Hanzi: From Pictographic Writing to Simplified Characters

Meaning Jia Gu Wen Jin Wen Xiao Zhuan Kai Shu
sun Chinese symbol for sun; Jia Gu Wen. chinese symbol for sun; jin wen Chinese Symbol for sun; Jin wen Chinese symbol for sun; Kai shu
moon Chinese symbol for moon; Jia gu wen chinese symbol for moon; jin wen Chinese symbol for moon; Xiao zhuan Chinese symbol for moon; Kai shu
human Chinese symbol for person; Jia gu wen. Chinese symbol for human being; Jin wen. Chinese symbol for human being; Xiao zhuan. chinese symbol for human being; Kai shu
mountain Chinese symbol for montain; Jia gu wen. Chinese symbol for mountain; Jin Wen Chinese symbol for mountain; xiao zhuan Chinese symbol for mountain; kai shu
bird Chinese symbol for bird; Jia gu wen Chinese symbol for bird; Jin wen Chinese symbol for bird; xiao zhuan. Chinese symbol for brid; kai shu
fish chinese symbol for fish; jia gu wen Chinese symbol for fish; Jin wen chinese symbol for fish; xiao zhuan chinese symbol for fish; kai shu

The above from: http://www.foreigners-in-china.com/chinese-symbol-history.html

Since arriving in China at the beginning of September, 2013, I have been told by many people that in order to really learn Chinese, to truly understand it, one needs to learn Hanzi. This has not been my goal as I study the language in Kunming, Yunnan Province. My only intention has been to try to better understand China and its people by learning a little of the language and by simply living (and travelling) here for eight months. I have, however, found that learning words via flashcards that incorporate both pinyin and Hanzi has really sparked my interest in the meaning and origin of words through Hanzi.

Writing in China has evolved over 3000 years (some even say over 4000 years). Hanzi is the Chinese word for “Chinese character.” These characters are symbols that convey the meaning of a word. According to Hanzim.com, “[t]he earliest uncontroversial [pictographic] examples are the so-called ‘oracle bone inscriptions’ of the Shang Dynasty period (most of the 2nd millenium B.C.E.).”  Many of these early characters are similar to those used today.

Although Hanzi have evolved for centuries, it was during and after the Communist Revolution that Chinese script underwent a process of development into a standardized and more simplified script. In fact, it seems that Chairman Mao wanted to replace Hanzi with pinyin (a system of Romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese). I am thankful for pinyin since it has made my studying somewhat easier.

Radicals (pianpang bushou) are another important element of Hanzi. They are symbols and sometimes also stroke/symbol components meant to help people understand and distinguish the characters and put them into context. These radicals recur in Chinese Hanzi and may be combined to make up different characters. Some stand alone although most characters include radicals. Therefore, to understand the meaning of Hanzi, one needs to be able to identify the radicals. There are 214 of them. As an example, the mù radical “木” means: wood; tree; or wooden. So, if you combine three of these radicals together like this: 森 then you have the word sēn (forest). 木马 (mù​mǎ) is a wooden horse / rocking horse, and, 木工 (mù​gōng) means carpenter / woodworker.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, learning Chinese is unbelievably difficult; it is slow, frustrating, and seemingly impossible to get past the VERY basic stage. At this point, for me, it still feels tantamount to climbing Mount Everest! To think that I have already completed 2/3 of my studies and can barely speak or understand a thing. And yet I have been told I am doing very well!

Like elsewhere in the world, people in different regions of China speak differently. There are many dialects here: Mandarin, Cantonese, “Kunmingese” (perhaps not a real dialect), Naxi, and many, many more. Despite the fact that certain characters may be pronounced differently, the written language and meaning is the same. Below are links to diagrams of interest that demonstrate how Hanzi has evolved. I have also included just a few examples of Hanzi / Chinese words (in no particular order). I find that Hanzi logically illustrates the meaning of words. Some are so brilliantly visual in how they are put together; they produce a definition or phrase far more evocative than any I’ve seen in the English language:

  • AIRPLANE: 飞机 – fēi​jī (fēi =fly / jī = machine) Notice that “jī” includes the radical mu -木. At one time many machines were made of wood.
  • MAP: 地图 – dì​tú  (dì = earth; land; soil; ground / tú = diagram; chart, map, picture) ;
  • BAD LUCK: 倒霉 – dǎo​méi (dǎo​ = to place upside down; fall over / méi = mildew; mould; bacteria; fungi)
  • LIPSTICK: 口红 – kǒuhóng (kǒu = mouth; hóng = red)
  • IMMEDIATELY (straight away): 马上 – mǎ​shàng (mǎ​ = horse / shàng = on top; above) This word refers to the days when someone needed to get somewhere quickly and hopped on his/her horse.
  • NON-SWIMMER: 旱鸭子 – hàn​yā​zi (hàn​ = dry / yā​ = duck)
  • APPLAUD (clap): 鼓掌 – gǔ​zhǎng (gǔ​ = to drum; beat / zhǎng = palm of the hand)
  • ABOUT (approximately): 左右 – zuǒ​yòu (zuǒ​ – left / yòu = right)
  • AVOCADO: 牛油果 – niú​yóu​guǒ (niú​ = ox; cow / yóu = oil; fat; grease / guǒ = fruit; result)
  • JEALOUS: 吃醋 – chī​cù (chī = eat / cù = vinegar; jealousy)
  • SO CLOSE YET SO FAR: 咫尺天涯 – zhǐchǐtiānyá (zhǐ = an ancient measure unit of length / chǐ = ruler; measure of length / tiān = sky; heavens / yá = border; horizon)
  • SO SO (average; just passable): mǎ​mǎ​​hū​hū  – 马马虎虎 (mǎ​ = horse / hū = tiger) Here is a story behind the origin of this word: Long ago there was a painter who had two sons. One day the older son walked by and saw his father’s work which was near completion. He asked his father “What is that?” The father replied, “A horse.” The son said it looked more like a tiger to him than a horse and walked away. Later that day, the younger son happened upon the painting and asked his dad, “What is that a painting of?” The father answered, “It is a tiger,” to which this son said, “Oh! It looks like a horse to me.” The father decided he may, in fact, not be that good at the art of painting. Clearly he was mamahuhu.

And then of course you could by mistake say, “Wǒ xǐhuān páiduì” (“I like to stand in line”) rather than, “Wǒ xǐhuān pài​duì” (“I like to party”). But that is another story…


4 thoughts on “Hanzi: From Pictographic Writing to Simplified Characters

  1. Lori Weber

    Very interesting and it makes your venture seem so impressive, since the writing system is so different from ours. I always heard ‘cow’ and ‘mother’ were similar in Chinese. Is that true? Or is that just a slightly racist western tale? The expression “sounds like Chinese to me” has always struck me as racist as well, but there is some truth in it. If something is so different and incomprehensible then it could sound like the language you are learning. Great blog.

    1. sbandtg Post author

      If I had more time, or could do it over, I would have studied hanzi from the start. In some respects I find it is the most interesting part of the language. It is so facinating and makes so much sense, as I said. “Horse” and “mother” are similar but the tones are different as is the spelling. To the non-trained person mistakes could be made. And yes, it is all Greek or Chinese to me…. because it is foreign….

  2. Linda

    Very interesting & enjoyable post Tamar.

    I had been told the story of the so-so artist father before, but had forgotten it.
    I love the dry duck for swimmer.

    (Don’t be so hard on yourself and your progress thus far!)

    1. sbandtg Post author

      it really is true – some words in chinese are just so evocative. i regret, to a point, not having learned hanzi here but my goal was to learn to converse with others. a friend here reminds me how many people have been illiterate and still are. i can always learn it should the time come.


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