Pictures and Chinese characters

Chinese characters are visual, like paintings. They can make an immediate impact upon people, even if they can not read Chinese. However, Chinese characters are not pictures, even though some Chinese characters have a deep connection with drawings.

It all started from the very beginning, the creation of Chinese characters. People believe that Chinese characters were created in four different ways, which are handy tools to categorise characters into four groups.

Pictographic characters 象形字

Thousands of years ago, ancient Chinese used soft lines to outline a rough shape of things. These lines became pictographic characters. When I looked at those ancient scripts, I felt that I was indeed looking at pictures.

Xiang Xing Zi

But, even these ancient scripts are not pictures. 

Pictures are unique and different. Different people draw the same object differently. If one thousand people draw a person, we will see one thousand different renditions of a person. But characters must stay consistent. If one thousand people write the character “”, we will see the same character a thousand times. 

These ancient scripts 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 and intelligible. They were definitely not drawing pictures.

In fact, to use pictures to interpret Chinese characters can be counterintuitive.  Many times pictures tell different meanings from what Chinese characters were invented for. If I did not learn Chinese and I looked at the image of a person standing upright, I would have thought this character must mean “person”, because that is how I, and many other people, draw a person, which is like to playing a hangman game. Unfortunately this image doesn’t not mean “person”. The basic meaning of this character “” is big.

A “person” in ancient scripts looks quite different.

Xiang xing zi - person

For me, the immediate impression of this ancient Chinese character is a person bending down working in a field, a working peasant. Others think differently. If you search on the internet, you can see a few different picture-interpretations of this ancient script, such as a person bowing, or a person extending one hand out ready for a handshake. 

The ancient character “person” has changed over time, from a bending down peasant into a walking person, which means we need a different picture to illustrate the character “”.

Xiang Xing Zi - person 2

But there is a problem that the same picture looks so much like another character “”, which looks like a direct descendant from the ancient script “”. But it is not.

It is fun and interesting to know a little bit about the origins of Chinese characters, but endlessly explaining Chinese characters through pictures seems to me a departure from the core of teaching Chinese reading and writing, especially when the goal is to become literate in Chinese quickly. 

Moreover, using pictures to illustrate Chinese characters may cause misconceptions. While the picture can magnify one meaning of the character, it also covers up many other meanings. For example, if I used a picture of the sun to illustrate the character “”, this would drive into students’ mind that this character means the sun. However, nowadays we usually use “太阳” for the sun, and use “” to express other messages, such as “day”, “life”, “time”, which the picture of the sun can not convey immediately. 

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 320 pictographic characters, if there are that many, in the Chinese Reading and Writing series, I could have filled the books with pages and pages of beautiful pictures. But I would not be able to write a coherent story with them. Instead, this series is filled with pages and pages of Chinese texts, sentences, conversations and narratives.

Indicative characters 指示字

Many things are hard to draw. When usable images ran out, ancient Chinese figured out that they could use some symbols to indicate the meanings. Thus, they created indicative characters. They did as best as they could, and made Chinese characters as simple as possible

Zhi Shi Zi

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

What ancient Chinese created here is even further removed from drawing pictures. These were stable and recognisable writings.

We see the standing person appeared again, with a head this time. But this character does not mean “head”. That dot, where the head is, indicates the sky.  

Indeed, it is quite impossible to use standalone pictures to illustrate these characters

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 more complicated or abstract concepts, such as an action or a process.

Hui Yi Zi

The first one is a running person on top of a foot, that is “”, originally means “to run”. The second one shows two hands together, that became “”, friend or friendship. The third one show three suns together, that became “”,  stars. 

I had to be taught to understand these symbols. Otherwise, I would not understand the first character, and thought the second one means forks, and the third one three eyes, maybe a monster?

There are about 500 associative characters. They demonstrated that ancient Chinese were very flexible and creative. 

Below is an ancient drawing appeared thousands of years ago in Chinese 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 must have been a point when ancient Chinese had a breakthrough in creating new 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. These two parts are called radicals.

Xing Sheng Zi

This is the majority of Chinese characters. There are about 5000 of them. Like learning other characters, we have to be taught to understand the link between the two radicals of each character. Otherwise we won’t be able to decipher the meaning of characters no matter what pictures are used to illustrate them.

When wrong pictures are used

Many Chinese textbooks and teachers rely on Chinese etymology and history to explain Chinese characters. They stay true to their knowledge and are consistent with the images they use. For example, “” will always be a mouth, and “” always the sun, even though etymology constrains them from using pictures freely. 

Different from these old school thinking, there are another different type of pictures people came up to illustrate Chinese characters. They disregard 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 meat “” was turned into a body with organs.

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

In the end, regardless what pictures we use, we will bump into a glass wall that there are just not any suitable and straightforward pictures for all Chinese characters. Remember there are thousands of Chinese characters on the path to Chinese literacy.

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


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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