Chinese Characters

I blogged about China for 5 years but still didn’t mention the Chinese character. How can it be possible. Let me talk about the Chinese characters today.

It is Completely Different from English

I am not talking about the language itself, I am talking about the characters. Is there a difference?

The written language of many language, like English and German, are record of the pronunciation. You see the written language, and chances are, you can pronounce it.

Chinese charters are the record of meanings, or the object, and has separation between the oral language, or the pronunciation.

This major difference makes it possible for Chinese to survive in the last 2 thousands years, and, in my personal belief, to hold the country as a united country.

Examples

China is so large, and pronunciation of the same language changes dramatically. For example, in Southeast part of China, almost every village has their own variety of pronunciation, and it differs from each other every 10 km.

I could not understand the language Shanghainese say, and now I can understand but still cannot say the language after I am in this city for 12 years. It is not just accent – it is completely another language!

However, the written language of the whole China is the same. No matter how different people pronounce, when they write it down, it is the same language! That is the amazing thing about Chinese.

The Written Language

How does it work? You may ask.

Look at this picture I draw.

On the first line is the original Chinese characters.

A circle with a dot in it means the Sun. A moon shape with cloud around it is the Moon. What people mean by putting the Sun and the Moon together? It means light, bright…

On the right, there are two characters, one is pointing to top, and one is pointing down. So the left one means “up” and the right one means “down”.

At the bottom, there are one line, meaning 1, two lines = 2, and three lines = 3.

Then with the mountain shape – a horizontal line with three vertical lines above it (with the middle one higher), people are expressing “mountain”, and for water, they draw it like water.

That is the origin of the Chinese characters.

In the several thousands characters (two thousands are commonly used), the most basic characters are either the same of the nature, or has some meaning like 1, 2, 3…

Pronunciation and Characters

I just imagine. If someone pronounce 山 (or Mountain) as Mountain, and pronounce 一 (or one) as one, as long as they write it the same way, they are still speaking Chinese!

From the middle of the last century, a general pronounciation was enforced to make it easy for people to communicate. This is called Putonghua 普通话 or Mandarin. Many people say basically two languages, with Putonghua and the local language.

I am convinced because of people share the same written language, China is always a united nation while empire like its size already broke into smaller countries. If China should have used a language the record the pronunciation, it should have already be the same situation as Europe – German, French, English… many very similar but different languages, thus became different countries.

Just because it is the shape of the nature, I still can directly read all the books written thousands of years ago without too much difficulty (a little bit). This is a miracle that I enjoy.

Hope this helps to bring some interest about Chinese to you.

23 Comments

  1. Jian Shuo, that was a great explanation. Thanks.

    Please keep teaching more about the Chinese language.

  2. Jian Shuo, why not you setup up a podcast and teach some Chinese language? teaching other how to pronounce in Chinese language

  3. “…the written language of the whole China is the same. No matter how different people pronounce, when they write it down, it is the same language!”

    Wow, this was really very interesting to learn, Jian Shuo.

    Even though I live in an area where many Chinese families have settled, and I have many friends whose first language is Chinese, I never before knew this important fact.

    I feel sure that your theory about the way European languages have developed, and how Europe is composed of so many different countries, has merit. A very long time ago I studied French and Spanish. Because of this, I can somewhat understand both Italian and Portugese. But even though I can neither understand nor speak German, I could at least read the maps and street signs when I was traveling in Germany. However, a few years ago when I visited Taiwan, it was the first time since I was a small child when I found myself unable to read!

    I’m sure that the reason “Esperanto”, which was an attempt to develop a common “world language”, never caught on is because it was based on both romance languages and Western characters. So much of the world reads and speaks some form of Chinese, it would be difficult to combine those two linguistic sources into a truly usable “world language”.

    If someone in your generation can find a way to overcome these difficulties so that everyone in the world really could communicate easily with each other, I think that would be a most important step toward world harmony!

  4. Jian Shuo,

    I think you are absolutely right about Chinese. Because the characters

    are not necessarily tied to the sound, one can learn to communicate

    in writing without having to learn what sound to use. So the poor languages stuck with “water” and “l’eau” and “agua” can’t easily exchange information with each other, but if you know 水; means the same thing, you don’t have to master the sound-based spelling to communicate.

    The first time I was in China and understood very little Chinese (well, that’s still mostly true) people would write on their hands to communicate what I hadn’t understood them saying. I was so flattered that they thought I could read that. But now I understand why. Hey, I’m still flattered. I use chinesepod.com to learn more, but I’ve got a long way to go.

  5. I first starting learning chinese at 7 and the first words I learnt was 1, 2, 3 in chinese. What I cannot is why 4, (si) is not 4 horizontal stokes? The reason? Thats how I ended up writting 4 for the next few months in chinese class….

  6. I first starting learning chinese at 7 and the first words I learnt was 1, 2, 3 in chinese. What I cannot understand is why 4, (si) is not 4 horizontal stokes? The reason? Thats how I ended up writting 4 for the next few months in chinese class….

  7. Jianshuo, this is a very interesting post. Thank you for letting people from all over the world learn more about our language and culture. It is really true that “…the written language of the whole China is the same. No matter how different people pronounce, when they write it down, it is the same language!”.

    Even in our neighboring countries, their characters were borrowed from or influenced by the Chinese characters. Especially in Japanese, their Kanji means Chinese character in Japanese language. Though pronounced in totally different ways, the character itself has almost the same or similar meaning in Chinese. Therefore, when I was travelling in Japan, I didn’t find it too difficult to walk around because I can read and guess a lot from their characters. It is also very useful to communicate with the Japanese by writing down Chinese characters. One day, it was raining and my friend wanted to walk out of the hotel to buy some stuff. He saw an umbrella at the door. He then wrote to the Japanese front-desk girl using just two characters “伞用?” (umbrella use?). The girl, who could not speak English, smiled and replied with three characters “他人物” (other people’s stuff). So my friend could understand it belonged to others not the hotel. Isn’t this amazing? Therefore, I still cannot understand why the Koreans abandoned the Chinese characters Hanja.

    Sorry for the long comment. :)

  8. This post is an oversimplification of a complex topic, at best. To learn more about the relationship between the chinese written language and spoken language, I would recommend reading some of these:

    http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/ideographic_myth.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Written_Chinese

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Written_Cantonese

  9. two conjectures on why 4 is not using four bars.

    1.) suppose it’s true, then how to deal with 5? or 6? it becomes more and more difficult to identify. hence a new strategy need to be implemented.

    2.) it may be related to the classic Yi Jing which was originated almost three thousands years ago. Yi uses 3 drawings of Yin (–) and Yang (__) to represent the world. and that’s 2^3*2^3 = 64 combinations. People were thinking this is enough. (not long ago, computers are still using 16 drawings of 0 and 1, that is, 64k states to represent the world. and even today, most cryptography are based on 128 drawings.)

  10. To Passby:

    Thank you for your kind explaination but I don’t get you are trying to say in point 2. What is Yi Jing? Then the mathematical part is completely confusing to me. what is 2^3*2^3? then what about the computer and all…can you make it simplier? I also don’t understand what is “yin” and what is “yang”. Isn’t “yin” the word of the dead in toism and “yang” the world of the living?

    Yeah you are right. I was writing 4 as 4 horizontal strokes, 5 as 5 horizontal strokes and 6 as…..etc for months when I first learn chinese.

  11. To Passby:

    Thank you for your kind explaination but I don’t get what you are trying to say in point 2. What is Yi Jing? Then the mathematical part is completely confusing to me. what is 2^3*2^3? then what about the computer and all…can you make it simplier? I also don’t understand what is “yin” and what is “yang”. Isn’t “yin” the word of the dead in toism and “yang” the world of the living?

    Yeah you are right. I was writing 4 as 4 horizontal strokes, 5 as 5 horizontal strokes and 6 as…..etc for months when I first learn chinese.

  12. Very good blog entry… I have been learning chinese (mandarin) orally, for many years now, and am now beginning (for the last 2-years) to master the art of chinese characters (reading and writing) – I’m really loving it, although it can be very challenging for me!! FYI – I can also speak Shanghai dialect and some Ningbo dialect, fue to family requirements… :D

  13. To Elaine:

    Yi Jing (易经) is a Chinese ancient bible.

    Yin(阴) and Yang(阳) is similar to 0 and 1 in computer field, Yi Jing uses Yin Yang to describe the world, and the computers use 0 1 to do so.

    To Jianshuo:

    Though I agree “Chinese charters are the record of meanings, or the object, and has separation between the oral language, or the pronunciation.”

    But I disagree “This major difference makes it possible for Chinese to survive in the last 2 thousands years, and, in my personal belief, to hold the country as a united country.”

    To use “spelling language” or “meaning language”, will be a key cause to survive a large long-time united country? I don’t think so.

    Maybe “meaning language” will help a little, but I think that there must be other more important factors to make China United so long.

  14. 你的外语真好 。。

    are there body who could recommend a bbs about skyscraper to me please ?

    thanks so much !

  15. 你的外语真好 。。

    are there any body who could recommend a bbs about skyscraper to me please ?

    thanks so much !

  16. are there any body who could recommend a bbs about skyscraper to me please ?

    thanks so much !

  17. by the way . i am a chinese .. 谢谢

  18. Sorry for making you confused, Elaine. And thanks for helping me out, Water!

    I should be more careful when I wrote those things down.

    Yin/Yang is just a term, or symbol, or whatever. Yin is female, static, passive, … while Yang is male, dynamic, active, … Or dead vs. living as you guessed. Like most abstract concepts in Chinese philosphy, there is no clear defintion, you need to “appreciate” it. (And it’s interesting to observe that the Taoism prefer Yin over Yang.)

    Suppose you need one of either Yin or Yang, then you have 2 possibilities(Yin/Yang). If you need a sequencial two, then you have 2*2 possibilities(YinYin/YinYang/YangYin/YangYang). Hence there are 2^3 (two to the power of three), that is, 8 states when conducting 3 drawings of Yin/Yang. Three drawing is something like a word (in Chinese, it’s a “Qian”), and a dual word is used to represent the world which is devided to 2^3 * 2^3 = 8 * 8 = 64 states. (Chinese call a state as a “Gua”.)

    Yi Jing is something like a 64-state table for you to look up. Or it’s a 8-bit “convertor” (or “computer”??? the digital computer we are using now is also built upon discrete states and internal tables).

    I am just a fan to these things. Just think it’s beautiful.

    The following link should be more than needed.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Ching

  19. Chinese characters mostly look like Japanese—many people say that Japanese characters are those from the antient Chinese book, maybe it’s true.

    See the examples:

    雑誌 飯 車 靴 電気  頭  太陽  鏡  熱い。。。。。。。。。。

    but it’s interesting to learn that grammatic rules are almost the same in Chinese, English and Japanese. and I find that Chinese is much closer to English in Grammer.

    See examples:

    a. Chinese: 我   是  蕾拉。

    English I    am  Layla.

    Japanese: 私   は  レィラ (です)。

    b. Chinese: 我  在 读   书。

    English: I   am reading a book.

    Japanese: 私  は  本 を 読んでいます。(seems Japanese is much more complicated than the others.)

    I am going to write a book on these three languages.

  20. Jianshuo is quite right, dialects in china vary greatly from region to region..esp south or southeast dialects..people find it hard to understand eachother even they are just from neighbor towns…and people there in general speak a kind of manderin with southern accent…sounds pretty sweet and gentle esp when girls speak ! …

    To master any language is not a piece of cake I think … as long as you work hard !!… of course with the help of interest you’ll manage it faster ^ ^ …

    What I conclude from many complaints about the difficulty of chinese learning are in general 2 things .. 1, the pronounciation is hard (mainly because of the 4 tones)… 2, the characters are hard to remember … these are the 2 main heavy tasks you need to handle well as a beginner … as for the grammar … compared with grammars of other languages … chinese grammar is really not such a pain … trust me, you’ll be much relieved as you go on and on with chinese … :)

  21. wish you enjoy learning chinese !!

  22. I think this is over—simplified. First, Chinese characters are not always ideograms: some are grammatical functions without any reference to the external world, others are the result of the combination of other characters (非, being a fusion of 不維), and most of them are compounds of an ideographical part related to meaning and a phonetical element:

    馬 嗎 媽 …

    They all have the 馬 radical, but it does no give any meaning to the second and third characters, just the sound “ma”. Knowing this it’s possible to get an idea of how to pronounce an unknow character -sometimes we cannot see the phonetical relation anymore, since it’s been lost for ages, like 需 xu 儒 ru. Cantonese and other vernacular variants, as same as japanese, still hold ancient pronunciations -so it can be misleading to call them dialects, since the official language is newer than them. Also, 普通话 and Mandarin are different languages, with the lastest preceding the former. Mandarin is called 近代漢語 in Chinese, but people usually use them interchangeably.

    Finally, it’s also misleading to state that all Chinese is written the same, and I don’t just mean the distinction between Simplified and Traditional. It would be better to say that all China has a common language like, you can say, Europe could use English, but as with Europe people could still write in French or Danish using a basic roman alphabeth with some particular variations, Chinese can be also written differently. The point is,most of people cannot write their own vernacular variations anymore, since the 普通话 is now the only one people learn to write. For example, the word “he” is written 他 in 普通话, but 佢 in cantonese and other vernaculars, like Qingtianese 青田話. Also, the grammar is totally different IF you write using a vernacular variant:

    Cantonese: 我唔記得佢叫乜名

    Putonghua: 我記不得他叫什麽名字

    English: I do not remember his name

    Cantonese: 我真係唔明白佢點解噉樣做嘅

    Putonghua: 我真的不明白他爲什麽會這樣做啊

    English: I really do not understand why he is like this!

    Sorry for the long comment :)

  23. When you refer to pronounciation changing dramatically every 10 km., you’re assuming that Chinese is just one language. What you’re actually noticing is different [spoken] dialects, of which there are more than 700 from what I’ve been able to determine about China.

    Each dialect is quite different, and although many have a few words that come with special written characters that aren’t documented in standard Chinese dictionaries (but people needn’t worry about this because these words may be obscure, and can almost always be substituted by other words, groups of words, or short explanations), the written characters are essentially all the same across the entire China.

    Traditional and Simplified characters are the two different writing standards. Each writing standard can have many different styles, but all characters are easily recognized regardless of the style (except for the hand-written styles which can be somewhat confusing to those who aren’t used to it).

    Back to dialects, within each it’s important to note that there are also different accents. For example, where English has Canadian, British, Scottish, Irish, East Indian, Australian, and many others, people with different English accents are almost always able to communicate without difficulty. Chinese dialects work in the same manner, such as with Mandarin there is a Bejing accent (which is what I have because I first started learning Chinese from someone who came from Beijing and had a very thick accent, and in my opinion it’s also the most beautiful Mandarin accent so I’m glad to have it), a Taiwanese accent, a Hong Kong accent, etc., and Mandarin speaking people are almost always able to communicate without difficulty regardless of how different their accents are.

    The written Chinese also requires both left-brain and right-brain activity due to having both analytical and artistic qualities respectively, while Latin-based languages like English or German typically only require left-brain activity since our very short alphabet (short, compared to the number of Chinese characters) is analytical not only in its appearance, but also by how words are formed (in Chinese, every character represents an entire word {although groups of characters are often combined to form more words, there are a lot that are used on their own for their literal meanings}).

    Anyone interested in learning Chinese should learn Mandarin. Also, to learn only the speaking side of it is not as easy unless you also learn to read (and write, because writing helps develop stronger memories) because there are many written words that actually have the same pronounciation. For example, there are many instances where there are dozens of characters that have the exact same pronounciation, and even though the spoken version is easily understood by a fluent Chinese speaker due to the context/usage of the words, for learning purposes it’s a lot easier for students who know how the words are written.

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