Ask-a-Chinese: Drawing the Characters

Hello, my name is Amy Adams the linguist and welcome to Chinese 101…

No, this is Platformula. LibraryLass proposed a question the other day, asking about if people who read Simplified Chinese can read Traditional Chinese, and vice versa. Like any real life question, the answer is “it depends”, but that’s not very satisfying. So, I did some research to come up with a full article, hopefully folks here would find it interesting. Disclaimer: I’m not a real linguist (obviously), especially when it comes to the English terminologies, so please correct me if we have real experts in the audience.

Origin of written Chinese

Unlike most Western written languages that are built around alphabets and/or syllabaries, Chinese written system is called a Logosyllabic script, which, in layman’s terms, means that in its original form, characters are essentially “abstract drawings” of what they are referring to. Or as wikipedia puts it: “glyphs whose components may depict objects or represent abstract notions.” Earliest record of written Chinese were dated back to 1250–1192 BC, called 甲骨文 (Oracle Bone Scripts). Here are three examples in Oracle Bone Scripts along with the modern character:

You might be able to guess what they are: from left to right – sun, moon, mountain

These simple characters evolved over time into more regulated strokes; and then multiple characters are put together to form new characters with a certain set of rules. Eventually this produces about 2500 “most frequently used” characters, and 1000 “less frequently used” ones, which is more than enough to cover almost all daily usage. There are many more that have gradually become obsolete and only appeared in ancient text or rare occasions. There is one dictionary published in 1994 that included the most characters ever: over 85,000.

Chinese and Japanese

These two languages have so much history and entanglements that is worthy of a brief discussion. Most of the Japanese characters did come from Chinese, but over the centuries, they evolve like the birds on the Galapagos Islands and become their own thing. In general, Japanese written system have three components: two syllabaries: hiraganas (ひらがな) and katakanas (カタカナ); and Kanji (漢字). The first two are somewhat similar to alphabets in lower and upper cases, while the last one literally means “Chinese Characters”, and that’s where most of the similarities are.

The funny thing is, while the characters might look the same, the meanings can be dramatically different, in some cases completely opposite. Here are a few examples: [Japanese Kanji(Traditional Chinese/Simplified Chinese if different), meaning in Japanese, meaning in Chinese]

  • [先生, teacher, mister]
  • [勉強(勉强-SC), to study, unwilling/forced/strained]
  • [娘, daughter, mother]
  • [邪魔, to trouble, devil]
  • [大丈夫, OK/alright, gentleman/manly man]
  • [湯(汤-SC), hot spring, soup]

There are also Kanjis that are completely invented in Japan. Even weirder, over the years some of these Kanjis are imported back into Mainland China and Taiwan. This is called “Wasei-kango (和製漢語)”. The most convoluted developments of this phenomenon occurred in the 19th century. The Ming/Qing dynasties were being forced to confront the Western Civilization. Japan, upon witnessing the neighbors’ suffering, actively trying to absorb the western influence as much as they could.

During this time, the influx of westerners in China introduced many new concepts and terminologies in science and politics to the society. They are translated and published, and eventually made their ways into Japanese society, which in a certain degree helped feed the modernization of Japan.

According to some sources, due to lack of education infrastructure in China at the time, all these newly translated words were ironically barely known by the Chinese public. It was the Japanese who adopted these words into their daily usage in their westernization process. At the turn of the 19th century, many Chinese scholars visited Japan searching for ways of “saving the country”, and they eventually brought these “words with western concepts” back home again. Here is a short list of some of these words (Japanese/TC/SC, English meaning):

  • [経済/經濟/经济, economy]
  • [社会/社會/社会, society]
  • [電話/電話/电话, telephone]
  • [細胞/細胞/细胞, cell (biology)]
  • [右翼/右翼/右翼, right wing (politics)]

Traditional and Simplified Chinese (TC vs. SC)

If you look carefully at the words listed above, you will see that there are no set rules between JPN/TC/SC characters: sometimes they are all the same, sometimes they are all different. In general, JPN Kanjis are more similar to TC ones, but there are exceptions too (as in “society”). A short explanation is that TC are what those characters “are supposed to look like”. They were derived from the ancient text that have been written for thousands of years, and therefore they were the true origins of most JPN characters.

Many traditional characters are so complicated that eventually, the modern societies have decided they need to be simplified. The Japanese and both modern Chinese governments (ROC and PRC) have all done so. In China before and after 1949, there were even arguments by influential intellectuals, including famed writers that the Chinese Characters should be abolished in favor of Romanization. (Lu Xun: “If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die” 汉字不灭,中国必亡) While the idea was eventually dropped, some of those ideas evolved to the current Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音) used in Mainland China. Fun fact: even Mao himself allegedly believed that the “Block Characters” will be replaced by latin spellings. Nowadays, the romanization serves great purposes in modern education, international correspondences (e.g. our names in English), and not least of all computer input; some of my American friends used to marvel at my ability of typing in Chinese from the QWERTY keyboard, because foreign language input methods were so foreign to them.

Anyway, it’s still very hard to just tell people to “write things differently”. So the Party promoted the simplification by publishing various “guidelines” that aimed at newspapers and publication agencies, which are required to abide by the new rules. First round of simplification were published in two documents in 1956 and 1964. Basically, the documents defined several rules on how things should be simplified. the image below shows the character transformation of “Car/Vehicle”, from Oracle Bone Scripts, to Traditional Character, to Simplified Character:


That middle “square” section used to represent wheels in the glyph; and the simplification just replaces it with a simple stroke that maintains the general shape of the character. Another rule of simplification, is using an existing character to replace another more complicated one that have the same pronunciation: 個 -> 个

Because of these rules, the simplification didn’t make the language completely unrecognizable. More importantly, with sufficient context, it’s not hard to infer the characters, like guessing the ? letter in “The apple is r?d”.

Education and exposures help with communication among TC and SC readers. At the moment, Hong Kong and Taiwan use TC predominantly, while most people would learn SC in passing from road signs, commercials and internet. On the mainland, it’s the other way around. One source of TC is fancy calligraphy: because of its “classic” status, a lot of arts and festival banners are usually written in TC. The image below is a list of the same character (“dragon”: in TC; 龙 in SC) in different calligraphy styles:


Personally, when I was a kid, I used to have access to imported comic books (read: manga) from Taiwan, which were purely in TC and the dialogues were written top-to-bottom and right-to-left. As for the characters usage in other regions such as Southeast Asia, I’m not quite familiar with them, so I can’t say anything definitively.

Another note here, due to the intricate relationship between Mainland China and Taiwan/Hong Kong, sometimes, the “feeling” will spread to arguments over which sets of writing is better. There was a somewhat popular Internet post about how the Simplified Chinese are less sophisticated, implying inferiority of its readers. There was then a counter post by mainland people about how some traditional characters are absolutely ridiculous and not even people from Taiwan can write them correctly. My favorite example is the translation of this phrase: “a depressed Taiwanese turtle”:

一只忧郁的台湾乌龟   vs.  一隻憂鬱的臺灣烏龜

An American Chinese Expert in China

I want to credit a Chinese etymology website: which I used to do some of my research and found the OBS images above. The story behind the website is even more interesting than you could imagine.

In 2012, an Oregonian man named Richard Sears suddenly went viral in the Chinese social media. He wanted to learn Chinese in his 20s. He moved to Taiwan, but at age 40, he still considered himself inadequate in the language. He realized the best way for him to learn the language/characters is to understand the etymology of each character. At the time, there were no systematic and authoritative sources for him to do such research, so he wanted to “computerize the origins of Chinese characters”. At age 44, after surviving a near fatal heart attack, he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to this cause, and launched his first website in 2002.

The website pretty much went unnoticed “until one day in 2011, when it suddenly got a lot of attention. I got a few thousand emails and a few million visitors and people started calling me 汉字叔叔 or Uncle Hanzi. I decided to move to China, but things did not go entirely smoothly. I got kicked out of China about a year later because of a visa problem”.

One of his friends then wrote the viral story and helped spread his fame across the entire country, which eventually landed him a job at Beijing Normal University. These days, he would be invited to seminars and TV shows as one of the top linguists in the field. It really is a great achievement for a foreigner like him to do something so important without return for another language. Sometimes when I think of the fact that there are still people like him in this world, my stone cold dead heart feels just a tad less cynical.

Here is an English version of his story, if you would like to know a little bit more about him.

That’s all! Thanks for reading; and feel free to post your thoughts and questions and better yet, topic suggestions. I haven’t been feeling much willingness to continue this series these days for various reason, so I want to thank LibraryLass for inspiring me.

Finally, let me share with you an ancient joke about Chinese characters:

The characters for the numbers “one”, “two” and “three” are: 一, 二, 三 respectively. Once upon a time, there was a child of a rich lord who was learning the language with his teacher. After the teacher taught him these three characters, the child arrogantly decided that he had learnt enough, so the teacher asked the kid to write his own name.

His last name/family name, which comes first in Chinese by the way, is 万 – meaning 10,000. So the kid started writing of course, by drawing strokes after strokes with his writing brush.

The father realized his kid hadn’t come home, so he went to the school to find him. The kid explained to the father what he was doing. The father thought for a moment, then handed him a broom, and said: “Use this! It would be faster!”

Until next time, everyone!