Chinese characters are logograms primarily used in the writing of
Chinese and Japanese. Occasionally, they are also used for writing
Korean, Vietnamese and some other Asian languages. In Standard
Chinese, they are called Hanzi (simplified Chinese: 汉字;
traditional Chinese: 漢字, lit "Han characters"). They have
been adapted to write a number of other Asian languages, including
Korean, where they are known as
Hanja (漢字), Japanese, where they
are known as
Kanji (漢字), Vietnamese, in a system known as Chữ
Nôm, and Zhuang, in a system known as Sawndip. Collectively, they are
known as CJK characters. Occasionally, Vietnamese is also included,
making the abbreviation CJKV, since Vietnamese historically used
Chinese characters as well.
Chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously used system of
writing in the world. By virtue of their widespread current use in
East Asia, and historic use throughout the Sinosphere, Chinese
characters are among the most widely adopted writing systems in the
world by number of users.
Chinese characters number in the tens of thousands, though most of
them are minor graphic variants encountered only in historical texts.
China have shown that functional literacy in written
Chinese requires a knowledge of between three and four thousand
characters. In Japan, 2,136 are taught through secondary school
(the Jōyō kanji); hundreds more are in everyday use. Due to
post-WWII simplifications of
Kanji in Japan, the Chinese characters
Japan today are distinct from those used in
China in many
respects. There are various national standard lists of characters,
forms, and pronunciations. Simplified forms of certain characters are
used in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia; the corresponding
traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and to a
limited extent in South Korea.
In Japan, common characters are written in post-WWII Japan-specific
simplified forms (shinjitai), which are closer to traditional forms
than Chinese simplifications, while uncommon characters are written in
Japanese traditional forms (kyūjitai), which are virtually identical
to Chinese traditional forms. In South Korea, when Chinese characters
are used in traditional form and are essentially identical to those
used in places like
Hong Kong where official writing system
is traditional Chinese. Teaching of
Chinese characters in South Korea
starts in the 7th grade and continues until the 12th grade; a total of
1,800 characters are taught, though these characters are used only in
certain cases (on names, signs, academic papers, historical writings,
etc.) and are slowly declining in use.
Old Chinese (and Classical Chinese, which is based on it), most
words were monosyllabic and there was a close correspondence between
characters and words. In modern Chinese (esp. Mandarin Chinese),
characters do not necessarily correspond to words; indeed the majority
of Chinese words today consist of two or more characters because of
the merging and loss of sounds in the
Chinese language over time.
Rather, a character almost always corresponds to a single syllable
that is also a morpheme. However, there are a few exceptions to
this general correspondence, including bisyllabic morphemes (written
with two characters), bimorphemic syllables (written with two
characters) and cases where a single character represents a
polysyllabic word or phrase.
Modern Chinese has many homophones; thus the same spoken syllable may
be represented by many characters, depending on meaning. A single
character may also have a range of meanings, or sometimes quite
distinct meanings; occasionally these correspond to different
pronunciations. Cognates in the several varieties of Chinese are
generally written with the same character. They typically have similar
meanings, but often quite different pronunciations. In other
languages, most significantly today in Japanese and sometimes in
Korean, characters are used to represent Chinese loanwords, to
represent native words independently of the Chinese pronunciation
(e.g., kunyomi in Japanese), and as purely phonetic elements based on
their pronunciation in the historical variety of Chinese from which
they were acquired. These foreign adaptations of Chinese pronunciation
are known as
Sino-Xenic pronunciations and have been useful in the
reconstruction of Middle Chinese.
2 Principles of formation
2.2 Simple ideograms
2.3 Compound ideograms
2.5 Phono-semantic compounds
2.6 Transformed cognates
3.1 Legendary origins
3.2 Early sign use
Oracle bone script
3.4 Bronze Age: parallel script forms and gradual evolution
3.5 Unification: seal script, vulgar writing and proto-clerical
3.6 Han dynasty
3.6.1 Proto-clerical evolving to clerical
3.6.2 Clerical and clerical cursive
3.7 Wei to Jin period
3.7.1 Regular script
3.7.2 Modern cursive
3.8 Dominance and maturation of regular script
3.9 Modern history
4 Adaptation to other languages
4.5 Other languages
4.6 Transcription of foreign languages
5.1 Simplification in China
5.2 Japanese kanji
5.3 Southeast Asian Chinese communities
5.4 North America
5.5 Comparisons of traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and
6 Written styles
6.2 Typography and design
7.1 Regional standards
7.2 Polysyllabic morphemes
7.3 Polysyllabic characters
7.4 Rare and complex characters
8 Number of characters
8.3 Modern creation
10 See also
12.2 Works cited
13 Further reading
14 External links
When the script was first used in the late 2nd millennium BC, words of
Old Chinese were generally monosyllabic, and each character denoted a
single word. Increasing numbers of polysyllabic words have entered
the language from the
Western Zhou period to the present day. It is
estimated that about 25–30% of the vocabulary of classic texts from
Warring States period
Warring States period was polysyllabic, though these words were
used far less commonly than monosyllables, which accounted for
80–90% of occurrences in these texts. The process has
accelerated over the centuries as phonetic change has increased the
number of homophones. It has been estimated that over two thirds
of the 3,000 most common words in modern
Standard Chinese are
polysyllables, the vast majority of those being disyllables.
The most common process has been to form compounds of existing words,
written with the characters of the constituent words. Words have also
been created by adding affixes, reduplication and borrowing from other
languages. Polysyllabic words are generally written with one
character per syllable.[a] In most cases the character denotes a
morpheme descended from an
Old Chinese word.
Many characters have multiple readings, with instances denoting
different morphemes, sometimes with different pronunciations. In
modern Standard Chinese, one fifth of the 2,400 most common characters
have multiple pronunciations. For the 500 most common characters, the
proportion rises to 30%. Often these readings are similar in sound
and related in meaning. In the
Old Chinese period, affixes could be
added to a word to form a new word, which was often written with the
same character. In many cases the pronunciations diverged due to
subsequent sound change. For example, many additional readings have
Middle Chinese departing tone, the major source of the 4th tone in
modern Standard Chinese. Scholars now believe that this tone is the
reflex of an
Old Chinese *-s suffix, with a range of semantic
functions. For example,
传/傳 has readings OC *drjon > MC drjwen > Mod. chuán 'to
transmit' and *drjons > drjwenH > zhuàn 'a record'. (Middle
Chinese forms are given in Baxter's transcription, in which H denotes
the departing tone.)
磨 has readings *maj > ma > mó 'to grind' and *majs > maH
> mò 'grindstone'.
宿 has readings *sjuk > sjuwk > sù 'to stay overnight' and
*sjuks > sjuwH > xiù 'celestial "mansion"'.
说/説 has readings *hljot > sywet > shuō 'speak' and *hljots
> sywejH > shuì 'exhort'.
Another common alternation is between voiced and voiceless initials
(though the voicing distinction has disappeared on most modern
varieties). This is believed to reflect an ancient prefix, but
scholars disagree on whether the voiced or voiceless form is the
original root. For example,
见/見 has readings *kens > kenH > jiàn 'to see' and *gens
> henH > xiàn 'to appear'.
败/敗 has readings *prats > pæjH > bài 'to defeat' and
*brats > bæjH > bài 'to be defeated'. (In this case the
pronunciations have converged in Standard Chinese, but not in some
折 has readings *tjat > tsyet > zhé 'to bend' and *djat >
dzyet > shé 'to break by bending'.
Principles of formation
Excerpt from a 1436 primer on Chinese characters
Main article: Chinese character classification
Evolution of Pictograms
Chinese characters represent words of the language using several
strategies. A few characters, including some of the most commonly
used, were originally pictograms, which depicted the objects denoted,
or ideograms, in which meaning was expressed iconically. The vast
majority were written using the rebus principle, in which a character
for a similarly sounding word was either simply borrowed or (more
commonly) extended with a disambiguating semantic marker to form a
phono-semantic compound character.
The traditional six-fold classification (liùshū 六书 / 六書 "six
writings") was first described by the scholar
Xu Shen in the postface
of his dictionary
Shuowen Jiezi in 100 AD. While this analysis is
sometimes problematic and arguably fails to reflect the complete
nature of the Chinese writing system, it has been perpetuated by its
long history and pervasive use.
Pictograms make up only a small portion of Chinese characters.
Characters in this class derive from pictures of the objects they
denote. Over time 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" or "wood".
There is no concrete number for the proportion of modern characters
that are pictographic in nature; however,
Xu Shen placed approximately
4% of characters in this category.
Also called simple indicatives, this small category contains
characters that are direct iconic illustrations. Examples include 上
shàng "up" and 下 xià "down", originally a dot above and below a
会意字 / 會意字 huìyìzì
Also translated as logical aggregates or associative compounds, these
characters have been interpreted as combining two or more pictographic
or ideographic characters to suggest a third meaning. Commonly cited
examples include 休 "rest" (composed of the pictograms 人 "person"
and 木 "tree") and 好 "good" (composed of 女 "woman" and 子
Xu Shen placed approximately 13% of characters in this category.
However, many of these characters are now believed to be
phono-semantic compounds whose origin has been obscured by subsequent
changes in their form. Some scholars reject the applicability of
this category to any of the compound characters devised in ancient
times, maintaining that now-lost "secondary readings" are responsible
for the apparent absence of phonetic indicators.
In contrast, ideographic compounds are common among characters coined
in Japan. Also, a few characters coined in
China in modern times, such
as 鉑 platinum, "white metal" (see chemical elements in East Asian
languages) belong to this category.
Also called borrowings or phonetic loan characters, the rebus category
covers cases where an existing character is used to represent an
unrelated word with similar or identical 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".
Rebus was pivotal in the history of writing in
China insofar as it
represented the stage at which logographic writing could become purely
Chinese characters used purely for their
sound values are attested in the Chun Qiu 春秋 and Zhan Guo 戰國
manuscripts, in which zhi 氏 was used to write shi 是 and vice
versa, just lines apart; the same happened with shao 勺 for Zhao 趙,
with the characters in question being homophonous or nearly
homophonous at the time.
形声字 / 形聲字 xíngshēngzì
Structures of compounds, with red marked positions of radicals
Semantic-phonetic compounds or pictophonetic compounds are by far the
most numerous characters. These characters are composed of two parts:
one of a limited set of characters (the semantic indicator, often
graphically simplified) which suggests the general meaning of the
compound character, and another character (the phonetic indicator)
whose pronunciation suggests the pronunciation of the compound
character. In most cases the semantic indicator is also the radical
under which the character is listed in dictionaries.
Examples are 河 hé "river", 湖 hú "lake", 流 liú "stream", 沖
chōng "surge", 滑 huá "slippery". All these characters have on the
left a radical of three short strokes (氵), which is a reduced form
of the character 水 shuǐ meaning "water", 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 沖
Old Chinese *ɡ-ljuŋ) "surge", the phonetic indicator is
中 zhōng (
Old Chinese *k-ljuŋ), which by itself means "middle".
In this case it can be seen that the pronunciation of the character is
slightly different from that of its phonetic indicator; the effect of
historical sound change means that the composition of such characters
can sometimes seem arbitrary today.
Xu Shen (c. 100 AD) placed approximately 82% of characters into this
category, while in the
Kangxi Dictionary (1716 AD) the number is
closer to 90%, due to the extremely productive use of this technique
to extend the Chinese vocabulary. The Chu Nom
Vietnam were created using this principle.
This method is used to form new characters, for example 钚 / 鈈 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. In fact,
it is possible to tell from a Chinese periodic table at a glance which
elements are metal (金), solid nonmetal (石, "stone"), liquid (氵),
or gas (气).
Occasionally a bisyllabic word is written with two characters that
contain the same radical, as in 蝴蝶 húdié "butterfly", where both
characters have the insect radical 虫. A notable example is pipa (a
Chinese lute, also a fruit, the loquat, of similar shape) –
originally written as 批把 with the hand radical (扌) , referring
to the down and up strokes when playing this instrument, which was
then changed to 枇杷 (tree radical 木), which is still used for the
fruit, while the character was changed to 琵琶 when referring to the
instrument (radical 玨) . In other cases a compound word may
coincidentally share a radical without this being meaningful.
转注字 / 轉注字 zhuǎnzhùzì
The smallest category of characters is also the least understood.
In the postface to the Shuowen Jiezi,
Xu Shen gave as an example the
characters 考 kǎo "to verify" and 老 lǎo "old", which had similar
Old Chinese pronunciations (*khuʔ and *c-ruʔ respectively) and
may once have been the same word, meaning "elderly person", but became
lexicalized into two separate words. The term does not appear in the
body of the dictionary, and is often omitted from modern systems.
According to legend,
Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie, a
bureaucrat under the legendary Yellow Emperor. Inspired by his study
of the animals of the world, the landscape of the earth and the stars
in the sky,
Cangjie is said to have invented symbols called zì (字)
– the first Chinese characters. The legend relates that on the day
the characters were created, people heard ghosts wailing and saw crops
falling like rain.
Early sign use
Neolithic signs in China
In recent decades, a series of inscribed graphs and pictures have been
Neolithic sites in China, including
Jiahu (c. 6500 BC),
Damaidi from the 6th millennium BC, and
millennium BC). Often these finds are accompanied by media reports
that push back the purported beginnings of Chinese writing by
thousands of years. However, because these marks occur singly,
without any implied context, and are made crudely and simply, Qiu
Xigui concluded that "we do not have any basis for stating that these
constituted writing nor is there reason to conclude that they were
Shang dynasty Chinese characters." They do however
demonstrate a history of sign use in the
Yellow River valley during
Neolithic through to the Shang period.
Oracle bone script
Oracle bone script
Ox scapula with oracle bone inscription
The earliest confirmed evidence of the Chinese script yet discovered
is the body of inscriptions carved on oracle bones from the late Shang
dynasty (c. 1200–1050 BC). In 1899, pieces of these bones
were being sold as "dragon bones" for medicinal purposes, when
scholars identified the symbols on them as Chinese writing. By 1928,
the source of the bones had been traced to a village near
Henan Province, which was excavated by the
Academia Sinica between
1928 and 1937. Over 150,000 fragments have been found.
Oracle bone inscriptions are records of divinations performed in
communication with royal ancestral spirits. The shortest are only
a few characters long, while the longest are thirty to forty
characters in length. The Shang king would communicate with his
ancestors on topics relating to the royal family, military success,
weather forecasting, ritual sacrifices, and related topics by means of
scapulimancy, and the answers would be recorded on the divination
The oracle-bone script is a well-developed writing system,
suggesting that the Chinese script's origins may lie earlier than the
late second millennium BC. Although these divinatory inscriptions
are the earliest surviving evidence of ancient Chinese writing, it is
widely believed that writing was used for many other non-official
purposes, but that the materials upon which non-divinatory writing was
done – likely wood and bamboo – were less durable than bone and
shell and have since decayed away.
Bronze Age: parallel script forms and gradual evolution
Main article: Chinese bronze inscriptions
The traditional picture of an orderly series of scripts, each one
invented suddenly and then completely displacing the previous one, has
been conclusively demonstrated to be fiction by the archaeological
finds and scholarly research of the later 20th and early 21st
centuries. Gradual evolution and the coexistence of two or more
scripts was more often the case. As early as the Shang dynasty,
oracle-bone script coexisted as a simplified form alongside the normal
script of bamboo books (preserved in typical bronze inscriptions), as
well as the extra-elaborate pictorial forms (often clan emblems) found
on many bronzes.
Left: Bronze fāngzūn (方樽) ritual wine container dated about 1000
BC. The written inscription cast in bronze on the vessel commemorates
a gift of cowrie shells (then used as currency in China) from someone
of presumably elite status in
Zhou dynasty society. Right: Bronze
fāngyí (方彝) ritual container dated about 1000 BC. A written
inscription of some 180
Chinese characters appears twice on the
vessel. The written inscription comments on state rituals that
accompanied court ceremony, recorded by an official scribe.
Based on studies of these bronze inscriptions, it is clear that, from
Shang dynasty writing to that of the
Western Zhou and early
Eastern Zhou, the mainstream script evolved in a slow, unbroken
fashion, until assuming the form that is now known as seal script in
Eastern Zhou in the state of Qin, without any clear line of
division. Meanwhile, other scripts had evolved, especially in
the eastern and southern areas during the late Zhou dynasty, including
regional forms, such as the gǔwén ("ancient forms") of the eastern
Warring States preserved as variant forms in the
Han dynasty character
dictionary Shuowen Jiezi, as well as decorative forms such as bird and
Unification: seal script, vulgar writing and proto-clerical
Seal script, which had evolved slowly in the state of Qin during the
Eastern Zhou dynasty, became standardized and adopted as the formal
script for all of
China in the
Qin 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
Han dynasty period. However, despite the Qin 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 Qin state, and the popularity of this vulgar
writing grew as the use of writing itself became more widespread.
Warring States period, an immature form of clerical script
called "early clerical" or "proto-clerical" had already developed in
the state of Qin based upon this 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 Qin to early Han dynasties into clerical
script – runs counter to the traditional belief that the Qin dynasty
had one script only, and that clerical script was suddenly invented in
Han dynasty from the small seal script.
Proto-clerical evolving to clerical
Proto-clerical script, which had emerged by the time of the Warring
States period from vulgar Qin writing, matured gradually, and by the
early Western Han period, it was little different from that of the
Qin. Recently discovered bamboo slips show the script becoming
mature clerical script by the middle-to-late reign of Emperor Wu of
the Western Han, who ruled from 141 to 87 BC.
Clerical and clerical cursive
Contrary to the popular belief of there being only one script per
period, there were in fact multiple scripts in use during the Han
period. 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 by the Han by at least as early as 24
BC (during the very late Western Han period),[b] incorporating cursive
forms popular at the time, well as many elements from the vulgar
writing of the Warring State of Qin. By around the time of the
Eastern Jin dynasty, this Han 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",
arose because the script was a more orderly form of cursive than
the modern form, which emerged during the Eastern Jin dynasty and is
still in use today, called 今草 jīncǎo or "modern cursive".
Around the mid-
Eastern Han period, a simplified and
easier-to-write form of clerical script appeared, which Qiu terms
"neo-clerical" (新隶体 / 新隸體, xīnlìtǐ). By the late
Eastern Han, this had become the dominant daily script, although
the formal, mature bāfēn (八分) clerical script remained in use
for formal works such as engraved stelae. Qiu describes this
neo-clerical script as a transition between clerical and regular
script, and it remained in use through the
Cao Wei and Jin
By the late
Eastern Han period, an early form of semi-cursive script
appeared, developing out of a cursively written form of
neo-clerical script[c] and simple cursive. This semi-cursive
script was traditionally attributed to Liu Desheng c. 147–188
AD,[d] 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. Qiu gives examples of early
semi-cursive script, showing that it had popular origins rather than
being purely Liu’s invention.
Wei to Jin period
Regular script has been attributed to Zhong Yao, of the
Eastern Han to
Cao Wei period (c. 151–230 AD), who has been called the "father of
regular script". However, some scholars postulate that one person
alone could not have developed a new script which was universally
adopted, but could only have been a contributor to its gradual
formation. The earliest surviving pieces written in regular script are
copies of Yao's works, including at least one copied by Wang Xizhi.
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 (頓/顿 dùn) technique to end horizontal
strokes, plus heavy tails on strokes which are written to the
downward-right diagonal. Thus, early regular script emerged from a
neat, formal form of semi-cursive, which had itself emerged from
neo-clerical (a simplified, convenient form of clerical script). It
then matured further in the Eastern Jin dynasty in the hands of the
"Sage of Calligraphy", Wang Xizhi, and his son Wang Xianzhi. It was
not, however, in widespread use at that time, and most writers
continued using neo-clerical, or a somewhat semi-cursive form of it,
for daily writing, while the conservative bafen clerical script
remained in use on some stelae, alongside some semi-cursive, but
Meanwhile, modern cursive script slowly emerged from the clerical
cursive (zhāngcǎo) script during the
Cao Wei to Jin period, under
the influence of both semi-cursive and the newly emerged regular
script. Cursive was formalized in the hands of a few master
calligraphers, the most famous and influential of whom was Wang
Dominance and maturation of regular script
It was not until the
Northern and Southern dynasties
Northern and Southern dynasties that regular
script rose to dominant status. During that period, regular script
continued evolving stylistically, reaching full maturity in the early
Tang dynasty. Some call the writing of the early Tang calligrapher
Ouyang Xun (557–641) the first mature regular 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
China in the 1950s and 60s, character simplification
predates the republic's formation in 1949. One of the earliest
proponents of character simplification was Lufei Kui, who proposed in
1909 that simplified characters should be used in education. In the
years following the
May Fourth Movement
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 many 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,
"Han unification" was an effort by the authors of
Unicode and the
Universal Character Set to map multiple character sets of the
so-called CJK languages (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) into a single set of
unified characters and was completed for the purposes of
Adaptation to other languages
See also: Chinese family of scripts
The Chinese script spread to
Korea together with Buddhism from the 2nd
century BC to 5th century AD (hanja). The Japanese kanji were
adopted for recording the
Japanese language from the 5th century
Chinese characters were first used in
Vietnam during the millennium of
Chinese rule starting in 111 BC. They were used to write Classical
Chinese and adapted around the 13th century to create the
to write Vietnamese.
Currently, the only non-
Chinese language outside of
Chinese characters is Japanese.
Vietnam abandoned their
use in the early 20th century in favour of a Latin-based script, and
Korea in the late 20th century in favour of its homegrown hangul
script, although as
Korea switched much more recently, many Koreans
still learn them to read texts written before then, or in some cases
to disambiguate homophones.
Main article: Kanji
Chinese characters adapted to write Japanese words are known as kanji.
Chinese words borrowed into Japanese could be written with Chinese
characters, while native Japanese words could also be written using
the character(s) for a Chinese word of similar meaning. Most kanji
have both the native (and often multi-syllabic) Japanese
pronunciation, or the kun'yomi, and the (mono-syllabic) Chinese-based
pronunciation, or the on'yomi. For example, the native Japanese word
katana is written as 刀 in kanji, which uses the kanji's kun'yomi
since the word is native to Japanese, while the Chinese loanword
nihontō (meaning "Japanese sword") is written as 日本刀, which
uses the on'yomi of each character. While nowadays loanwords from
non-Sinosphere languages are usually just written in katakana, one of
the two syllabary systems of Japanese, loanwords that were borrowed
into Japanese before the Meiji Period were typically written with
Chinese characters whose on'yomi had the same pronunciation as the
loanword itself, words like Amerika (kanji: 亜米利加, katakana:
アメリカ, meaning: America), karuta (kanji: 歌留多, 加留多,
katakana: カルタ, meaning: card, letter), and tempura (kanji:
天婦羅, 天麩羅, katakana: テンプラ, meaning: tempura),
although the meanings of the kanji used often had no relation to the
Kanji that are used to only represent the sounds of
a word are called ateji. While foreign loanwords in Japanese words are
usually written only in kana, there are some words that normally use
ateji to this day, like kurabu (ateji: 俱楽部, katakana: クラブ,
meaning: club) and sushi (ateji: 寿司, katakana: スシ), which are
done partially due to China's rapid economic growth and the increase
of Chinese tourism in Japan. Because there have been multiple layers
of borrowing into Japanese, a single character may have several
readings in Japanese.
Written Japanese also includes a pair of syllabaries known as kana,
derived by simplifying
Chinese characters selected to represent
syllables of Japanese. The syllabaries differ because they sometimes
selected different characters for a syllable, and because they used
different strategies to reduce these characters for easy writing: the
angular katakana were obtained by selecting a part of each character,
while hiragana were derived from the cursive forms of whole
characters. Modern Japanese writing uses a composite system, using
kanji for word stems, hiragana for inflexional endings and grammatical
words, and katakana to transcribe non-Chinese loanwords as well as
serve as a method to emphasize native words (similar to how italics
are used in Romance languages).
Main article: Hanja
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 Modern Standard Korean, as
the words were imported from Chinese, many dissimilar characters and
syllables took on identical pronunciations, 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 by many Koreans 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, 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
present, middle and high school students (grades 7 to 12) are taught
1,800 characters, albeit with the principal focus on recognition,
with the aim of achieving newspaper literacy.
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
(although it is nowhere near the extent of kanji use in day-to-day
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"
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. While hanja is sometimes used for Sino-Korean vocabulary,
native Korean words are rarely, if ever, written in hanja.
When learning how to write hanja, students are taught to memorize the
native Korean pronunciation for the hanja's meaning and the
Sino-Korean pronunciations (the pronunciation based on the Chinese
pronunciation of the characters) for each hanja respectively so that
students know what the syllable and meaning is for a particular hanja.
For example, the name for the hanja 水 is 물 수 (mul-su) in which
물 (mul) is the native Korean pronunciation for "water", while 수
(su) is the Sino-Korean pronunciation of the character. The naming of
hanja is similar to if "water" were named "water-aqua", "horse-equus",
or "gold-aurum" based on a hybridization of both the English and the
Latin names. Other examples include 사람 인 (saram-in) for 人
"person/people", 큰 대 (keun-dae) for 大 "big/large//great", 작을
소 (jakeul-so) for 小 "small/little", 아래 하 (arae-ha) for 下
"underneath/below/low", 아비 부 (abi-bu) for 父 "father", and
나라이름 한 (naraireum-han) for 韓 "Han/Korea".
In North Korea, the hanja system was once completely banned since June
1949 due to fears of collapsed containment of the country; during the
Kim Il Sung
Kim Il Sung had condemned all sorts of foreign languages (even
the newly proposed New Korean Orthography). The ban continued into the
21st century. However, a textbook for university history departments
containing 3,323 distinct characters was published in 1971. In the
1990s, school children were still expected to learn 2,000 characters
(more than in
South Korea or Japan).
After Kim Jong Il, the second ruler of North Korea, died in December
Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un stepped up and began mandating the use of
Hanja as a
source of definition for the Korean language. Currently, it is said
Korea teaches around 3,000
Hanja characters to North Korean
students, and in some cases, the characters appear within
advertisements and newspapers. However, it is also said that the
authorities implore students not to use the characters in public.
Due to North Korea's strict isolationism, accurate reports about hanja
use in North
Korea are hard to obtain.
Main article: Okinawan language
Chinese characters are thought to have been first introduced to the
Ryukyu Islands in 1265 by a Japanese Buddhist monk. After the
Okinawan kingdoms became tributaries of Ming China, especially the
Classical Chinese was used in court documents, but
hiragana was mostly used for popular writing and poetry. After Ryukyu
became a vassal of Japan's Satsuma Domain,
Chinese characters became
more popular, as well as the use of Kanbun. In modern Okinawan, which
is labeled as a
Japanese dialect by the Japanese government, katakana
and hiragana are mostly used to write Okinawan, but Chinese characters
are still used.
Chữ Nôm and
History of writing
History of writing in Vietnam
"My mother eats vegetarian food at the pagoda every Sunday", written
in the modern
Vietnamese alphabet (blue) and Nom. Characters borrowed
unchanged from Chinese are shown in green, while invented characters
Chinese characters in
Vietnam are now limited to ceremonial
uses, they were once in widespread use. Until the early 20th century,
Literary Chinese was used in
Vietnam for all official and scholarly
writing. Around the 13th century the
Nôm script was developed to
record folk literature in the Vietnamese language. The script used
Chinese characters to represent both borrowed Sino-Vietnamese
vocabulary and native words with similar pronunciation or meaning. In
addition thousands of new compound characters were created to write
Vietnamese words. This process resulted in a highly complex system
that was never mastered by more than 5% of the population. Both
Literary Chinese and
Nôm were replaced in the early 20th century by
Vietnamese written with the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet.
Several minority languages of south and southwest
China were formerly
written with scripts based on
Chinese characters but also including
many locally created characters. The most extensive is the sawndip
script for the
Zhuang language of
Guangxi which is still used to this
day. Other languages written with such scripts include Miao, Yao,
Bouyei, Mulam, Kam, Bai and Hani. All these languages are now written
using Latin-based scripts, while
Chinese characters are still used for
the Mulam language.
The foreign dynasties that ruled northern
China between the 10th and
13th centuries developed scripts that were inspired by Chinese
characters but did not use them directly: the Khitan large script,
Khitan small script,
Tangut script and Jurchen script. Other scripts
China that borrowed or adapted a few
Chinese characters but are
otherwise distinct include Geba script, Sui script,
Yi script and the
Transcription of foreign languages
Main article: Transcription into Chinese characters
Mongolian text from
The Secret History of the Mongols
The Secret History of the Mongols in Chinese
transcription, with a glossary on the right of each row
Along with Persian and Arabic,
Chinese characters were also used as a
foreign script to write the Mongolian language, where characters were
used to phonetically transcribe Mongolian sounds. Most notably, the
only surviving copies of
The Secret History of the Mongols
The Secret History of the Mongols were
written in such a manner; the
Chinese characters 忙豁侖紐察
脫[卜]察安 (pinyin: mánghuōlúnniǔchá tuō[bo]chá'ān) is the
rendering of Mongγol-un niγuca tobčiyan, the title in Mongolian.
Chinese characters were also used to phonetically transcribe the
Manchu language in the Qing dynasty.
According to the Rev. John Gulick: "The inhabitants of other Asiatic
nations, who have had occasion to represent the words of their several
languages by Chinese characters, have as a rule used unaspirated
characters for the sounds, g, d, b. The Muslims from Arabia and Persia
have followed this method … The Mongols, Manchu, and Japanese also
constantly select unaspirated characters to represent the sounds g, d,
b, and j of their languages. These surrounding Asiatic nations, in
writing Chinese words in their own alphabets, have uniformly used g,
d, b, etc., to represent the unaspirated sounds."
Simplified Chinese character and Japanese script reform
Chinese character simplification is the overall reduction of the
number of strokes in the regular script of a set of Chinese
Simplification in China
The use of traditional
Chinese characters versus simplified Chinese
characters varies greatly, and can depend on both the local customs
and the medium. Before the official reform, character simplifications
were not officially sanctioned and generally adopted vulgar variants
and idiosyncratic substitutions. Orthodox variants were mandatory in
printed works, while the (unofficial) simplified characters would be
used in everyday writing or quick notes. Since the 1950s, and
especially with the publication of the 1964 list, the People's
China has officially adopted simplified Chinese characters
for use in mainland China, while Hong Kong, Macau, and the Republic of
China (Taiwan) were not affected by the reform. 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.
Although most often associated with the People's Republic of China,
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 Communist Party of China)
also nursed aspirations of some for the adoption of a phonetic script
based on the Latin script, and spawned such inventions as the Gwoyeu
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. 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.
The majority of simplified characters are drawn from conventional
abbreviated forms, or ancient standard forms. For example, the
orthodox 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 fewer 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 Shang
dynasty, and had remained in use later as a phonetic loan in the
meaning of "to say" while the 雨 radical was added to differentiate
meanings. The simplified form adopts the original structure.
Main articles: Kanji, Tōyō kanji, Jōyō kanji, and Shinjitai
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, the
1945-character jōyō kanji (常用漢字) list in 1981, and a
2136-character reformed version of the jōyō kanji in 2010. 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
latter, see jinmeiyō kanji), as well as for some
common words such as "dragon" (竜/龍, tatsu) in which both old and
new forms of the kanji are both acceptable and widely known amongst
native Japanese speakers.
Southeast Asian Chinese communities
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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 People's Republic of
China in their entirety as official, and
has implemented them in the educational system. However, unlike in
China, personal names may still be registered in traditional
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
In the Philippines, most Chinese schools and businesses still use the
traditional characters and bopomofo, owing from influence from the
China (Taiwan) due to the shared
Recently, however, more Chinese schools now use both simplified
characters and pinyin. Since most readers of Chinese newspapers in the
Philippines belong to the older generation, they are still published
largely using traditional characters.
Public and private Chinese signage in the United States and Canada
most often use traditional characters. There is some effort to get
municipal governments to implement more simplified character signage
due to recent immigration from mainland China. Most community
newspapers printed in North America are also printed in traditional
Comparisons of traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and
The following is a comparison of
Chinese characters in the Standard
Form of National Characters, a common traditional Chinese standard
used in Taiwan, the Table of General
Standard Chinese Characters, the
standard for Mainland Chinese simplified Chinese characters, and the
jōyō kanji, the standard for Japanese kanji. Generally, the jōyō
kanji are more similar to traditional
Chinese characters than
Chinese characters are to traditional Chinese characters.
"Simplified" refers to having significant differences from the Taiwan
standard, not necessarily being a newly created character or a newly
performed substitution. The characters in the
Hong Kong standard and
Kangxi Dictionary are also known as "Traditional," but are not
Comparisons of a sample of traditional Chinese characters, simplified
Chinese characters, and simplified Japanese characters in their modern
Simplified in mainland China, not Japan
(Some radicals were simplified)
red (crimson in Japanese)
Simplified in Japan, not Mainland China
(In some cases this represents the adoption
of different variants as standard)
kowtow, pray to, worship
Simplified differently in Mainland
China and Japan
to close, relationship
Simplified (almost) identically in Mainland
China and Japan
old, bygone, past
can (verb), meeting
Main article: Chinese script styles
Sample of the cursive script by Chinese
Tang dynasty calligrapher Sun
Guoting, c. 650 AD
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.
Shang dynasty oracle bone script and the
Zhou dynasty scripts
Chinese bronze inscriptions
Chinese bronze inscriptions are no longer used; the oldest
script that is still in use today is the
Seal Script (篆書(书),
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 used only 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"
(隸書(隶书), lìshū) of the
Qin dynasty to the Han dynasty, the
Weibei (魏碑, wèibēi), the "Regular Script" (楷書(书),
kǎishū), which is used mostly for printing, and the "Semi-cursive
Script" (行書(书), xíngshū), used mostly for handwriting.
The cursive script (草書(书), cǎoshū, literally "grass script")
is used informally. The basic character shapes are suggested, rather
than explicitly realized, and the abbreviations are sometimes 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
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
Main article: Chinese calligraphy
Chinese calligraphy of mixed styles written by Song dynasty
(1051–1108 AD) poet Mifu. For centuries, the Chinese literati were
expected to master the art of calligraphy.
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.
Typography and design
A page from a
Ming dynasty edition of the Book of Qi
The first four characters of
Thousand Character Classic
Thousand Character Classic in different
typeface styles script styles and type styles. From right to left:
seal script, clerical script, regular script, Ming and sans-serif.
A page from a
Song dynasty publication in a regular script typeface
which resembles the handwriting of Ouyang Xun.
There are three major families of typefaces used in Chinese
Ming and sans-serif are the most popular in body text and are based on
regular script for
Chinese characters akin to Western serif and
sans-serif typefaces, respectively.
Regular script typefaces emulate
The Song typeface (宋体 / 宋體, sòngtǐ) is known as the Ming
typeface (明朝, minchō) in Japan, and it is also somewhat more
commonly known as the Ming typeface (明体 / 明體, míngtǐ) than
the Song typeface in
Taiwan and Hong Kong. The names of these styles
come from the Song and Ming dynasties, when block printing flourished
Sans-serif typefaces, called black typeface (黑体 / 黑體, hēitǐ)
in Chinese and Gothic typeface (ゴシック体) in Japanese, are
characterized by simple lines of even thickness for each stroke, akin
to sans-serif styles such as
Helvetica in Western
Regular script typefaces are also commonly used, but not as common as
Ming or sans-serif typefaces for body text.
Regular script typefaces
are often used to teach students Chinese characters, and often aim to
match the standard forms of the region where they are meant to be
used. Most typefaces in the
Song dynasty were regular script typefaces
which resembled a particular person's handwriting (e.g. the
handwriting of Ouyang Xun, Yan Zhenqing, or Liu Gongquan), while most
modern regular script typefaces tend toward anonymity and regularity.
Main article: Variant Chinese character
Variants of the Chinese character for guī 'turtle', collected c. 1800
from printed sources. The one at left is the traditional form used
Taiwan and Hong Kong, 龜, though 龜 may look slightly
different, or even like the second variant from the left, depending on
your font (see Wiktionary). The modern simplified forms used in China,
龟, and in Japan, 亀, are most similar to the variant in the middle
of the bottom row, though neither is identical. A few more closely
resemble the modern simplified form of the character for diàn
Five of the 30 variant characters found in the preface of the Imperial
(Kangxi) Dictionary which are not found in the dictionary itself. They
are 為 (爲) wèi "due to", 此 cǐ "this", 所 suǒ "place", 能
néng "be able to", 兼 jiān "concurrently". (Although the form of
為 is not very different, and in fact is used today in Japan, the
radical 爪 has been obliterated.) Another variant from the preface,
来 for 來 lái "to come", also not listed in the dictionary, has
been adopted as the standard in Mainland
China and Japan.
The character 次 in Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Japanese, and
Korean. If you have an appropriate font installed, you can see the
corresponding character in Vietnamese: 次.
Just as Roman letters have a characteristic shape (lower-case letters
mostly occupying the x-height, with ascenders or descenders on some
Chinese characters occupy a more or less square area in
which the components of every character are written to fit in order to
maintain a uniform size and shape, especially with small printed
characters in Ming and sans-serif styles. Because of this, beginners
often practise writing on squared graph paper, and the Chinese
sometimes use the term "Square-Block Characters" (方块字 /
方塊字, fāngkuàizì), sometimes translated as tetragraph, in
reference to Chinese characters.
Despite standardization, some nonstandard forms are commonly used,
especially in handwriting. In older sources, even authoritative ones,
variant characters are commonplace. For example, in the preface to the
Imperial Dictionary, there are 30 variant characters which are not
found in the dictionary itself. A few of these are reproduced at
The nature of
Chinese characters makes it very easy to produce
allographs (variants) for many characters, and there have been many
efforts at orthographical standardization throughout history. In
recent times, the widespread usage of the characters in several
nations has prevented any particular system becoming universally
adopted and the standard form of many
Chinese characters thus varies
in different regions.
China adopted simplified
Chinese characters in 1956. They are
also used in
Singapore and Malaysia.
Traditional Chinese characters
are used in Hong Kong,
Macau and Taiwan. Postwar
Japan has used its
own less drastically simplified characters, Shinjitai, since 1946,
South Korea has limited its use of Chinese characters, and
Vietnam and North
Korea have completely abolished their use in favour
Vietnamese alphabet and Hangul, respectively.
The standard character forms of each region are described in:
List of Frequently Used Characters in Modern Chinese
List of Frequently Used Characters in Modern Chinese for Mainland
List of Forms of Frequently Used Characters for Hong Kong.
Standard Form of National Characters
Standard Form of National Characters for Taiwan.
The list of
Jōyō kanji for Japan.
Han-Han Dae Sajeon
Han-Han Dae Sajeon (de facto) for Korea.
In addition to strictness in character size and shape, Chinese
characters are written with very precise rules. The most important
rules regard the strokes employed, stroke placement, and stroke order.
Just as each region that uses
Chinese characters has standardized
character forms, each also has standardized stroke orders, with each
standard being different. Most characters can be written with just one
correct stroke order, though some words also have many valid stroke
orders, which may occasionally result in different stroke counts. Some
characters are also written with different stroke orders due to
Chinese characters are primarily morphosyllabic, meaning that most
Chinese morphemes are monosyllabic and are written with a single
character, though in modern Chinese most words are disyllabic and
dimorphemic, consisting of two syllables, each of which is a morpheme.
In modern Chinese 10% of morphemes only occur as part of a given
compound. However, a few morphemes are disyllabic, some of them dating
back to Classical Chinese. Excluding foreign loan words, these are
typically words for plants and small animals. They are usually written
with a pair of phono-semantic compound characters sharing a common
radical. Examples are 蝴蝶 húdié "butterfly" and 珊瑚 shānhú
"coral". Note that the 蝴 hú of húdié and the 瑚 hú of shānhú
have the same phonetic, 胡, but different radicals ("insect" and
"jade", respectively). Neither exists as an independent morpheme
except as a poetic abbreviation of the disyllabic word.
In certain cases compound words and set phrases may be contracted into
single characters. Some of these can be considered logograms, where
characters represent whole words rather than syllable-morphemes,
though these are generally instead considered ligatures or
abbreviations (similar to scribal abbreviations, such as & for
"et"), and as non-standard. These do see use, particularly in
handwriting or decoration, but also in some cases in print. In
Chinese, these ligatures are called héwén (合文), héshū (合書)
or hétǐzì (合体字), and in the special case of combining two
characters, these are known as "two-syllable Chinese characters"
A commonly seen example is the double happiness symbol 囍, formed as
a ligature of 喜喜 and referred to by its disyllabic name
(simplified Chinese: 双喜; traditional Chinese: 雙喜; pinyin:
shuāngxǐ). In handwriting, numbers are very frequently squeezed into
one space or combined – common ligatures include 廿 niàn,
"twenty", normally read as 二十 èrshí, 卅 sà, "thirty", normally
read as 三十 sānshí, and 卌 xì "forty", normally read as 四十
"sìshí". Calendars often use numeral ligatures in order to save
space; for example, the "21st of March" can be read as 三月廿一.
In some cases counters are also merged into one character, such as
七十人 qīshí rén "seventy people". Another common abbreviation
is 门 with a "T" written inside it, for 問題, 问题, wèntí
("question; problem"), where the "T" is from pinyin for the second
syllable tí 题. Since polysyllabic characters are often
non-standard, they are often excluded in character dictionaries.
Modern examples particularly include
Chinese characters for SI units.
In Chinese these units are disyllabic and standardly written with two
characters, as 厘米 límǐ "centimeter" (厘 centi-, 米 meter) or
千瓦 qiānwǎ "kilowatt". However, in the 19th century these were
often written via compound characters, pronounced disyllabically, such
as 瓩 for 千瓦 or 糎 for 厘米 – some of these characters were
also used in Japan, where they were pronounced with borrowed European
readings instead. These have now fallen out of general use, but are
occasionally seen. Less systematic examples include 圕 túshūguǎn
"library", a contraction of 圖書館, A four-morpheme word,
社会主义 shèhuì zhǔyì "socialism", is
commonly[weasel words] written with a single character formed by
combining the last character, 义, with the radical of the first, 社,
yielding roughly 礻义.
The use of such contractions is as old as Chinese characters
themselves, and they have frequently been found in religious or ritual
use. In the Oracle Bone script, personal names, ritual items, and even
phrases such as 受又(祐) shòu yòu "receive blessings" are
commonly contracted into single characters. A dramatic example is that
in medieval manuscripts 菩薩 púsà "bodhisattva" (simplified:
菩萨) is sometimes written with a single character formed of a 2×2
grid of four 十 (derived from the grass radical over two 十).
However, for the sake of consistency and standardization, the CPC
seeks to limit the use of such polysyllabic characters in public
writing to ensure that every character only has one syllable.
Conversely, with the fusion of the diminutive -er suffix in Mandarin,
some monosyllabic words may even be written with two characters, as in
花儿 huār "flower", which was formerly disyllabic.
In most other languages that use the Chinese family of scripts,
notably Korean, Vietnamese, and Zhuang,
Chinese characters are
typically monosyllabic, but in Japanese a single character is
generally used to represent a borrowed monosyllabic Chinese morpheme
(the on'yomi), an polysyllabic native Japanese morpheme (the
kun'yomi), or even (in rare cases) a foreign loanword. These uses are
completely standard and unexceptional.
Rare and complex characters
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 often used characters. This is especially a problem
for personal names which often contain rare or classical, antiquated
One man who has encountered this problem is Taiwanese politician Yu
Shyi-kun, due to the rarity of the last character in his name.
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 Joël Bellassen
(1989), the most complex Chinese character is /𪚥 (U+2A6A5) zhé
listen (help·info), meaning "verbose" and containing
sixty-four strokes; this character fell from use around the 5th
century. It might be argued, however, that while containing 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[g] 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 (dá, "the
appearance of a dragon flying"). 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"); 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: , normally read taito. 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 elaborate
character in the jōyō kanji list is the 29-stroke 鬱, meaning
"depression" or "melancholy".
The most complex Chinese character still in use may be[according to
whom?] biáng (pictured right, bottom), with 58 strokes, which refers
to Biang biang noodles, a type of noodle from China's Shaanxi
province. This character along with the syllable biáng cannot be
found in dictionaries. The fact that it represents a syllable that
does not exist in any
Standard Chinese word means that it could be
classified as a dialectal character.
Zhèng (unknown meaning)
Nàng, "poor enunciation due to snuffle"
Taito, "the appearance of a dragon in flight"
alternative form of Taito
Biáng, a kind of noodle in Shaanxi
Number of characters
The total number of
Chinese characters from past to present remains
unknowable because new ones are being developed all the time – for
instance, brands may create new characters when none of the existing
ones allow for the intended meaning – or they have been invented by
whoever wrote them and have never been adopted as official characters.
Chinese characters are theoretically an open set and anyone can create
new characters, though such inventions are rarely included in official
character sets. The number of entries in major Chinese
dictionaries is the best means of estimating the historical growth of
Number of characters in monolingual Chinese dictionaries
Name of dictionary
Number of characters
Zhonghua Da Zidian
Hanyu Da Zidian
Number of characters in bilingual Chinese dictionaries
Name of dictionary
Number of characters
Dai Kan-Wa Jiten
Han-Han Dae Sajeon
Zhonghua Zihai does not include characters in the Chinese
family of scripts created to represent non-Chinese languages, except
the unique characters in use in
Japan and Korea. Characters formed by
Chinese principles in other languages include the roughly 1,500
Japanese-made kokuji given in the
Kokuji no Jiten, the
Korean-made gukja, the over 10,000
Sawndip characters still in use in
Guangxi, and the almost 20,000
Nôm characters formerly used in
Vietnam. More divergent descendents of Chinese script
include Tangut script, which created over 5,000 characters with
similar strokes but different formation principles to Chinese
Modified radicals and new 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
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
Cumulative frequency of simplified
Chinese characters in Modern
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 written with two or more characters, each
character representing one syllable and/or morpheme. 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 always the
China have shown that literate individuals know and use
between 3,000 and 4,000 characters. Specialists in classical
literature or history, who would often encounter characters no longer
in use, are estimated to have a working vocabulary of between 5,000
and 6,000 characters.
In 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 New Hànyǔ
Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (汉语水平考试, Chinese Proficiency Test)
covers approximately 2,600 characters at its highest level (level
In the Republic of
China (Taiwan), 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 are a number of dialect characters (方言字) that
are not used in formal written Chinese but represent colloquial terms
in non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese. 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
Cantonese for use for official purposes. In Taiwan,
there is also a body of characters used to represent Taiwanese
Hokkien. Many varieties have specific characters for words exclusive
to them. For example, the vernacular character 㓾, pronounced cii11
in Hakka, means "to kill". Furthermore,
Sichuanese also have their own series of characters, but these are not
widely used in actual texts, Mandarin being the preference for all
Main article: Kanji
In Japanese there are 2,136 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.
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 that 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
Today, a well-educated Japanese person may know upwards of 3,500
kanji. The kanji kentei
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
approximately 6,000 kanji, though in practice few people
attain (or need to attain) this level.
New characters can in principle be coined at any time, just as new
words can be, but they may not be adopted. Significant historically
recent coinages date to scientific terms of the 19th century.
Specifically, Chinese coined new characters for chemical elements –
see chemical elements in East Asian languages – which continue to be
used and taught in schools in
China and Taiwan. In Japan, in the Meiji
era (specifically, late 19th century), new characters were coined for
some (but not all) SI units, such as 粁 (米 "meter" + 千 "thousand,
kilo-") for kilometer. These kokuji (Japanese-coinages) have found use
China as well – see
Chinese characters for
SI units for details.
While new characters can be easily coined by writing on paper, they
are difficult to represent on a computer – they must generally be
represented as a picture, rather than as text – which presents a
significant barrier to their use or widespread adoption. Compare this
with the use of symbols as names in 20th century musical albums such
Led Zeppelin IV
Led Zeppelin IV (1971) and
Love Symbol Album
Love Symbol Album (1993); an album cover
may potentially contain any graphics, but in writing and other
computation these symbols are difficult to use.
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 (see for example, the 214 so-called Kangxi radicals).
Chinese character dictionaries often allow users to locate entries in
several 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 (radical-and-stroke
sorting). 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.
Radical index on Wiktionary
Total strokes index on Wiktionary
Adoption of Chinese literary culture
Chinese character encoding
Chinese input methods for computers
Chinese numerals, or how to write numbers with Chinese characters
Eight Principles of Yong
Horizontal and vertical writing in East Asian scripts
List of languages written in
Chinese characters and derivatives of
Romanization of Chinese
Transcription into Chinese characters
^ Abbreviations are occasionally used – see § Polysyllabic
^ Qiu 2000, pp. 132–133 provides archaeological evidence for
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^ Qiu 2000, pp. 140–1 mentions examples of neo-clerical with
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^ Liu is said to have taught
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^ Wáng Xīzhī is so credited in essays by other calligraphers in the
6th to early 7th centuries, and most of his extant pieces are in
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^ cf. Inariyama Sword
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^ Guǎngxī Zhuàngzú zìzhìqū shǎoshù mínzú gǔjí zhěnglǐ
chūbǎn guīhuà lǐngdǎo xiǎozǔ
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Early works of historical interest
Samuel Wells Williams (1842). Easy lessons in Chinese: or progressive
exercises to facilitate the study of that language. Printed at the
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Herbert Allen Giles (1892). A Chinese-English dictionary, Volume 1. B.
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William Edward Soothill (1900). The student's four thousand
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the phonetic Shwoh-wan, 1833. Trübner & co. p. 199.
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Joseph Edkins (1876). Introduction to the study of the Chinese
characters. Trübner & co. p. 314.
Walter Henry Medhurst
Walter Henry Medhurst (1842). Chinese and English dictionary:
containing all the words in the Chinese imperial dictionary; arranged
according to the radicals. 2 volumes. Parapattan: Walter Henry
Tai Tung (Dai Tong 戴侗) (1954). The Six Scripts Or the Principles
of Chinese Writing. Cambridge University Press. p. 114.
ISBN 1-107-60515-6. Translated by L. C. Hopkins with a
Memoir of the Translator by W. Perceval Yetts
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chinese Characters.
Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: English-Hanzi
History and construction of Chinese characters
Excerpt from Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems by
John DeFrancis, © 1989 by the University of Hawai`i Press. Used by
permission of the University of Hawai`i Press.
Online dictionaries and character reference
Chinese Text Project Dictionary Comprehensive character dictionary
including data for all
Chinese characters in Unicode, and exemplary
usage from early Chinese texts.
Evolution of Chinese Characters
Zhongwen.com: a searchable dictionary with information about character
Richard Sears, Chinese Etymology.
Da, Jun, Chinese text computing – statistics on use of Chinese
Chinese characters in computing
Unihan Database: Chinese, Japanese, and Korean references, readings,
and meanings for all the Chinese and Chinese-derived characters in the
Unicode character set
cchar.com Chinese Character Software: Step by step pictures showing
how to write Chinese characters.
Daoulagad Han – Mobile OCR hanzi dictionary, OCR interface to
the UniHan database
Early works of historical interest
Chinese and English dictionary: compiled from reliable authors.
American Tract Society. 1893. Retrieved 2011-05-15.
Kangxi (Emperor of China) (1842). Chinese and English dictionary:
containing all the words in the Chinese imperial dictionary; arranged
according to the radicals, Volume 1. Printed at Parapattan. Retrieved
Southern Peninsular Malaysian Hokkien
Standard Chinese (Mandarin)
Literary and colloquial readings
Mainland Chinese Braille
Two-Cell Chinese Braille
List of varieties of Chinese
Types of writing systems
History of writing
Languages by writing system / by first written accounts
Old North Arabian
Boyd's syllabic shorthand
Thomas Natural Shorthand
New Tai Lue
Pau Cin Hau
New York Point
New Epoch Notation Painting
Chinese family of scripts
Oracle bone script
Khitan large script
Khitan small script
Ditema tsa Dinoko
Great Lakes Algonquian syllabics
Nwagu Aneke script
Old Persian Cuneiform
Unicode braille patterns
(see for more)
Devanagari (Hindi / Marathi / Nepali)
Chinese (Mandarin, mainland)
English (Unified English)
Inuktitut (reassigned vowels)
Taiwanese Mandarin (largely reassigned)
Thai & Lao (Japanese vowels)
Gardner–Salinas braille codes (GS8)
Symbols in braille
Canadian currency marks
Gardner–Salinas braille codes (GS8/GS6)
International Phonetic Alphabet
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
Nemeth braille code
Optical braille recognition
Refreshable braille display
Slate and stylus
Thakur Vishva Narain Singh
William Bell Wait
Braille Institute of America
Braille Without Borders
Schools for the blind
American Printing House for the Blind
Other tactile alphabets
New York Point
Electronic writing systems
Internet slang dialects
Lolspeak / LOLspeak / Kitteh
Martian language (Chinese)
Padonkaffsky jargon (Russian)
See also English internet slang (at Wiktionary)