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Pictures and Chinese characters

Thousands of years ago when characters were invented, it seems to us that the ancient Chinese were drawing pictures. They made a rough outline of the shape of things and carved them into turtle shells and bones. 

These lines are ancient characters, which are called oracle bone inscriptions. This ancient origin has encouraged people to match characters with images in order to understand them. 

But it does not always work. 

In this article, we’ll have a deep dive into the connection between pictures and Chinese characters by looking at four major ways that characters were created: pictographic characters, indicative characters, associative characters, and picto-phonetic characters.

Pictographic characters 象形字

Ancient oracle bone inscriptions are fascinating texts. Some of them evolved into today’s pictographic characters, such as these four:

Xiang Xing Zi

Suppose you’ve never studied Chinese, what would you think these characters mean? 

Warning: The connection between these characters and the images is not as obvious as it looks.

You probably would have guessed that these characters mean, from left to right, “sun”, “moon”, “person” and “mountain”. 

If so, you’ll get three out of four correct. The only one that is not correct is the third one. By the way, many people have guessed that way. 

The third character is not “person”. It is “big”. This is when matching images with characters doesn’t work. Images say one thing, but characters another. 

It is probably because, compared with “sun”, “moon” and “mountain”, the word “big” is more abstract. This points out a difficulty that ancient Chinese faced when inventing characters with abstract concepts or intangible objects. Perhaps at one point, they ran out of images to use and had to figure something else out.

Below is what a Chinese character for “person” looks like, and its ancient form:

Xiang xing zi - person

The immediate impression of this ancient Chinese character is a person bending down working in a field, a working peasant. This image is so different from our current perception. 

Today, many Chinese teachers love to use the following image to illustrate the character “person” :

Xiang Xing Zi - person 2

The image is changed from a bending down peasant into a walking person, which is fine for people who do not know about its ancient origin. 

People don’t get hurt by what they don’t know.

And if a Chinese teacher uses a walking person to illustrate this Chinese character, she may not want to show her students its ancient origin. Because this ancient character for “person” looks too much like another Chinese character “”, meaning “to enter”.

If she did, she would have broken the connection between images and the meanings of characters. Many Chinese teachers refuse to do so.

Also, pictures are unique and different. Different people draw the same object differently. If one thousand people draw an object, we will see one thousand different renditions of the same object. 

But characters must stay consistent. We expect to see the same character a thousand times.

These ancient characters have been very stable and consistent. When ancient Chinese carved these scripts into turtle shells or oracle bones, they had to make sure that these scripts were standardised. They were definitely not drawing pictures.

Moreover, using pictures to illustrate Chinese characters may cause misconceptions. The picture magnifies one meaning at expenses of others. For example, although the original meaning for character “” is the sun, we use “太阳” for the sun nowadays and use “” for something else, such as “day”, “life”, “time”, all of which an image of the sun can not convey adequately.

There are about 300 pictographic characters in total. Many of them have gradually changed meanings. And many are no longer in active use. 

If I had selected 300 pictographic characters for the Chinese Reading and Writing series, I could have filled the books with pages and pages of images. But I would not be able to write a coherent story with them.

Indicative characters 指示字

We mentioned earlier that abstract concepts are hard to draw. 

So, when images ran out, ancient Chinese figured out that they could use some symbols to indicate the meanings. Thus, they created indicative characters.

Take a look at these four characters:

Zhi Shi Zi

The only image that is very recognisable is the standing person, with a head this time. But you’ve learned your lesson.

These four characters, from left to right, mean: “above”, “below”, “sky” and “fundamental”.

What ancient Chinese created here is further removed from drawing pictures.

There are not many indicative characters in Chinese, only about 20 of them. 

Associative characters 会意字

The next inventive method ancient Chinese used is to put two or more symbols together and created associative characters to describe actions or more complicated concepts.

Hui Yi Zi

The first one is a running person on top of a foot, meaning “to run” originally. The second one shows two hands together (they look like forks), meaning “friend”. The third one show three suns together, that became “star”. 

I had to be taught to understand these symbols. Otherwise, I would not have understood any of them. 

There are about 500 associative characters in Chinese. 

Below is an ancient character of this category, that appeared in oracle bone inscriptions. Without me giving out which Chinese character it is today, can you decipher its meaning?

ancient Chinese character

Picto-phonetic characters 形声字

There was a point when ancient Chinese had a breakthrough in creating Chinese characters. They were no longer limited by the shape of things, or arranging symbols to indicate meanings. They invented a kind of analytical characters, with one part giving indication to the sound, while the other gives some hint on meaning. 

Xing Sheng Zi

They created thousands of characters this way, the majority of Chinese characters, and completely removed characters from images.

Like learning other characters, we have to be taught to understand these characters. The above illustration says next to nothing without detailed verbal explanation. 

When wrong pictures are used

There are Chinese teachers who stay true to their knowledge and are consistent with the images they use. For example, “” will always be a mouth, and “” always the sun.

Different from these old school thinking, there are a type of pictures people came up to illustrate Chinese characters, disregarding what a character or a component means. All they want to achieve is to make a picture out of a character. 

Chinese character - to eat

In this picture, the mouth component “”, became the food. The component “”, which means “to beg”, became part of the face.

Chinese character - meat

In this picture, character for meat “” was turned into a body with organs.

This type of pictures are creative and interesting, but they distort the characters completely. Ancient Chinese would have rolled in their graves if they saw them.

Even as creative as these, this type of pictures can not be carried out for very long, because, regardless how creative people can be, they will for sure bump into a ceiling that there are just not enough pictures for all Chinese characters. 

(Reference: 孙玉溱, 孙危.《趣味汉字》. 内蒙古教育出版社. 2002.)

April Zhang

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