set 妟 yàn "tranquil", 奻 nuán "to quarrel", and 姦 jiān "licentious". Supporting this reasoning is the fact that modern interpretations often neglect archaic forms that were in use when the characters were created.
These arguments notwithstanding, there are some characters that do appear to genuinely belong to this category. It is doubtful that secondary readings can be found for many cases, and the characters 林, 森, 明, 休, and 好 are all attested in oracle bone script, with the same components as the modern forms.
By far the most numerous category are the phono-semantic compounds, also called semantic-phonetic compounds or pictophonetic compounds. These characters are composed of two parts: one of a limited set of pictographs, often graphically simplified, which suggests the general meaning of the character, and an existing character pronounced approximately as the new target word.
Examples are 河 hé "river", 湖 hú "lake", 流 liú "stream", 沖 chōng "riptide" (or "flush"), 滑 huá "slippery". All these characters have on the left a radical of three short strokes, which is a simplified pictograph for a water drop, indicating that the character has a semantic connection with water; the right-hand side in each case is a phonetic indicator. For example, in the case of 冲 chōng, the phonetic indicator is 中 zhōng, which by itself means "middle". In this case it can be seen that the pronunciation of the character has diverged from that of its phonetic indicator; this process means that the composition of such characters can sometimes seem arbitrary today. Further, the choice of radicals may also seem arbitrary in some cases; for example, the radical of 貓 māo "cat" is 豸 zhì, originally a pictograph for worms, but in characters of this sort indicating an animal of any sort.
Xu Shen (c. 100 CE) placed approximately 82% of characters into this category, while in the Kangxi Dictionary (1716 CE) the number is closer to 90%, due to the extremely productive use of this technique to extend the Chinese vocabulary.
This method is still sometimes used to form new characters, for example 钚 bù "plutonium") is the metal radical 金 jīn plus the phonetic component 不 bù, described in Chinese as "不 gives sound, 金 gives meaning". Many Chinese names of elements in the periodic table and many other chemistry-related characters were formed this way.
Characters in this category originally didn't represent the same meaning but have bifurcated through orthographic and often semantic drift. For instance, 考 kǎo "to verify" and 老 lǎo "old" were once the same character, meaning "elderly person", but detached into two separate words. Characters of this category are rare, so in modern systems this group is often omitted or combined with others.
Also called borrowings or phonetic loan characters, this category covers cases where an existing character is used to represent an unrelated word with similar pronunciation; sometimes the old meaning is then lost completely, as with characters such as 自 zì, which has lost its original meaning of "nose" completely and exclusively means "oneself", or 萬 wàn, which originally meant "scorpion" but is now used only in the sense of "ten thousand".
Just as Roman letters have a characteristic shape (lower-case letters occupying a roundish area, with ascenders or descenders on some letters), Chinese characters occupy a more or less square area. Characters made up of multiple parts squash these parts together in order to maintain a uniform size and shape—this is the case especially with characters written in the Sòngtǐ style. Because of this, beginners often practise on squared graph paper, and the Chinese sometimes use the term "Square-Block Characters" (方块字 / 方塊字; fāngkuàizì), which is sometimes translated as tetragraph.
The actual shape of many Chinese characters varies in different cultures. Mainland China adopted simplified characters in 1956, but Traditional Chinese characters are still used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Singapore has also adopted simplified Chinese characters. Postwar Japan has used its own less drastically simplified characters since 1946, while South Korea has limited its use of Chinese characters, and Vietnam and North Korea have completely abolished their use in favour of romanized Vietnamese and hangul, respectively.
The nature of Chinese characters makes it very easy to produce allographs for any character, and there have been many efforts at orthographical standardization throughout history. The widespread usage of the characters in several different nations has prevented any particular system becoming universally adopted; consequently, the standard shape of any given character in Chinese usage may differ subtly from its standard shape in Japanese or Korean usage, even where no simplification has taken place.
Usually, each Chinese character takes up the same amount of space, due to their block-like square nature. Beginners therefore typically practice writing with a grid as a guide. In addition to strictness in the amount of space a character takes up, Chinese characters are written with very precise rules. The three most important rules are the strokes employed, stroke placement, and the order in which they are written (stroke order). Most words can be written with just one stroke order, though some words also have variant stroke orders, which may occasionally result in different stroke counts; certain characters are also written with different stroke orders in different languages.
There are three major families of typefaces in Chinese characters:
The first two typefaces are the most popular and based on the regular script for Chinese characters akin to serif and sans-serif fonts in the West, respectively, whereas the third is a regular script and a bit more calligraphic.
The Song typeface (宋体 / 宋體, sòngtǐ) is also known as Minchō (明朝) in Japan and Ming typeface (明体 / 明體, míngtǐ) in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The names of these fonts come from the Song and Ming dynasties, when block printing flourished in China. Because the wood grain on printing blocks ran horizontally, it was fairly easy to carve horizontal lines with the grain. However, carving vertical or slanted patterns was difficult because those patterns intersect with the grain and break easily. This resulted in a typeface that has thin horizontal strokes and thick vertical strokes. To prevent wear and tear, the ending of horizontal strokes are also thickened. These design forces resulted in the current Song typeface characterized by thick vertical strokes contrasted with thin horizontal strokes; triangular ornaments at the end of single horizontal strokes; and overall geometrical regularity. This typeface is similar to Western serif fonts such as Times New Roman in both appearance and function.
The other common group of fonts is called the Heiti (黑体 / 黑體, hēitǐ), or black typeface, in Chinese and Gothic typeface (ゴシック体) in Japanese. This group is characterized by straight lines of even thickness for each stroke, akin to sans-serif styles such as Arial and Helvetica in Western typography. This group of fonts, first introduced on newspaper headlines, is commonly used on headings, websites, signs and billboards.
The last typeface, Kaiti (楷体 / 楷體, kǎitǐ), is another serif font but is known to be more calligraphic than the former two.
The use of traditional characters versus simplified characters varies greatly, and can depend on both the local customs and the medium. Because character simplifications were not officially sanctioned and generally a result of caoshu writing or idiosyncratic reductions, traditional, standard characters were mandatory in printed works, while the (unofficial) simplified characters would be used in everyday writing, or quick scribblings. Since the 1950s, and especially with the publication of the 1964 list, the PRC has officially adopted a simplified script for use in mainland China, while Hong Kong, Macau, and the ROC on Taiwan retain the use of the traditional characters. There is no absolute rule for using either system, and often it is determined by what the target audience understands, as well as the upbringing of the writer. In addition there is a special system of characters used for writing numerals in financial contexts; these characters are modifications or adaptations of the original, simple numerals, deliberately made complicated to prevent forgeries or unauthorized alterations.
Although most often associated with the PRC, character simplification predates the 1949 communist victory. Caoshu, cursive written text, almost always includes character simplification, and simplified forms have always existed in print, albeit not for the most formal works. In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that character simplification would help boost literacy in China. Indeed, this desire by the Kuomintang to simplify the Chinese writing system (inherited and implemented by the CCP) also nursed aspirations of some for the adoption of a phonetic script, in imitation of the Roman alphabet, and spawned such inventions as the Gwoyeu Romatzyh.
The PRC issued its first round of official character simplifications in two documents, the first in 1956 and the second in 1964. A second round of character simplifications (known as erjian, or "second round simplified characters") was promulgated in 1977. It was poorly received, and in 1986 the authorities rescinded the second round completely, while making six revisions to the 1964 list, including the restoration of three traditional characters that had been simplified: 叠 dié, 覆 fù, 像 xiàng.
Many of the simplifications adopted had been in use in informal contexts for a long time, as more convenient alternatives to their more complex standard forms. For example, the traditional character 來 lái ("come") was written with the structure 来 in the clerical script (隶书 / 隸書, lìshū) of the Han dynasty. This clerical form uses one less stroke, and was thus adopted as a simplified form. The character 雲 yún ("cloud") was written with the structure 云 in the oracle bone script of the Shāng dynasty, and had remained in use later as a phonetic loan in the meaning of "to say". The simplified form reverted to this original structure.
In the years after World War II, the Japanese government also instituted a series of orthographic reforms. Some characters were given simplified forms called Shinjitai 新字体 (lit. "new character forms"; the older forms were then labelled the Kyūjitai 旧字体, lit. "old character forms"). The number of characters in common use was restricted, and formal lists of characters to be learned during each grade of school were established, first the 1850-character Tōyō kanji 当用漢字 list in 1945, and later the 1945-character Jōyō kanji 常用漢字 list in 1981. Many variant forms of characters and obscure alternatives for common characters were officially discouraged. This was done with the goal of facilitating learning for children and simplifying kanji use in literature and periodicals. These are simply guidelines, hence many characters outside these standards are still widely known and commonly used, especially those used for personal and place names (for the former, see Jinmeiyō kanji).
Singapore underwent three successive rounds of character simplification. These resulted in some simplifications that differed from those used in mainland China. It ultimately adopted the reforms of the PRC in their entirety as official, and has implemented them in the educational system. However, unlike in the PRC, personal names may still be registered in traditional characters.
Malaysia started teaching a set of simplified characters at schools in 1981, which were also completely identical to the Mainland China simplifications. Chinese newspapers in Malaysia are published in either set of characters, typically with the headlines in Traditional Chinese while the body is in Simplified Chinese.
Although in both countries the use of simplified characters is universal among the younger Chinese generation, a large majority of the older Chinese literate generation still use the traditional characters. Chinese shop signs are also generally written in traditional characters.
|Traditional||Chinese simp.||Japanese simp.||meaning|
|Simplified in Chinese, not Japanese||電||电||電||electricity|
|紅||红||紅||red (crimson in Japanese)|
|"Simplified" in Japanese, not Chinese
(in some cases this represents the adoption of
different variant forms as standard)
|拜||拜||拝||kowtow, pray to, worship|
|Simplified in both, but differently||龍||龙||竜||dragon|
|Simplified in both in the same way||學||学||学||learn|
Note: this table is merely a brief sample, not a complete listing.
Dozens of indexing schemes have been created for arranging Chinese characters in Chinese dictionaries. The great majority of these schemes have appeared in only a single dictionary; only one such system has achieved truly widespread use. This is the system of radicals.
Chinese character dictionaries often allow users to locate entries in several different ways. Many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dictionaries of Chinese characters list characters in radical order: characters are grouped together by radical, and radicals containing fewer strokes come before radicals containing more strokes. Under each radical, characters are listed by their total number of strokes. It is often also possible to search for characters by sound, using pinyin (in Chinese dictionaries), zhuyin (in Taiwanese dictionaries), kana (in Japanese dictionaries) or hangul (in Korean dictionaries). Most dictionaries also allow searches by total number of strokes, and individual dictionaries often allow other search methods as well.
For instance, to look up the character where the sound is not known, e.g., 松 (pine tree), the user first determines which part of the character is the radical (here 木), then counts the number of strokes in the radical (four), and turns to the radical index (usually located on the inside front or back cover of the dictionary). Under the number "4" for radical stroke count, the user locates 木, then turns to the page number listed, which is the start of the listing of all the characters containing this radical. This page will have a sub-index giving remainder stroke numbers (for the non-radical portions of characters) and page numbers. The right half of the character also contains four strokes, so the user locates the number 4, and turns to the page number given. From there, the user must scan the entries to locate the character he or she is seeking. Some dictionaries have a sub-index which lists every character containing each radical, and if the user knows the number of strokes in the non-radical portion of the character, he or she can locate the correct page directly.
Another dictionary system is the four corner method, where characters are classified according to the "shape" of each of the four corners.
Most modern Chinese dictionaries and Chinese dictionaries sold to English speakers use the traditional radical-based character index in a section at the front, while the main body of the dictionary arranges the main character entries alphabetically according to their pinyin spelling. To find a character with unknown sound using one of these dictionaries, the reader finds the radical and stroke number of the character, as before, and locates the character in the radical index. The character's entry will have the character's pronunciation in pinyin written down; the reader then turns to the main dictionary section and looks up the pinyin spelling alphabetically.
Besides Chinese/Sinitic languages, Japanese/Japonic languages, Korean, and Vietnamese language (Chữ nôm), a number of smaller Asian languages have been written or continue to be written using Han characters, with characters modified from Han characters, or using Han characters in combination with native characters. They include:
In addition, the Yi script is similar to Han, but is not known to be directly related to it.
The Vietnamese Hán tự were first used in Vietnam during the millenium of Chinese rule starting in 111 BC, while adaptation for the vernacular Chữ Nôm script (based on Chinese characters) emerged around the 13th century AD.
The oldest known record of the Sawndip characters used by the Zhuang, a non-Han peoples from what is today known as Guangxi, is from a stele dating from 689, which predates the earliest example of Vietnamese chữ Nôm.
The total number of Chinese characters from past to present remains unknowable because new ones are developed all the time. Chinese characters are theoretically an open set. The number of entries in major Chinese dictionaries is the best means of estimating the historical growth of character inventory.
|Year||Name of dictionary||Number of characters|
|1916||Zhonghua Da Zidian||48,000|
|1989||Hanyu Da Zidian||54,678|
|Year||Country||Name of dictionary||Number of characters|
|2003||Japan||Dai Kan-Wa jiten||50,000+|
|2008||South Korea||Han-Han Dae Sajeon||53,667|
Comparing the Shuowen Jiezi and Hanyu Da Zidian reveals that the overall number of characters recorded in dictionaries has increased 577 percent over 1,900 years. Depending upon how one counts variants, 50,000+ is a good approximation for the current total number. This correlates with the most comprehensive Japanese and Korean dictionaries of Chinese characters; the Dai Kan-Wa jiten has some 50,000 entries, and the Han-Han Dae Sajeon has over 57,000. The latest behemoth, the Zhonghua Zihai, records a staggering 85,568 single characters, although even this fails to list all characters known, ignoring the roughly 1,500 Japanese-made kokuji given in the Kokuji no Jiten as well as the Chu Nom inventory only used in Vietnam in past days.
Modified radicals and obsolete variants are two common reasons for the ever-increasing number of characters. There are about 300 radicals and 100 are in common use. Creating a new character by modifying the radical is an easy way to disambiguate homographs among xíngshēngzì pictophonetic compounds. This practice began long before the standardization of Chinese script by Qin Shi Huang and continues to the present day. The traditional 3rd-person pronoun tā (他 "he; she; it"), which is written with the "person radical", illustrates modifying significs to form new characters. In modern usage, there is a graphic distinction between tā (她 "she") with the "woman radical", tā (牠 "it") with the "animal radical", tā (它 "it") with the "roof radical", and tā (祂 "He") with the "deity radical", One consequence of modifying radicals is the fossilization of rare and obscure variant logographs, some of which are not even used in Classical Chinese. For instance, he 和 "harmony; peace", which combines the "grain radical" with the "mouth radical", has infrequent variants 咊 with the radicals reversed and 龢 with the "flute radical".
It is usually said that about 2,000 characters are needed for basic literacy in Chinese (for example, to read a Chinese newspaper), and a well-educated person will know well in excess of 4,000 to 5,000 characters. Note that Chinese characters should not be confused with Chinese words, as the majority of modern Chinese words, unlike their Old Chinese and Middle Chinese counterparts, are multi-morphemic and multi-syllabic compounds, that is, most Chinese words are written with two or more characters; each character representing one syllable. Knowing the meanings of the individual characters of a word will often allow the general meaning of the word to be inferred, but this is not invariably the case.
In the People's Republic of China, which uses Simplified Chinese characters, the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Chángyòng Zìbiǎo (现代汉语常用字表; Chart of Common Characters of Modern Chinese) lists 2,500 common characters and 1,000 less-than-common characters, while the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Tōngyòng Zìbiǎo (现代汉语通用字表; Chart of Generally Utilized Characters of Modern Chinese) lists 7,000 characters, including the 3,500 characters already listed above. GB2312, an early version of the national encoding standard used in the People's Republic of China, has 6,763 code points. GB18030, the modern, mandatory standard, has a much higher number. The Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì proficiency test covers approximately 5,000 characters.
In the ROC, which uses Traditional Chinese characters, the Ministry of Education's Chángyòng Guózì Biāozhǔn Zìtǐ Biǎo (常用國字標準字體表; Chart of Standard Forms of Common National Characters) lists 4,808 characters; the Cì Chángyòng Guózì Biāozhǔn Zìtǐ Biǎo (次常用國字標準字體表; Chart of Standard Forms of Less-Than-Common National Characters) lists another 6,341 characters. The Chinese Standard Interchange Code (CNS11643)—the official national encoding standard—supports 48,027 characters, while the most widely-used encoding scheme, BIG-5, supports only 13,053.
In Hong Kong, which uses Traditional Chinese characters, the Education and Manpower Bureau's Soengjung Zi Zijing Biu (常用字字形表), intended for use in elementary and junior secondary education, lists a total of 4,759 characters.
In addition, there is a large corpus of dialect characters, which are not used in formal written Chinese but represent colloquial terms in non-Mandarin Chinese spoken forms. One such variety is Written Cantonese, in widespread use in Hong Kong even for certain formal documents, due to the former British colonial administration's recognition of Cantonese for use for official purposes. In Taiwan, there is also an informal body of characters used to represent the spoken Hokkien (Min Nan) dialect. Many dialects have specific characters for words exclusive to the dialect, for example, the vernacular character , pronounced cii11 in Hakka, means "to kill". Furthermore, Shanghainese Chinese also has its own series of written text, but these are not widely used in actual texts, Mandarin being the preference for all mainland regions. (For instance, 㑚, 哎垯, and 呒没, all of which are widely known and used by Shanghainese.)
In Japanese there are 1,945 Jōyō kanji (常用漢字 lit. "frequently used kanji") designated by the Japanese Ministry of Education; these are taught during primary and secondary school. The list is a recommendation, not a restriction, and many characters missing from it are still in common use.
The one area where character usage is officially restricted is in names, which may contain only government-approved characters. Since the Jōyō kanji list excludes many characters which have been used in personal and place names for generations, an additional list, referred to as the Jinmeiyō kanji (人名用漢字 lit. "kanji for use in personal names"), is published. It currently contains 983 characters, bringing the total number of government-endorsed characters to 2928. (See also the Names section of the kanji article.)
Today, a well-educated Japanese person may know upwards of 3,500 kanji. The kanji kentei (日本漢字能力検定試験 Nihon Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Shiken or Test of Japanese Kanji Aptitude) tests a speaker's ability to read and write kanji. The highest level of the kanji kentei tests on 6,000 kanji, though in practice few people attain (or need to attain) this level.
Written Japanese also includes a pair of syllabic scripts known as kana, which are used in combination with kanji. Not all words in modern Japanese can be expressed with kanji alone, requiring the use of kana in written communication.
In times past, until the 15th century, in Korea, Literary Chinese was the dominant form of written communication, prior to the creation of hangul, the Korean alphabet. Much of the vocabulary, especially in the realms of science and sociology, comes directly from Chinese, comparable to Latin or Greek root words in European languages. However due to the lack of tones in Korean, as the words were imported from Chinese, many dissimilar characters took on identical sounds, and subsequently identical spelling in hangul. Chinese characters are sometimes used to this day for either clarification in a practical manner, or to give a distinguished appearance, as knowledge of Chinese characters is considered a high class attribute and an indispensable part of a classical education. It is also observed that the preference for Chinese characters is treated as being conservative and Confucian.
In Korea, 한자 hanja have become a politically contentious issue, with some Koreans urging a "purification" of the national language and culture by totally abandoning their use. These individuals encourage the exclusive use of the native hangul alphabet throughout Korean society and the end to character education in public schools.
In South Korea, educational policy on characters has swung back and forth, often swayed by education ministers' personal opinions. At times, middle and high school students have been formally exposed to 1,800 to 2,000 basic characters, albeit with the principal focus on recognition, with the aim of achieving newspaper-literacy. Since there is little need to use hanja in everyday life, young adult Koreans are often unable to read more than a few hundred characters.
There is a clear trend toward the exclusive use of hangul in day-to-day South Korean society. Hanja are still used to some extent, particularly in newspapers, weddings, place names and calligraphy. Hanja is also extensively used in situations where ambiguity must be avoided, such as academic papers, high-level corporate reports, government documents, and newspapers; this is due to the large number of homonyms that have resulted from extensive borrowing of Chinese words.
The issue of ambiguity is the main hurdle in any effort to "cleanse" the Korean language of Chinese characters. Characters convey meaning visually, while alphabets convey guidance to pronunciation, which in turn hints at meaning. As an example, in Korean dictionaries, the phonetic entry for 기사 gisa yields more than 30 different entries. In the past, this ambiguity had been efficiently resolved by parenthetically displaying the associated hanja.
In the modern Korean writing system based on hangul, Chinese characters are not used any more to represent native morphemes.
In North Korea, the government, wielding much tighter control than its sister government to the south, has banned Chinese characters from virtually all public displays and media, and mandated the use of hangul in their place.
Although now nearly extinct in Vietnam, varying scripts of Chinese characters (hán tự) were once in widespread use to write the language, although hán tự became limited to ceremonial uses beginning in the 19th century. Similarly to Japan and Korea, Chinese (especially Literary Chinese) was used by the ruling classes, and the characters were eventually adapted to write Vietnamese. To express native Vietnamese words which had different pronunciations from the Chinese, Vietnamese developed the Chữ Nôm script which used various methods to distinguish native Vietnamese words from Chinese. Vietnamese is currently exclusively written in the Vietnamese alphabet, a derivative of the Latin alphabet.
Often a character not commonly used (a "rare" or "variant" character) will appear in a personal or place name in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese (see Chinese name, Japanese name, Korean name, and Vietnamese name, respectively). This has caused problems as many computer encoding systems include only the most common characters and exclude the less oft-used characters. This is especially a problem for personal names which often contain rare or classical, antiquated characters.
One man who has encountered this problem is Taiwanese politician Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃, pinyin Yóu Xíkūn) due to the last character in his name being very rare. Newspapers have dealt with this problem in varying ways, including using software to combine two existing, similar characters, including a picture of the personality, or, especially as is the case with Yu Shyi-kun, simply substituting a homophone for the rare character in the hope that the reader would be able to make the correct inference. Taiwanese political posters, movie posters etc. will often add the bopomofo phonetic symbols next to such a character. Japanese newspapers may render such names and words in katakana instead of kanji, and it is accepted practice for people to write names for which they are unsure of the correct kanji in katakana instead.
There are also some extremely complex characters which have understandably become rather rare. According to Bellassen (1989), the most complex Chinese character is /𪚥 (U+2A6A5) zhé listen (help·info) (pictured below, left), meaning "verbose" and boasting sixty-four strokes; this character fell from use around the 5th century. It might be argued, however, that while boasting the most strokes, it is not necessarily the most complex character (in terms of difficulty), as it simply requires writing the same sixteen-stroke character 龍 lóng (lit. "dragon") four times in the space for one. Another 64-stroke character is /𠔻 (U+2053B) zhèng composed of 興 xīng/xìng (lit. "flourish") four times.
One of the most complex characters found in modern Chinese dictionaries is 齉 (U+9F49) nàng listen (help·info) (pictured below, middle image), meaning "snuffle" (that is, a pronunciation marred by a blocked nose), with "just" thirty-six strokes. However, this is not in common use. The most complex character that can be input using the Microsoft New Phonetic IME 2002a for Traditional Chinese is 龘 tà "the appearance of a dragon walking"; it is composed of the dragon radical represented three times, for a total of 16 × 3 = 48 strokes. Among the most complex characters in modern dictionaries and also in frequent modern use are 籲 yù "to implore", with 32 strokes; 鬱 yù: "luxuriant, lush; gloomy", with 29 strokes, as in 憂鬱 yōuyù "depressed", with 15 and 29 strokes, respectively; 豔 yàn "colorful", with 28 strokes; and 釁 xìn "quarrel", with 25 strokes, as in 挑釁 tiǎoxìn "to pick a fight". Also in occasional modern use is 鱻 xiān “fresh” (variant of 鮮 xiān) with 33 strokes.
In Japanese, an 84-stroke kokuji exists—it is composed of three "cloud" (雲) characters on top of the abovementioned triple "dragon" character (龘). Also meaning "the appearance of a dragon in flight", it has been pronounced おとど otodo, たいと taito, and だいと daito.
The most complex Chinese character still in use may be biáng (pictured right, bottom), with 57 strokes, which refers to Biang biang noodles, a type of noodle from China's Shaanxi province. This character along with syllable biang cannot be found in dictionaries. The fact that it represents a syllable that does not exist in any Standard Mandarin word means that it could be classified as a dialectal character.
In contrast, the simplest character is 一 yī ("one") with just one horizontal stroke. The most common character in Chinese is 的 de, a grammatical particle functioning as an adjectival marker and as a clitic genitive case analogous to the English ’s, with eight strokes. The average number of strokes in a character has been calculated as 9.8; it is unclear, however, whether this average is weighted, or whether it includes traditional characters.
Another very simple Chinese character is 〇 (líng), the numeral zero in a positional system. For instance, the year 2000 would be 二〇〇〇年. It is not a typical character, but taken from the mathematical system of rod numerals. (The traditional character for líng is 零.) The form 〇 is attested from AD 1247, in the Southern Song mathematical text 數術九章 (Shǔ Shù Jiǔ Zhāng "Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections"), presumably an influence of Indian "0". Being round, the character does not contain any traditional strokes.
Zhèng (unknown meaning)
Nàng, "poor enunciation due to snuffle"
Taito, "the appearance of a dragon in flight"
The art of writing Chinese characters is called Chinese calligraphy. It is usually done with ink brushes. In ancient China, Chinese calligraphy is one of the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholars. There is a minimalist set of rules of Chinese calligraphy. Every character from the Chinese scripts is built into a uniform shape by means of assigning it a geometric area in which the character must occur. Each character has a set number of brushstrokes; none must be added or taken away from the character to enhance it visually, lest the meaning be lost. Finally, strict regularity is not required, meaning the strokes may be accentuated for dramatic effect of individual style. Calligraphy was the means by which scholars could mark their thoughts and teachings for immortality, and as such, represent some of the more precious treasures that can be found from ancient China.
The earliest known form of Chinese writing are the so-called 'oracle bone inscriptions' of the late Shang, divinatory inscriptions incised on turtle plastrons and ox scapulae, dating from about 1200-1050 B.C. Shang bronze inscriptions from about 1100 B.C. constitute the second carliest source of evidence for archaic Chinese writing.
The oracle-bone inscriptions of the Late Shang dynasty (c. 1200-1050 B.C.), the earliest body of writing we yet possess for East Asia, were written in a script ancestral to all subsequent forms of Chinese writing.