It is the Chinese script that brings together the cultural area common to the Chinese people. Chinese writing started thousands of years ago and apart from China has found its way to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Newspaper literacy requires 2,000 to 3,000 characters. An educated Chinese native speaker will know about 8,000 characters.
As a rule, a character corresponds to a single syllable. All characters have the same distance to one another and individual words are not separated by a space. Chinese words consist of one or more syllables and are consequently composed of one or more characters. In old Chinese most words consisted of only one or two characters. In modern times with more and more words coming into the Chinese language, words also consist of two or more characters. Now most Chinese words consist of two characters.
Every syllable has its own meaning. If a word consists of two or more syllables, the meaning of these two or more syllables form a new meaning, which is often the sum of its individual syllables' meanings. The character 地 (dì) for example means "land" and the character 圖 (tú) means "plan" or "image". If you combine these two characters, you'll get the word 地圖 (dìtú) meaning "map".
In classical Chinese the characters were written in vertical columns from top to bottom and from right to left. Nowadays in the age of computers, for most books, newspapers and journals horizontal writing from left to right is used. For calligraphy and poems, however, Chinese are still using the traditional way of writing.
Traditional versus simplified characters
In 1949, the People's Republic of China adopted simplified Chinese characters. The aim of the reform was to increase literacy in China. For complicated characters the number of strokes were reduced for easier writing. The reform affected the People's Republic of China, Singapore and Malaysia. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese did not adopt the reform and are still using the traditional characters.
The following table shows the visual appearance of traditional and simplified characters:
Reception of simplified characters
Reform critics argue that the characters lose their symmetry, harmony and meaning. They also argue that their simplification does not make them easier to remember.
This is mainly due to the fact that a greater resemblance of characters to one another adds to confusion. And reading texts written before 1950 still requires a good passive understanding of the
Calligraphers do not write the simplified characters because they criticise their poor aesthetics. In China the art of calligraphy is as old as writing itself.
Basic element and indicator of its meaning is the character's radical. A character may only consists of its radical but may also consist of its radical and additional strokes. In the past, the number of radicals amounted to 540 whereas modern dictionaries now only list a total of 214 radicals.
If Chinese do not know the meaning or pronunciation of the character they are looking for, they use its radical to look up the character in a dictionary. For locating the character in a dictionary, they first need to find out the character's radical. Since this task is not always an easy one, Chinese dictionaries list characters in radical order. The radicals are arranged in the form of a table and are numbered according to their shape and number of strokes. Once you know the radical, you just count the character's strokes in addition to its radical. Below the number of the radical and its amount of additional strokes you will find the character's entry.
In the following example we want to find the character 事 in the dictionary. The character's radical is 亅. Apart from its radical, the character consists of 7 additional strokes. On the right side of the screenshot below we see all characters containing the radical 亅 (6 characters).
If we only want to see the characters containing the radical 亅 and having 7 additional strokes, we will find the radical we are looking for, namely the character 事.
In the following section you will find all 214 radicals arranged in their stroke order plus their English translation and pronunciation using HanYu-Pinyin.
As already mentioned in the section above, a Chinese character consists of its radical and, in most cases, of additional strokes defining the character's shape and final meaning. When writing a character, Chinese follow a certain order in which the strokes are set to paper. This ensures proper hand movements, speed and readability, especially when writing more complex characters. The correct stroke order is taught to Chinese children at school, however, there are slight variations between the PRC, Taiwan, HongKong, Singapore, Japan and Korea.
A single stroke includes all the hand movements necessary to produce a part of a character before lifting the writing instrument again to write the next stroke. So, a single stroke may not necessarily consist of one movement but can also change its writing direction. There are basic strokes for which the writer only moves into one direction. But there are also compound strokes in which there are abrupt changes in direction within one and the same stroke.
The following illustrations show how to proceed for writing Chinese characters in the correct order.
Meaning of characters
Whenever a new character was formed, it could be associated to one out of six character principles.
1. Pictures or pictographs
Some Chinese characters are pictures. The meaning is clear just by looking at them, since they reflect the shape of the actual object to be described.
a. The character for man is a stick drawing of a man. His upright posture with is feet apart reflects authority and self-confidence.
b. The character for middle is a downstroke through the centre of a rectangle suggesting 'middle'.
c. The character for mouth suggests an open mouth.
2. Symbols or ideographs
Some Chinese characters are symbols for the meaning they stand for.
a. The character for above or upwards looks like a set of stairs guiding you the way up.
b. The character for below or downwards looks like a chute to slide down on.
c. The character for two only consists of two strokes suggesting two pieces.
3. Ideograms or meaning-meaning compounds
Ideograms are a combination of two or more pictograms giving the character a new but related meaning.
a. The character for Forest is a duplication of the character for tree 木.
b. The character for Brightness combines the characters for sun 日 and moon 月.
c. The character for East combines the character for sun 日 and tree 木. The sun tangles in the branches of a tree when rising in the east.
4. Phonograms or sound-meaning compounds
Phonograms represent 90% of all Chinese characters. Phonograms consist of two parts. One part suggests the meaning of the character and the other part its pronunciation.
a. The character for Paper is a phonogram. The radical for silk 糸 suggests the meaning. In China, before inventing paper, silk was used as a substrate to write on. 氏 (shì) gives a
hint to its pronunciation (zhǐ).
b. In the character for to sing the mouth (口) gives the meaning and 昌 (chāng) suggests the character's final pronunciation (chàng).
5. Sound loans
Sound loans are characters which were borrowed and used for writing another word having the same sound. For example, in ancient Chinese the character for wheat (來) had the same pronunciation as to come, namely (lái). That's why the character for wheat (來) was borrowed for writing the character for to come (also 來). To avoid confusion wheat is no longer pronounced lái in Chinese but mái.
6. Reclarified compounds
Reclarified compounds are characters which share a similarity in appearance and meaning, but not necessarily in pronunciation.
a. The character for test is derived from the character for old (b.) since according to Confucianism only the "old" were allowed to test.