Archive for November, 2011

What is this site for, anyway?

Monday, 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!