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Chinese characters

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'Citizendium' in Chinese characters. This writing system allows characters to be written top to bottom as well as left to right.

Chinese characters (simplified Chinese 汉字; traditional Chinese: 漢字; hànzì in Mandarin) are symbols used to write varieties of Chinese and - in modified form - other languages, once this writing system spread to such nations as Korea, Japan and Vietnam. They are the world's oldest writing system in that they have the longest record of continuous use, dating back thousands of years. Today, they are mostly used in mainland China (including Hong Kong and Macau), Taiwan, Singapore, other Chinese communities globally, and in Japan and South Korea. Vietnamese is no longer written in characters, and their use has been abolished in North Korea. Characters in mainland China are written in a 'simplified' form, whereas elsewhere 'traditional' characters are maintained. A full list of characters would run to over 47,000 entries, but most of these are variants or obsolete; standardisation took centuries, and most literate users today know up to about 4,000.


How to describe the system of Chinese characters has led to much academic debate among scholars. Everyone agrees that they are certainly not pictograms, which represent something directly, as a drawing of the object itself. Like most if not all writing systems, this is how characters first developed, but subsequently the system became far more abstract as its use extended beyond immediate referents such as the sun, hunted animals and so on. A few characters, such as 山 'mountain' do somewhat resemble that which they represent, but only a small number of characters are like this and it usually difficult to recognise the meaning. Most characters are completely abstract, or what they mean is only obvious with hindsight: 馬,[1] for example.

Likewise, Chinese characters are not ideograms, which are symbols that represent ideas directly. This myth partly arises from the observation that certain characters, particularly some of the more frequent ones, represent words without indicating pronunciation at all: for example, 日 means 'sun', and is pronounced differently depending on the language, or variety of Chinese - in Mandarin, jat6[2] in Cantonese, hi in Japanese. However, the vast majority of characters include a pronunciation element, which gives an idea of the 'reading' (pronunciation) of the character. For example, Mandarin 机 'machine', pronounced , incorporates a 'radical' 木 ('tree'; 'wood') which may give an idea of the meaning, and a 'phonetic' 几 which indicates the pronunciation. The phonetic represents the pronunciation of another character, whose isolated meaning is irrelevant (in this case, 几 means '[small] table'). In the same way, a children's code might use a picture of an eye to represent 'I'. The components of the character do not mean anything in themselves; 机 does not mean 'wood[en] table' in Mandarin, for example, which could be written 木制桌子 and pronounced mùzhì zhuōzi. It does mean 'table' or 'desk' in Japanese kanji, though (pronounced tsukue), as characters often change their meanings over time and in transitions between cultures.


One way of referring to the Chinese writing system is to argue that it is 'logographic' - i.e. one that uses pictorial symbols to represent words. This is misleading, however, due to the pronunciation components of most characters and the traditional view that in Chinese the difference between 'word' and smaller units of linguistic meaning, 'morphemes',[3] is not clear.[4] For example, Mandarin 桌子 zhuōzi 'table' seems to be one word, but the characters in isolation are also meaningful - 桌 means 'table', while 子 could be described as a nominal suffix, though it is debatable exactly how meaningful 子 is here. One could argue that 桌 is the 'word' and 子 just an ending, with 桌子 comprising two morphemes; alternatively 桌子 could be a single word and a single morpheme.


A more accurate way of describing the nature of characters would refer to both the meaning and pronunciation elements found in most characters. A linguistic approach might identify characters as 'morphosyllabic' - morphemic, in that they represent basic units of meaning (morphemes or words), and syllabic, in that in Chinese most characters represent a single syllable, an abstract unit of phonology. Chinese characters do not, therefore, represent 'thoughts on paper' divorced from language, and cannot be easily co-opted to write any language, because they developed to represent the morphemes or words of Chinese, a set of 'isolating' languages in which each syllable is usually meaningful in itself, and has few affixes (such as word endings). Japanese, which is an 'agglutinating' language with many affixes, requires extra symbols to write grammatical particles which have no counterpart in varieties of Chinese - a language to which Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese are all unrelated. These languages also developed many of their own characters to express ideas differently from Chinese culture or indicate local pronunciations.

Japanese kanji

For more information, see: Kanji.

Kanji (漢字, literally 'Chinese characters') are Chinese-derived characters used to write some elements of the Japanese language; some of them were invented in Japan or Korea, so are not Chinese in origin. Kanji are also not used in exactly the same way as traditional or simplified Chinese characters used to write modern Mandarin or other varieties of Chinese, though many characters do have similar or the same meanings. Japanese also makes use of fewer characters than Chinese, so many characters have multiple readings.

Kanji have a long history in Japan, emerging perhaps by the fifth century AD, but initially their use was restricted to the work of highly literate elites who brought the characters from China, often via Korea. Today, there are 1,945 'official' kanji (常用漢字 jooyoo kanji) sanctioned by the Japanese government for learning in schools, and another 983 official characters mainly used in people's names (人名用漢字 jinmeeyoo kanji), but there are also many others that are outside these lists.

Early kanji were borrowed alongside large numbers of Chinese words, so most kanji have at least two readings. One is derived from the Chinese lexicon (音読み on'yomi) - often from up to about 1,500 years ago, and filtered through Japanese phonology - while the other is a native Japanese reading (訓読み kun'yomi). As Chinese and Japanese are unrelated in syntactic, phonological and other grammatical terms, these two readings are very different. For example, the character 口 'mouth' can be read as KOO[5] in the Chinese reading and as kuchi in the Japanese reading. Often, the Chinese reading is used in compounds such as 人口 (jinkoo 'population') while the Japanese form is used when the character stands alone.

Korean hanja

Vietnamese han tu


  1. 'Horse'. The lower strokes were once the legs.
  2. The number indicates one of several tones; in this case, low-level.
  3. A morpheme may be a word or part of one; e.g. English cats has two morphemes, cat and plural -s.
  4. Duanmu (2000: 146).
  5. Chinese readings are capitalised in roomaji for ease of distinction.