Chinese writing is unlike any other writing system in world (except for Japanese, Korean and some other Asian languages which have incorporated some Chinese characters). Of the several hundred written languages, Chinese is about the only one that relies on symbols to represent individual words. These symbols (characters) often are combined, though, to make different words. Each symbol has both a concept and a sound.
According to the Library of Congress: All of the Chinese dialects share a common written form that has evolved and been standardized during two millennia and serves as a unifying bond amongst the Han Chinese. The government has aggressively developed both shorthand Chinese and Pinyin (phonetic spelling) as ways to increase literacy and transliterate Chinese names. The Pinyin system was introduced in 1958 and was approved by the State Council in 1978 as the standard system for the romanization of Chinese personal and geographic names. In 2000 the Hanyu (Han language) Pinyin phonetic alphabet was written into law as the unified standard for spelling and phonetic notation of the national language.
Written Chinese is described by linguists as logographic, which means that each symbol represents a spoken syllable. Alphabetic systems are more flexible than logographic ones because alphabets allow single syllables to be broken down into smaller parts. This make it easier to apply writing to different languages and dialects. Under the logographic system single syllables can not be broken down into smaller parts. It was only in the early 20th century that reformers began demanding that written Chinese be linked with spoken Chinese—in particular Mandarin. the dialect of Beijing and northern China.
Because written Chinese is so inflexible there is a large gap in China between the way people write and they way they speak. Written Chinese can not accommodate different Chinese dialects and languages. The result is that no matter what dialect people speak they have to write in Mandarin, which is essentially writing in a second language. A given word in written Chinese can sound completely different in different dialects and be unintelligible unless the person speaks the dialect of which the word is spoken.
Chinese spend much of their childhood memorizing and writing characters. By the time a student is 15 he or she has spent four or five hours a day over nine years learning to write a minimum of 3,000 characters. Moderate literacy requires memorizing a minimum of about 1,200 characters. Television programs are usually broadcast in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles so that people who speak other dialects can understand what is being said. Traditional Chinese is thought to have around 50,000 characters.
Writing in China is regarded as more than just writing. It is considered a bond to Chinese culture and is said to improve concentration, longevity and even martial arts skills. One calligraphy teacher told the Los Angeles Times, ‘These characters are in the soul of every Chinese person, The nation has to maintain its personality through its characters. They are our culture.’
From their inception writing and calligraphy have been inextricably linked to art in a way that does not have a counterpart in the West. Studying and learning written Chinese has always been greatly valued and pursed by many Chinese with great enthusiasm. In the old days there were special furnaces just for written documents so that any paper with writing could be given a respectable cremation.
The Chinese have traditionally read characters from right to left and up and down the page. These days they are used to reading across the page and don’t like reading up and down. Sometimes you can find English signs that are written the traditional Chinese way characters are read: from right to left. Peter Hessler found one that read: “DTL .OC YRENIHCAM REWOP GNISNAS IUHSIL (LISHUI SANSING POWER MACHINERY CO. LTD”)
Good Websites and Sources: Omniglot omniglot.com ; Chinese Symbols. Com chinese-symbols.com ; Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Origin of Chinese Script China Vista chinavista.com ; Logoi.com logoi.com ; China Vista China Vista
Links in this Website: CHINESE LANGUAGE Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE NAMES AND SYMBOLS Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENGLISH, CHINGLISH AND OTHER NON-CHINESE LANGUAGES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CLASSIC CHINESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/China ; MODERN CHINESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/China . See MINORITIES and TIBET for information on the languages of different Ethnic Groups.
Ageless Written Chinese
Written Chinese is the oldest contiguously used writing system in the world. Not only that it is the only ancient logographic system that never converted to an alphabet. What is particularly remarkable about written Chinese is that it has remained fundamentally since the same the time is it was conceived almost 4,000 years. In this way Chinese is unique in the history of human civilization.
Modern Chinese citizens today can pick up a text written during the time of ancient Mesopotamia and Pharonic Egypt and make out much of what it says. The equivalent would be for a modern Americans to pick up the Dead Sea Scrolls, Egyptian hieroglyphics or texts written by Homer or Socrates in ancient Greek and make out what they say. When the 3,500-year-old Oracles bones were discovered in the 19th century scholars were able to decipher them immediately.
Book: The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms by Andrew Robinson
Early Written Chinese
Chinese written characters began as little pictures representing objects. Later representations of abstract thoughts appeared and later still they were modified into phonetic characters. As time went on the characters themselves became more simplified and abstract so that today they are now symbols and bear little resemblance to the original objects they represented.
Markings that may be writing have been found on objects dated to 7000 B.C. at the Jiahu neolthic site. Unusual black markings on pottery produced by the Dadiwans—a stone-age culture that resided in what is now Gansu Province beginning at least 5000 B.C.—are regarded by some archeologist as primitive pictographic characters.
The first examples of what are universally recognized as Chinese characters—inscriptions on oracle bones and bronze vessels—were produced during the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.) Some 2000 different characters were already in use in the Shang dynasty. Some of the earliest writing was done on perishable bamboo and wood, nearly all of which has been lost to time.
Shang Oracle Bones
Shang priests practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious signs" and messages from natural spirits and ancestors The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.
Oracle bones appear to have held a high place in Shang culture and this would lead one to conclude that superstition and written language held very high places in the lives of the ancient Chinese.
Inscriptions on the Oracle Bones
Users of oracle bone divinations sought advice and predictions on matters such as raising of crops, the outcome of battles, illness, and childbirth. They also sought advise from the dead, the meaning of dreams, and suggestions on how many people to sacrifice. One inscription proposed sacrificing prisoners to an ancestor. Possibly after a divination was another inscription that recommended five prisoners.
The oracle bones were seen as a medium of communications between diviners and ancestors, with the latter regarded as the sources of the information. David N. Keightley, an expert on oracle bones at the University of California at Berkeley, told National Geographic, “When it cracked, the ancestors were responding to the diviner’s statement. The diviners wanted to capture this moment.”
In an article in the New Yorker Peter Hessler described a rubbing of an oracle bone that Keightley studied on which a Shang king sought out an unhappy ancestor the king though was responsible for a tooth ache he was experiencing, Four names are listed “Father Jia, Father Geng, Father Xin, Father Yi”— the king’s dead uncle and three dead generals. For each ancestor there were multiple divinations. One inscription read: “Offer a dog to Father Geng...I think it was Father Geng who was causing the illness.”
Shang Oracle Bones and Writing
Making an oracle bone
The oracle bones unearthed in Xiaotun also provided some of the earliest evidence of Chinese writing and the first examples of writing in East Asia. They recorded harvests, childbirths and wars, detailed accomplishments of kings, described human sacrifices, plagues, natural disasters, enemy tribes and the ailments of kings. Some 3000 different Chinese characters—most of them pictograms—were used during the Shang dynasty.
Messages recorded on the oracle bones included: “Lady Hao’s childbearing will be good”; “After 31 days” Lady Hao “gave birth, it was not good, it was a girl”; “In the next ten days there will be no disasters;” “If we raise 3,000 men and call on them to attack the Gofang, we will receive abundant assistance.” Some of the messages could even be poetic. One goes: “In the afternoon a rainbow also came out of the north and drank in the Yellow River.” [Source: National Geographic]
Later Early History of Written Chinese
Before the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 A.D.) there were no names for script forms and calligraphy was referred to simply as "writing" (wen) or "characters" (tzu). The Emperor Qin Shihuang standardized the Chinese writing system, absorbing different regional forms, into "large seal script" (ta-chian) which was later simplified into more regular, flowing "small seal script” (hsiao-chuan).
Through much of China’s history official writing has been conducted using classical Chinese, a language form developed in the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) that exited only in written form. It has long been said he the Emperor Qin unified the Chinese writing system but a careful look reveals the system was largely standardized after him in the Han dynasty. The Han produced the first Chinese dictionary and the first official history. They gave names to the dynasties that preceded them and unified China's diverse ethnic groups, using their writing system, into the Chinese.
Evolution of Chinese characters
Later History of Written Chinese
By the 17th century, China had a well-established written press and people in many walks of life were literate. According to some estimates 30 percent to 45 percent of the population of China was illiterate in the 18th and 19th century, more than in Europe. Before the Japanese occupation and World War II, the Chinese read up and down, from right to left and went through books from back to front. Now they read the same way that Westerners do.
In the 1910s, the prominent scholar Qian Xuantong suggested that China should switch its written and spoken language to Esperanto. Other scholars advocated abandoning Chinese characters on the grounds they held back progress, literacy and democracy. Lu Xun, perhaps China’s greatest 20th century writer, argued for a switch to the Latin alphabet.
Mao proposed replacing the Chinese writing system with an alphabet. In 1936 he told a foreign journalist that such a change was inevitable and many expected him to decree such a change when the Communists came to power in 1949. In the 1950s Mao called for the creation of a “national in-form” alphabet—a new writing system that was the distinctly Chinese. He reportedly pursued this idea after Stalin that China was a great country and should have its own writing system. A number of systems were created: some with Latin or Cyrillic-influenced letter; others with pieces of Chinese characters. One system was based on Arabic; another used numbers.
In 1955, the list was reduced to six finalists: Latin, Cyrillic, and four new “Chinese” systems. In the end Mao and his advisers concluded that China was not ready for a Chinese alphabet and the Pinyin system was adopted as an educational tool not as a replacement for Chinese characters. The idea of a new Chinese alphabet was kept alive until the Cultural Revolution, after which Chinese became fed up with any kind of radical change.
Zhou Youguang, Inventor of Pinyin, Still Alive at 105 in 2011
Zhou Youguang invented Pinyin, a system of romanizing Chinese characters using the Western alphabet. He turned 105 in 2011. But despite his age, Zhou still lives in a modest third-floor walk-up. He's frail but chipper, as he receives guests in his book-lined study. He laughs cheerfully as he reminisces, despite his complaints that "after 100, the memory starts to fail a bit." [Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, October 19, 2011]
When Zhou was born in 1906, Chinese men still wore their hair in a long pigtail, the Qing dynasty still ruled China, and Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. That someone from that era is alive — and blogging as the "Centenarian Scholar — seems unbelievable. [Ibid]
“Zhou was educated at China's first Western-style university, St. John's in Shanghai, studying economics with a minor in linguistics. As a young man, he moved to the United States and worked as a Wall Street banker — during which time he even befriended Albert Einstein, although Zhou says their conversations are now lost in the mists of time. Zhou decided to return to China after the 1949 revolution to build the country. Originally, he intended to teach economics in Shanghai, but he was called to head a committee to reform the Chinese language. [Ibid]
“I said I was an amateur, a layman, I couldn't do the job," he says, laughing. "But they said, it's a new job, everybody is an amateur. Everybody urged me to change professions, so I did. So from 1955, I abandoned economics and started studying writing systems." It took Zhou and his colleagues three years to come up with the system now known as Pinyin, which was introduced in schools in 1958. Recently, Pinyin has become even more widely used to type Chinese characters into mobile phones and computers — a development that delights Zhou. "In the era of mobile phones and globalization, we use Pinyin to communicate with the world. Pinyin is like a kind of 'Open sesame,' opening up the doors," he says. [Ibid]
Chinese Writing Reforms
In the 1950s, the government decided to simplify more than 2,000 characters. A philologist named Chen Mengjia opposed the plan paid dearly for his views,. Accused of being a ‘rightist,’ he was sent to a labor camp in central China. He committed suicide in 1966 after being subjected to public criticism sessions during the Cultural Revolution.
In 1951 as part of a campaign to eradicate illiteracy the party issued a directive that inaugurated a three-part plan for language reform. The plan sought to establish universal comprehension of a standardized common language, simplify written characters, and introduce, where possible, romanized forms based on the Latin alphabet. In 1956 putonghua was introduced as the language of instruction in schools and in the national broadcast media, and by 1977 it was in use throughout China, particularly in the government and party, and in education. Although in 1987 the government continued to endorse the goal of universalizing putonghua, hundreds of regional and local dialects continued to be spoken, complicating interregional communication. [Source: Library of Congress]
“A second language reform required the simplification of ideographs because ideographs with fewer strokes are easier to learn. In 1964 the Committee for Reforming the Chinese Written Language released an official list of 2,238 simplified characters most basic to the language. Simplification made literacy easier, although people taught only in simplified characters were cut off from the wealth of Chinese literature written in traditional characters. Any idea of replacing ideographic script with romanized script was soon abandoned, however by government and education leaders. [Ibid]
“A third area of change involved the proposal to use the pinyin romanization system more widely. Pinyin (first approved by the National People's Congress in 1958) was encouraged primarily to facilitate the spread of putonghua in regions where other dialects and languages are spoken. By the mid-1980s, however, the use of pinyin was not as widespread as the use of putonghua. [Ibid]
In 2009, the government introduced a plan to simply 44 ideograms ‘to adapt to the requirements of the information era, the evolution of language and the development of society.’ Among the change was the removal of an upward stroke from the base of the character for ‘cha’ (tea). Although the reforms are far less sweeping than the ones that took place a half century before they was greeted with great hostility and resentment, especially on the Internet. In one online poll, 80 percent of the respondents opposed the reform, with some saying that yes only a few characters are affected but the characters are often-used ones and their modification will have a profound impact on dictionaries, books, school textbooks, signs and the Chinese people. [Source: AFP]
One Internet user quoted by AFP said, ‘Chinese characters are a precious part of the cultural herbage left to us by our ancestors thousands of years ago. We should respect them and protect them, not change them on a whim.’ Liu Jingbo, a well known calligrapher, disagreed. He said, ‘Chinese characters come from ancient history, but is possible to reform them, respecting certain rules, if it helps to make life easier for people. A lot of people, such as the elderly, however are opposed to this as they are used to the characters.’
Overseas Protest Signs in Chinese
Victor Mair wrote in the Language Log: “During the Arab Spring earlier this year, we noticed some demonstrators holding signs in Chinese that were not always idiomatic or were written incorrectly. In the "Occupy Wall Street" actions, one marcher was likewise seen with a Chinese sign of dubious credentials. Any fluent speaker of Chinese is going to smile at that sign, because it is like Chinglish in reverse. You can figure out what was intended, but it just doesn't sound right. With some Chinglish, it takes a huge amount of effort to decipher what was meant, but that's not the case with this specimen of Englishy Chinese, whose message is fairly obvious, despite the unidiomatic expression. [Source:Victor Mair, Language Log, October 7, 2011]
To a Chinese reader, this sign seems at first glance to be saying "There isn't any more corruption." The fact that the first two segments of the sentence are incorrectly worded throws into question the interpretation of the last part, fu(bài , which, depending upon the circumstances, might mean any of the following: "corruption, rottenness, decay, decomposition, putrefaction, putridity, putrescence, putridness, canker, depravity, staleness, leprosy", as well as their verbal and adjectival forms. [Ibid]
“Let us first determine how the translation came about. If we enter "No more corruption" in popular online translating services, we get: Google Translate: méiyo(u gèng duo- de fu(bài (identical with what's on the Occupy Wall Street sign) Baidu Fanyi: méiyo(u gèng duo- de fu(bài (identical with what's on the Occupy Wall Street sign) Babel Fish: méiyo(u fu(bài ("there is no corruption")
We have demonstrated many times how Google Translate has now become the standard online translation service for Chinese speakers who know little or no English, but want an English version of something in Chinese. It is now beginning to emerge that Google Translate has also become the choice for speakers of English who know little or no Chinese, but want a Chinese version of something in English. So we can't blame the wording of this Occupy Wall Street sign on the imperfect Chinese of an elementary or intermediate American learner. It is, rather, most likely to be attributed to Google Translate (or, far less likely, to Baidu Fanyi or similar service). [Ibid]
“Enough of what the Englishy Chinese means to a Chinese speaker and how it came about. What should have been written on the sign instead? Expansive, more vernacular versions might be something like these: (wo(men) bùyào ta-nwu- "Don't be corrupt" (or "Let's not be corrupt" with the optional wo(men at the beginning) (wo(men) bùyào fu(bài); "Don't be corrupt" (or "Let's not be corrupt" with the optional wo(men at the beginning) Succinct, more literar, formal versions might be something like these: dùjué fu(bài "Put an end to corruption" ; xia-omi( ta-nwu- / fu(bài / "Eliminate corruption"; (qi(ngqiú) ge-nzhì fu(bài "Eradicate corruption" (the optional qi(ngqiú at the beginning indicates that a request is being made)
Note that, in English "No more corruption", as in the numerous possible Chinese versions, what is being expressed is an injunction or exhortation — whether or not there is an explicit verb at the beginning of the sentence. What's most amazing to me about this sign, though, is that the calligraphy is quite impressive! Of course, I've known plenty of Americans who don't know a single word of Chinese who yet become rather proficient at writing Chinese characters purely as an art form. [Ibid]
Forgetting How to Write Chinese
When writing with a computer keyboard or texting on a cell phone most Chinese use a system in which they type out the sounds in pinyin, the most commonly used Romanization system, and are given a choice of characters from which they chose the one they want.
In part because so many Chinese peck out words with keyboards and cell phones and don’t write by hand anymore, they are losing there ability to write and often forget how to make the characters for even simple words. In a 2010 survey by the China Youth Daily, 83 percent of the 2,072 respondents said they had trouble writing characters. There is even a name for the problem: tibiwangzi (‘take pen, forget character’). [Source:Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 2010]
People in their 20s estimate they have forgotten about 20 percent of the characters they learned in school. Among the suggestions offered for remedying the situation are requiring college students to write their papers out by hand and encouraging more people to take up calligraphy.
Meaning of Written Chinese
Written Chinese remains a great unifier in China. Even though Chinese from one part of the country often can not understand the dialect of the people in another region, they all use the same written language. And even though individual characters may have many pronunciation they do have the same meaning.
The construction of classic written Chinese is often different from spoken Chinese. In the distant past the two were probably the same but over time they evolved apart. Classic literature and writing refers to material written in the old style. Vernacular writing and literature refers to material written in the spoken manner.
Perry Link, a professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton told the Los Angeles Times, “It is deeply imbedded in Chinese culture that the way you write language represents morality and appropriate behavior, including political behavior...There’s the whole tradition of calligraphy showing the moral worth and character of an individual. the whole computer revolution is going to eat away at these notions.”
Chinese words are usually made up of combinations of two or more characters. Most simple Chinese characters were originally depictions of simple objects and actions. Linguists today count 56,000 characters (some requiring 20 brush strokes and most obsolete). Educated Chinese can read about 5,000 to 8,000 characters. To understand most of what is written in a newspaper article, requires knowledge of 1,200 to 1,500 characters; to understand almost everything else you need to know about 2,500 characters.
Linguists divide Chinese characters into six groups: 1) pictograms (stylized pictures of objects); 2) ideograms (abstract pictures); 3) compound ideograms (combinations of ideograms to represent an idea or object); 4) phonograms (characters with a meaning element and a phonetic element; and 5) the infrequently used phonetic loan characters and 6) derivative loan characters. About 90 percent of all Chinese characters are phonograms.
The Committee for Reforming the Chinese Language, established in 1954 by the Communist government, simplified around 2,200 Chinese characters. Traditional Chinese characters, which are considered much more attractive than the simplified versions, are still commonly in use.
Hanzi is the term used in China to describe Chinese characters or ideograms. Hanzi is known as kanji in Japan.
basic Chinese strokes
Some Chinese Characters
Some combination characters are easy to understand. Two tree pictograms placed together means "forest”; the mouth of a bird means "song;" a sun and a moon together means "bright." The character for "crisis" (weiji) is a combination of the character for "dangerous" (wei) and the one for "opportunity" (ji). The symbols for woman and child combined together means "good," but two women means "argument" and three women means "noisy" or "gossip." The word for sincerity is a combination of the characters "man" and "word" and means a man standing by his word.
The logic behind some characters is somewhat mysterious. The symbol for "disuse," for example, is a combination of the character for a tree and the figure for a roof. When the character for roof is combined with the character for pig it equals the character for money.
Many of the characters originally contained clear visual clues that helped decipher their pronunciation and meaning but these have been altered by changes of speech are no longer recognizable, making them that much harder to learn.
For some Chinese there hobby go writing calligraphy in the street with with a brush and water, writing new characters when the old ones dry and disappear.
Written Chinese in Korea and Japan
Chinese, Koreans and Japanese use the same Chinese characters. The meanings of the characters is usually the same but the pronunciation is different. The character for soy sauce, for example, is pronounced "shoyu" in Japanese and "jiangyou" in Mandarin Chinese.
After World War II, the Japanese simplified their characters (made them easier to write) and changed their appearance. The Chinese did the same thing but used a different system, while the Koreans stuck to the old character system. Now the characters in all three languages are the same but they look different and are pronounced differently.
Difficulty of Adapting Chinese to Computers and Cell Phones
Experimental Chinese keyboard One problem with written Chinese is that the character system is not very adaptable to movable type printing and computers. Printing books has traditionally been a problem because it is more difficult to categorize and find 5,000 characters than 26 letters in an alphabet. As for computers, there are now sophisticated software programs that display thousands of Chinese characters on the screen but the difficult part is creating a keyboard system that allows the characters to be typed in.
A single character requires up to five strokes on a typewriter. The character for "gold" can be written in four strokes as opposed to eight strokes by hand.
Some word processing programs allow users to type in Romanized Chinese and the computer translates them into Chinese characters. The problem with these programs is that many Romanized spellings produce a multitude of Chinese characters (the word ji for example brings up 122 different characters on the screen). Others systems allow users to "stroke" Chinese characters (very slow and tedious) and another codes each character with a number (requires a lot memorization). Billions of dollars have been spent in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong to come up with a replacement keyboard but thus far none have been widely adopted.
See Cell Phones, Communications, Arts, Culture, media
Image Sources: 1) Early characters, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 2) Later characters, omniglot ; 3 Oracle bone, United College Hong Kong ; 4) Making an oracle bone, British Museum; 5) Experimental keyboard, wikipedia
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012