Chinese Characters — Origin, Formation, Evolvement, and Meanings

Chinese Characters or Han Zi includes all written systems that have been used in China, from ancient oracle inscriptions to today's simplified characters. 

 

They are one of the most ancient writing systems and have been continuously used till today.

Chinese Characters for Eternal Happiness
Chinese Characters or Han Zi in Calligraphy of Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322)

Chinese Writing Symbols or Han Zi in Calligraphy of Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Why Are Chinese Characters Called Han Zi?

 

The earliest existing Chinese Symbols are the oracle inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) in the Yellow River area. 

 

People from this area inherited some important Neolithic cultures and developed the successive Zhou (1046 BC — 256 BC), Qin (221 BC — 207 BC), and Han (202 BC — 220 AD) dynasties. 

 

Compared to the transient Qin, Han Dynasty is the second and the longest unified and centralized empire in ancient China, with unprecedented prosperity and influence on Chinese culture. 

 

Hence, the major ethnic group in China, the Han People, is named after this dynasty, and so are the Chinese Characters, the Han Zi (汉字). 

Chinese Characters "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness) on Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty

Chinese Words "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness) on Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Origin, Evolvement, and Forms of Chinese Characters.

 

Origin and Neolithic Symbols

 

In ancient mythology and folklore, Chinese Symbols are invented by Cang Jie, a historian during the reign of the Yellow Emperor (about 2717 BC — 2599 BC). 

 

In archaeology, there are many meaningful symbols on the unearthed Neolithic relics, which are believed the beginning or prototype of Chinese writing symbols. 

Symbols on Painted Pottery Basin of Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC)

Symbols on Painted Pottery Basin of Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Oracle Bone Inscription or Jiagu Wen

 

Including over 4500 symbols, Oracle Bone Inscription or Jiagu Wen is the official writing system of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), regarding royals' divination activities and historical records.

Oracle Bone Inscription or Jiagu Wen During the Reign Period of King Wu Ding (? — 1192 BC)

Oracle Bone Inscription or Jiagu Wen During the Reign Period of King Wu Ding (? — 1192 BC) — National Museum of China

Bronze Inscription or Jin Wen

 

Including over 3700 symbols, Bronze Inscription or Jin Wen is writings carved on bronze wares, originated in the late Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), thrived in Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), and disappeared with the establishment of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC). 

 

Most Bronze Inscriptions are about praising accomplishments of the ancestors and royals, and recording important historic events.

Bronze Inscription or Jin Wen Carved on Bronze Ritual Water Container (Qiang Pan) of the Zhou Dynasty, Recorded History and Achievements of Its First Seven Kings

Bronze Inscription or Jin Wen Carved on Bronze Ritual Water Container (Qiang Pan) of the Zhou Dynasty, Recorded History and Achievements of Its First Seven Kings — Baoji Museum

Seal Script or Zhuan Shu

Seal Script includes two types: the Large Seal Script (Da Zhuan) popularized from the late Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC) to the Warring State Period (403 BC — 221 BC), and the Small Seal Script (Xiao Zhuan), official writings of the unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC).  

 

Small Seal Script evolved from and simplified the Large Seal Script system, and was promoted as the official writings under the command of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), the first emperor in China. 

 

The Small Seal Script was replaced in the late Western Han Dynasty (220 BC — 8 AD), however, because of the ancient style and beautiful structure of Small Seal Scripts, they have been widely used in calligraphy, seal, and stone carvings. 

Small Seal Script Characters in Rubbing of Yishan Stele That Records and Praises Accomplishems of Qin Empire,  Written by Chancellor Li Si (284 BC — 208 BC) the Creator of Small Seal Script

Small Seal Script in Rubbing of Yishan Stele That Records and Praises Accomplishems of Qin Empire,  Written by Chancellor Li Si (284 BC — 208 BC) the Creator of Small Seal Script — Beilin Museum of Xi'an

Clerical Script or Li Shu

 

Evolved from the Seal Script by clericals, the Clerical Script or Li Shu is easier and faster to write. 

 

Originated in the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), thrived in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and popularized until the end of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 — 589). 

Clerical Script or Li Shu Characters on Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183)

Clerical Script or Li Shu on Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183) — National Museum of China (Photo by Ayelie)

Regular Script or Kai Shu

 

Regular Script or Kai Shu has been the most popular and common writing of Chinese Symbols, from having been invented in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), thrived in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), till today. 

Regular Script or Kai Shu Characters in  Rubbing of the Duobaota Stele Written by Great Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing in the Year 752

Regular Script or Kai Shu in  Rubbing of the Duobaota Stele Written by Great Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing in the Year 752 — Beilin Museum of Xi'an

Cursive Script or Cao Shu

 

Appeared in the early Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) and is based on Clerical Script, the Cursive Script or Cao Shu is the fastest calligraphy style to write and is relatively simple, but hard to recognize.

Cursive Script or Cao Shu Characters in Part of Calligraphy Work "Thousand Character Classic", Written by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135)

Cursive Script or Cao Shu in Part of Calligraphy Work "Thousand Character Classic", Written by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135) — Liaoning Museum

Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu

 

A type of calligraphy appeared in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), based on the straight style of Regular Script, but writing faster and smoother. 

Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu Characters in Calligraphy Work "Hanshi Tie", Written by Eminent Scholar Su Shi (1037 — 1101)

Semi-cursive Script or Xing Shu in Calligraphy Work "Hanshi Tie", Written by Eminent Scholar Su Shi (1037 — 1101) — Taipei Palace Museum

Despite the different forms and styles in history, writing Chinese characters always follow the same stroke order, which is from top to bottom, from left to right. 

 

Traditional Chinese Characters and Simplified Chinese Characters

Traditional Chinese Character or Fanti Zi is the writing system that appeared in Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) when Clerical Script gradually replaced the Seal Script. Today, they are mainly used in regions including Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. 

 

Simplified Chinese Character or Jianti Zi is the system that used some simplified symbols to replace difficult ones, published in 1956 and used in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia. 

 

Why Use Simplified Chinese Characters?

 

Throughout the history of Chinese writing, from Seal Script to Semi-cursive Script, it is a process of making the writing system simpler, and more convenient for more people to write and read while following main concepts and formation rules.

Examples of the Evolvement of Chinese Characters

Examples of the Evolvement of Chinese Characters

Where Do these Simplified Characters Come From?

 

These simplified characters that are used to replace difficult ones in Traditional Chinese Characters, mainly come from:

 

  • Ancient simpler symbols since Oracle Bone Inscription;

 

  • Commonly used symbols in history outside of the official writing system;

 

  • Calligraphy works since the Three Kingdoms and Jin Dynasty (220 — 420), especially from Cursive Script and Semi-cursive Script masterpieces;

 

  • Newly improved and created ones by changing the position of the different parts of a Hanzi, removing or using simple ones to replace certain parts, combining parts to invent new ones based on the meaning, etc. 

 

To sum up, from Oracle Bone Inscription to modern Chinese Hanzi, they are all parts of Chinese writing, the ancient and continuously used writing system that carries culture and history. 

Traditional and Simplified Chinese Characters in Masterpiece "Lanting Jixu", Written by Great Calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303 — 361).

Traditional and Simplified Chinese Characters in Masterpiece "Lanting Jixu", Written by Great Calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303 — 361). This Facsimile Version was Copied by Callihraphor Feng Chengsu (617 — 672) and Preserved in Palace Museum.

 

How Many Chinese Characters and Pronunciations Are There?

 

From different Chinese dictionaries passed till now throughout history, over 100,000 symbols are concluded and around 3500 are commonly used, which can cover 99% of today's reading materials.  

 

Combine Pinyin and tones, there are over 1300 pronunciations in today's Standard Chinese or Chinese Mandarin. 

 

Formation Principles of Chinese Characters

 

Concluded in the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), there are six methods that have been used to form Chinese characters, and three of them are most frequently used: Pictogram, Compound Ideogram, and Phono-semantic Compound.

Pictogram or Xiang Xing

Pictogram or Xiang Xing is the most ancient formation method, which created symbols based on the objects' appearances.  

 

The numbers of Pictogram symbols are not many, but are easy to recognize and understand, and can be used as an easy beginning to learn Chinese characters. 

Pictogram or Xiang Xing Chinese Characters part 1
Pictogram or Xiang Xing Chinese Characters part 2

Compound Ideogram or Hui Yi

 

A Compound Ideogram character always consists of more than one part, which together can make a new character with obvious meaning.

Compound Ideogram or Hui Yi Chinese Characters

Phono-semantic Compound or Xing Sheng

 

The Phono-semantic Compound is the most widely used formation method of Chinese Symbols. In different dictionary versions since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), around 80 to 90 % of Chinese Characters are Phono-semantic Compounds. 

Generally, each Phono-semantic Compound character contains two parts: one represents the pronunciation and another explains the meaning. 

 

Some Common Meaning Expression Parts

Some common meaning expression parts of Phono-semantic Compound  or Xing Sheng Chinese Characters

Some Examples of Phono-semantic Compound Characters

Chinese Character for Rain

雨 means rain and weather-related. 

雪 snow

霜 frost

露 dew

雷 thunder

雾 fog

霏 thin and floating clouds; rain or snow falls fast

霁 clear up after rain or snow

 

They all have 雨 part, which means moist weather-related phenomena.

 

But they have different pronunciations based on the other part.  So 雨 is the meaning part, while the other part presents pronunciations. 

Chinese Character for Shell

贝 means shell, money-related. Because the first exchange currency in the history of China was the shell. 

财 money, property

贡 tribute

贫 poor, poverty

贪 greedy, corrupt

货 product

购 buy

帐 account

贵 expensive 

贷 loan

 

They all have 贝 part, the character represents money-related activities. But, they have different pronunciations based on the other part. 

 

So 贝 is the meaning part, while the other part presents pronunciations. 

 

List of Some Chinese Characters with Common Meanings
 

Click to Read Chinese Symbols For: