Is 70,000 enough?

February 8th, 2012

No one will fault me for updating this site too often.  However, it is growing in its usefulness in proportion to the time it’s been available.  When the site first went live back in July, 2007, you could find all of about 4,400 characters.  Less than a year later, I more than doubled the amount of characters you could look up on the site, to a total of about 13,000.  While this is number means you’re more than 99% likely to find any character you want to look up, it doesn’t come close to the actual number of Chinese characters in existence.  According to some sources there are well over 100,000 characters.  The number that can be represented on a computer using the Unicode system right now number at least 70,000.  Guess what?  You can now find all of them here on this site.

This means that, using the “Search for a character” box as input, every Chinese character you can represent on the internet today can be found on this site.  Before, if the character wasn’t one of the 13,000 the script would tell you that it wasn’t available on this site.

Just because we have all 70,000+ characters in the database doesn’t mean you’ll get the same amount of information for the more obscure characters.  Right now we have decomposition information available.  That means if the character can be broken down into its components you will get links to the individual components, most of which have extensive information on this site.  In the future we’ll provide more information, but this is a start.

The other change is as follows: Previously if you entered more than one character you received an error saying, “Too many characters.”  Now the script will create links to all the characters with the message, ” Click a character to view its entry.”

I hope these changes are helpful.  They also give an indication that, although there haven’t been many changes to the site lately, we haven’t stopped developing improvements in the background.  Expect to see more leaps forward in the future.

What is this site for, anyway?

November 14th, 2011

This web site was created to help answer the following questions:  Where do Chinese characters come from?  Why do they look that way?  What do they mean?  How are they used?

It occurs to me that it may not be obvious to a first-time user of this site how it tries to answer these questions.  Hopefully this post will provide the necessary background information.

First of all, where do Chinese characters come from?  To answer this question we should first ask, where does writing come from?  Westerners are very familiar with using alphabetic symbols to represent sounds in writing.  However we shouldn’t imagine that one day someone just started writing random shapes and called them letters.  In fact, there is evidence that in all cases the first writing was pictographic.  The logic of this kind of writing survives until today in the form of Rebus puzzles.  Take this simple one for example:

Simple rebus

“Eye” sounds like “I” and “ewe” sounds like “you”, etc.  In this way we can see that early writing could use pictures to represent sounds.  Over time we can also see why the writing would tend to be simplified and stylized, since such characters are easier to write than complex pictures.  You might be interested to see how our modern Roman alphabet is considered by some to have evolved from earlier pictographic alphabets:

Evolution of letters
Where letters come from

In fact, the origin of Chinese characters is very similar.  The pictographs used in both early writing systems contained animals (such as birds), everyday implements (eg. bowls), and natural features (such as water).  They also prominently featured anthropomorphic shapes, such as the head, hands, feet, etc.  This talk about pictographs may naturally remind you of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system.  This is a logical step, because Chinese characters developed in a similar way.

In a purely phonetic alphabet, such as modern Western languages use, each character stands purely for sound.  In our rebus example, the picture of the “eye” would always represent “I” and never represent an eye.  For this we need to use other characters, such as the modern e-y-e.  On the other hand, ancient Egyptian and Chinese writing systems are based on the idea that, instead of using e-y-e to spell eye, why not use the eye as a symbol to represent meaning, not just sound?

In this case the eye (or hand, or duck, or whatever) appears, not as a phonetic element, but as a semantic, or meaning, element.  More about phonetic and semantic elements can be found here.

To follow this line of thinking even further, you can visit this page for a whimsical consideration of how we might use the Chinese style of writing to represent English words.

Back to the second question in my introduction:  Why do Chinese characters look that way?  On the home page, as well as the individual pages devoted to the more than 13,000 characters referenced on this site, there is a prominent feature at the top of the page.  There you see images going from left to right labeled “simplified,” “traditional,” “ancient,” and “archaic.”  These images trace the development of Chinese characters back in time.  Going from right to left, we start with the oldest extant samples of said character.  Holding your mouse pointer over the “Archaic forms” or “Ancient forms” tabs will provide pop-up information (on the right page border) about what each of these character forms represent.

Once you are used to seeing the changes in the characters over the eons, it will become easier to see where each character’s shape comes from.  This has been an endless source of fascination for me and I hope it will prove interesting to you.

Now that you’ve read this post, you’re ready to absorb the information on this page if you’d like to learn more.

To answer the last two questions:  What do they mean?  How are they used?  You’ll need to spend some time looking characters up on this site.  Happy browsing!

Semantic vs. “Radical”

January 30th, 2009

This post may get a bit technical for the less technically-inclined. But those people probably aren’t the ones frequenting this site anyway. After all, who but the technically-inclined aren’t going to run screaming from learning Chinese characters?

“The term radical has been strenuously objected to by some,” states the Wikipedia article on this subject, which I would highly recommend to anyone with at least a passing interest in the subject. Basically, the word “radical” in this context was borrowed from its use as a description of European-language words. A radical is a root which, once identified, gives a clue to the meaning of the word as a whole. For example, the fact that “chatter” contains “chat” as its root lets us know that chattering is related to chatting.

This concept breaks down, though, when applied to Chinese. We could posit the idea that every single Chinese character, which itself represents a morpheme, is a semantic root. There are some characters which are frequently used to form prefixes or suffixes, but they often can stand for a meaning in their own right. Therefore, it is not necessary to break down a character in order to find its root meaning component, insomuch as the character represents a unit of speech.

Thus today the study of Chinese etymology has been divided into two camps: (1) Those who seek understanding of written Chinese by seeking to understand the development of the characters. For this study, I am of the opinion that you could find no better place to start than this site right here. (2) Those who seek to trace the meanings of Chinese words by considering only the sounds of the words, and largely ignoring the shapes of the characters, which do not have a 1/1 correspondence with the sounds they represent. If this interests you, I recommend using the links to the Tower of Babel site that are found on the Reference pages for each character in our database. Although far from exhaustive, the Tower of Babel site contains information about the phonetic development of thousands of Chinese morphemes (represented by characters). This second method was pioneered by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren, who also contributed greatly to the modern understanding of the characters themselves. But back to the subject.

Although a scientific inquiry into the development of Chinese words may or may not involve studying the characters themselves, let me take this opportunity to state emphatically that there is value in breaking the characters down for learning purposes. Unlike most other modern languages, which are purely phonetic in representation, Chinese words contain elements that directly hint at the meaning. In my opinion, it would be a shame if we ignored these elements while trying to learn the characters. But what do we call them?

Since, as I mentioned above, the idea of radical as meaning semantic root doesn’t really apply to Chinese in the same way it does to purely phonetic written languages, we could extend it to refer to the semantic root of the character itself, that is, its fundamental meaning component. However, the same Wikipedia page I cited above notes an example where this breaks down, namely . In this character () is the traditional radical but in reality the meaning is contained in which is not only the modern simplified version but actually the original version of the character. In case this is confusing let me explain. At some point in time the Chinese scribes decided they needed to add more components to the characters in order to make them easier to classify. That’s why they added to , even though (click through to see the original pictographic form) already contained a hand at the top (which, by the time of the scribes, had apparently already become too obfuscated to perceive). For some reason, in addition to the new character , the old one continued in use as well, or was later resurrected into use, and now we have the two characters with a related meaning but different “radicals”. In short, trying to classify characters by their apparent semantic components is an exercise in futility.

If we reject the notion of calling semantic components “radicals,” what other options do we have? Wikipedia states, “any portion bearing meaning rather than purely sound” is now generally termed a semantic component or element, a determinative, or a signific. While “semantic” seems to be the most common alternative to “radical,” it also is related to “signific,” both terms implying the use of signs, that is, markers of meaning. If this seems abstract, consider a literal sign as used along the road in many countries with pictures or diagrams intended to make the sign understandable to as many passersby as possible, regardless of their language. Here and here are a couple of humorous examples. Chinese meaning components (in their original forms) were made to serve a similar function.

Wikipedia says the third, and de facto prevailing meaning of “Chinese radical” is section headers of a Chinese dictionary. Although the terms “section header” or “classifier” are other alternative translations of the Chinese word 部首 bùshou, neither of them are a particularly fitting translation, nor are they as catchy as the word “radical.” Hence, there seems only one logical choice for the name of a lookup index.

One last word about radicals (in the prevailing sense mentioned above): By whatever name we call them, English or Chinese, they are by nature arbitrary. As in the case of above, it is impossible to consistently identify the “root” or even the meaning components without an exhaustive investigation into the original forms of the characters and the reason for their inclusion (if that were possible, which it isn’t). So using a radical index to find characters will always involve frustration for the user. If there were only a better way to organize characters! There is, but I’ll leave that subject for a future post.

I hope, first, that you’ve followed this discussion so far, and second, that it was enlightening or even convincing. I’m hoping to contribute to the trend toward using the word “semantic” to describe meaning components. As far as using the word radical to describe character indexes, it seems there is little alternative. That is, unless you, dear reader, can coin a new English phrase that fits the bill better. Of course, it’s really just a question of semantics, isn’t it?

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Semantic and phonetic

March 18th, 2008

If you’re new to learning Chinese characters, or even if you’re not, these words may sound like buzzwords. Here’s a brief breakdown of what these words mean.

“Semantic” has to do with meaning. If a component is semantic, it adds to the meaning of the character. Some components tell a story, such as plum: A kind of tree children like. Others just seem to contribute a suggestion to the meaning, as (good) contains woman and child , two things a man is fond of, suggesting something good.

Phonetic components have some relation to the sound of the character. Ma is a spoken particle (the semantic part is a mouth) that just happens to sound like the Chinese word for horse . Often the phonetic will help you learn the exact sound of the character, even the tone. However, most often it is only a hint, and sometimes it is even misleading. Chinese, being a very old language, is always changing and therefore words which at one time had a similar sound no longer sound alike. These clues can still be helpful. At the very least knowing about them makes it easier to understand and remember the characters.

Much of the semantic and phonetic information on this site comes from an ancient compilation of Chinese characters known as the
Shuowen Jiezi (), as well as other sources. As I go through the characters one by one I have been evaluating the phonetics based on the early pronunciations of the related characters and making adjustments. The more commonly known a character is, the more likely the components listed reflect original semantic or phonetic components.

At a later time I will post an article about why I avoid the use of the word “radical” except in dictionary lookup tables.

Latest update

March 11th, 2008

With regard to Chinese character information, this site aims to provide both breadth and depth. The depth comes from the unique etymological information that you won’t find anywhere else except on this site, because it is original research. As pointed out in the last post, this research is found so far on the pages devoted to the most common 1000 characters and their base components.

The breadth, on the other hand, comes from the number of characters this site provides information about. Today I have updated the site to give information not only for the most common 3-4000 characters, but for over 13,000. This means virtually every character you will encounter online is contained in this database, along with information about it. One of the most valuable features this site offers (in my opinion) is the “contained in” tab. This not only shows you common words containing the character but also shows which other characters contain this character as a component. The most common phonetic sound value is given when available. This is useful for committing the component to memory as it can help you to predict the sound of new characters you will encounter containing this component.

Here’s an example: The character is commonly used as a phonetic. By clicking the link you can see that is not always a phonetic component, and when it is, the resulting characters have a variety of pronunciations. However, two pronunciations, hong and gong, clearly stand out above the rest. This means when you see a character you don’t know that contains as a phonetic, there is a good chance it is pronounced hong or gong.

In the future, this site shall contain more information about simplified characters. For now, there is a new section devoted to simplified character phonetics. Although there is some overlap between the two sections, this new section helps you to find simplified characters that use a different phonetic than their traditional equivalent. Although looking up simplified characters on this site still isn’t as easy as I’d like it to be, this step should help.

New additions

July 20th, 2007

This week, I’ve updated the data on the site. Many characters now have added information. In fact, there is now etymological and mnemonic information for all of the top 1000 characters.

The first real blog post

July 12th, 2007

Greetings, site visitors,

You may have wondered why there are so many “posts” on this weblog. I’m using WordPress’s ability to keep track of comments, so I can add an interactive element to each page of the site.

Please take a moment to look around. Try going to the radical index and clicking a heading. Then click on one of the characters. You’ll be presented with a “character information” page. Find simplified, traditional, and ancient forms of the character. See Mandarin pronunciations and English definitions. For some characters, etymological information is given, showing how the character developed and giving a useful mnemonic to help you remember it.

Notice the tabs at the top. They give you more information about the character, as well as an opportunity to post your own comments.

Speaking of comments, we love feedback. What do you think of this site?

Discussion of the character 接

March 21st, 2007

This is the place to discuss the character receive; continue; catch; connect. Click the tabs above for more information. Feel free to post any thoughts or questions you have about this character.

Discussion of the character 材

March 21st, 2007

This is the place to discuss the character material, stuff; timber; talent. Click the tabs above for more information. Feel free to post any thoughts or questions you have about this character.

Discussion of the character 場

March 21st, 2007

This is the place to discuss the character open space, field, market. Click the tabs above for more information. Feel free to post any thoughts or questions you have about this character.