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Reference Information to Ease Your Chinese Character Study

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Most westerners assert that Chinese characters are the most difficult
part in learning Chinese language. In my opinion, to learn written
Chinese efficiently, one must know about the origin of the character and
its evolution.

Chinese character, learn to write Chinese, written Chinese, learn
Chinese, learn Mandarin, Chinese culture, Chinese history

Article Body:
Chinese characters seem the most difficult part for foreign friends to
learn the Chinese language. In my opinion, the main reason for that may
be Chinese characters look very different from their quarter parts in the
Roman languages: each character represents not only the pronunciation,
but a certain meaning. Many a complaint comes from that Chinese
characters are so unlike each other that you have to learn them one by
one, and there are so many to memory, and that when encountering a new
character, the previous knowledge of other ones helps little, you can
neither pronounce it directly nor guess what it means. Actually, there
really are some connections between Chinese characters, all composed in a
defined way. You are unable to discover that probably because the numbers
of the characters you know are too limited, or you didn't learn them in
the Chinese perspective.

Chinese characters are the writing system to record the Chinese language.
With a history as long as 8,000 years at least, it's perhaps the oldest
surviving writing system in the world. An old Chinese legend said that
Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie, a historian official under
the legendary emperor, Huangdi in 2600 BC. Obviously, the fable cannot
possibly be true, for the creation of a great writing system made of so
many characters are such a huge project, too huge to be one single
person's accomplishment. But perhaps Cangjie really made some
contributions in the existing Chinese writing system: instead of the
inventor, he might be a collector and collator of scattered Chinese
characters in ancient China. Thanks to many a contributor like Cangjie
and the common people using and spreading characters, a complete well-
developed writing system had finally come to birth. The indisputably
evidence is Chinese character inscriptions found on turtle shells dating
back to the Shang dynasty (1766-1123 BC), formally called Oracle bone
script. Of the 4,600 known Oracle bone logographs, about 1,000 can be
identified with later Chinese characters, and the other unidentifiable
ones are mostly the names of people, places or clans.

In view of formation, written Chinese is a script of ideograms. Xu Shen,
in the Eastern Han Dynasty (121 AD), was a distinguished scholar who had
attained unparalleled fame for his etymological dictionary entitled Shuo
Wen Jie Zi, whose literal meaning is "explaining written language and
parsing words". In Shuo wen, Chinese characters are classified into six
categories, namely pictogram, ideograph, logical aggregates,
pictophonetic compounds, borrowing and associate transformation. However,
the last twos are often omitted, for the characters of these categories
have been created before but somehow borrowed to represent another
meaning, or detached into separate words. Generally, Chinese characters
fall into four categories in view of their origin.

Pictograms (Xiang4 xing2 zi4)
Pictograms are the earliest characters to create, and they usually
reflect the shape of physical objects. Examples include the sun, the
moon, a woman, fire. From this picture-drawing method, the other
character forming principles were subsequently developed. Over a long
history, pictograms have evolved from irregular drawing into a definite
form, most simplified by losing certain strokes to make ease of writing.
Therefore, to see the actual picture of what it represents, you must have
a lot of imagination as well as knowledge of the origin of the character
and its evolution. However, only a very small portion of Chinese
characters falls into this category, not more than 5 percent.

Ideograph (Zhi3 shi4 zi4)
Also called a simple indicative, Ideograph usually describes an abstract
concept. It's a combination of indicators, or adds an indicator to a
pictograph. For example, a short horizontal bar on top of a circular arc
represents an idea of up or on top of. Another example: placing an
indicative horizontal bar at the lower part of a pictogram for wood,
makes an ideograph for "root". Like pictograms, the number of this
category is also small, less than 2 percent.

Logical aggregates (Hui4 yi4 zi1)
It is a combination of pictograms to represent a meaning, rather like
telling a little story. A pictograph for person on the left with a
pictogram for wood on the right makes a aggregate for "rest". This story-
telling formation is relatively easier to learn, yet most of aggregates
have been reformed into phonetic compounds, or just replaced by them.

Pictophonetic compounds (Xing2 sheng1 zi4)
Also called semantic-phonetic compounds, just as the name implies, it
combines a semantic element with a phonetic element, taking the meaning
from one and the phonetics from the other. For instance, the character
for ocean with a pronunciation of yang2 is a combination of a semantic
classifier which means “water” with the phonetic component yang2,
referring to goat or sheep on its own. This last group of characters is
the largest in modern Chinese, making up around 90% of all Chinese
The superiority of phonetic-compounds over the first three categories
lies in its unique phonetic components, for many an object and concept
are hard to express through photographs or ideograms, and its association
with the character pronunciation helps Chinese vocabulary extends much
faster than logical aggregates. Therefore, most newly created characters
take this more scientific formation approach.
However, over the centuries evolution, the Chinese language has
undertaken such a great change, that most pictophonetic compounds don't
pronounce as its phonetic elements any longer, and the semantic
components appear even not relevant to its current meaning. Only when
knowing the origin and evolution of the character, you can understand its
formation. For example, the phonetic-compound for cargo or goods takes
the character for shell as the semantic element, and that's because
shells used to be a medium of exchange in ancient China, like the

I do hope the above information can be of some help in your study of
Chinese characters. Please tell me what you think about it, so I could be
a better help in the future writing. Thank you!