Week 4: Chinese Characters

Hanzi (汉字)


Hanzi is the name for the characters we associate not just with China but with several other Asian countries, including Japan which uses them with slight modifications.
“Hanzi” means “characters of the Han”, referring to the Han people who now comprise the largest ethnic group in China. Although Hanzi are used throughout China, the spoken dialicts differ from region to region. This results in an interesting phenomenon: Mandarin (the official language in China) is pronounced very differently from, say, Cantonese (which is spoken in the south and in Hong Kong), but no matter whether you speak Cantonese or Mandarin, or any of the other dialects, you will still be able to read the same texts and understand them.
(This is why when you go to China you may notice Chinese films and TV have subtitles – because some of the audience may hear a foreign dialect but everyone will be able to read the subtitles).

Early pictograms


Like many other early civilisations, prehistoric peoples in what is now China depicted aspects of their lives as images on walls. Some early languages seem to derive from this concept of literal representation (the most famous perhaps being Egyptian heiroglyphics) but while those other pictographic approaches died out or evolved in to the letters we are familiar with in English, Chinese remained, and remains, largely rooted in its early origins.
This has some remarkable consequences: with a little practice it is fairly easy to read very ancient Chinese texts.

Jiaguwen (甲骨文) Bone script (17th-11th century BC)


Some of the earliest Chinese writing (and I’m using the term “Chinese” very loosely – at the time, there was no such place as “China”) exists in the form of inscriptions of turtle shells and bones. These inscriptions are known as Jiaguwen, or bone script (the word “wen” in Chinese refers to language, particularly written language, so “Yingwen” is English, “Fawen” is French and “Zhongwen” is Chinese).


Examples of these bones with inscriptions on them have been found ever since and are now extremely precious. However for a long time they were believed to be dragon bones (“longu”) and to possess magical properties. This led to them being ground up for medicine.


Tortoise shell script (“jiaguwen” are also common and this early type of script is also known as “Oracle Script” because the often scorched fragments we see today are believed to have been used in some sort of religious/magical ritual in which the inscriptions would be thrown in to a fire for the purposes of predicting the future.


You can perhaps see that the characters have some similarities to modern Hanzi.

Seal Scripts


Let’s fast forward a few thousand years. The next major development in Chinese characters was “Seal Script”, so called because it is often found on seals attached to important documents (see below) or on inscriptions at tombs.
There are two types of seal script: “Greater” and “Lesser” – those terms simply refer to the size, not their importance or value.


The images above show “greater” seal script. You can see that they are flowing, and highly decorative with sweeping curves.


Along came Emperor Qin Shihuang (remember that in Chinese the first name is the equivalent of our surname). He is often referred to as The First Emperor of China as he united several warring states.


He’s also famous for his tomb near Xi’an where the remarkable terracotta army was discovered by farmers in the mid 1970s.


He also decreed that the various writing systems and styles should be unified in to one, and this was modified to make it easier to write. Gone are the sweeping curves and in their place are “crooked lines” or “zhuan” which form characters of a consistent size and shape (they fit in to squares). This size (“small” in Chinese is “xiao”) gives them their name: xiaozhuan characters (literally small crooked lines) or lesser seal script.

Lishu 隶书 Official Script


Writing was a highly prized skill and those who could do it were highly trained. Over time a style of writing developed which denotes officialdom, formality.
We also see that the written language has begun to evolve from a purely pictographic (i.e. literal) representation to one of indicative symbols. So the character for “bright” is represented by a combination of the characters for sun and moon.


But this style of writing took time and effort, and was very poor for getting things down quickly. It also did not suit the dominant form of recording characters, such as bamboo or wooden strips that formed scrolls. For this type of writing, scribes would adopt the faster and simpler strokes and shapes used by peasants. This led in turn to the next major phase in Chinese character development.

Kaishu 楷书 Regular script


Kaishu, or regular script, is the style used to teach writing today, and is closest to the cursive style you’ll see Chinese people write every day. It is more expressive, less time intensive, and the strokes tend to be of equal width.


There are eight types of stroke that make up hanzi, although not every character uses every type of stroke. Strokes must be made in the right order and in the right direction. The general rule is top to bottom, left to right.


These are strokes from lishu style of writing and you can see the variation in width. This comes from applying different amounts of pressure to the brush and is a highly prized skill.


Compare them to these kaishu strokes. There is still variation but it is less deliberate, more an effect of the process of writing itself, rather than a carefully crafted intent.



Calligraphy is a revered art form in China. Unlike calligraphy in the west which tends to be quite formal, in China there are several styles including highly expressive ones like this. The meaning of the writing is unimportant (which is good, because it’s impossible to read) – it is the expression that is key.


This is “running script” – a more common form of Chinese writing that takes some practice in understanding. It is equivalent of your own handwriting – some people have handwriting that is difficult for others to understand but with practice can be read. I can recognise three characters (for “two”, “person” and “moon”) with certainty in the example above, and I have suspicions about a few others.
(Incidentally, learning characters does not mean you can read Chinese – words often consist of more than one character, so recognition is not the same as understanding. You can all “read” French, for example… but you may not be able to understand it)

Simplified Characters


In 1952 Mao Zedong initiated a movement to simplify Chinese writing as a way of increasing literacy. This was achieved by simplifying the structure of many characters and reducing the sheer number (there are many thousands of Chinese characters but only a relatively small percentage are in regular use).
This process is still happening – in 2009 consultation began on the next phase. As with change in general, these developments have been hotly debated and while simplified characters are used in mainland China, traditional ones are still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Evolutionof Characters


It’s easy to see the evolution of Chinese characters thanks to Santi Shijing 三体石经 which show three types of script together. These carvings are found at ancient sites around China.


This table shows common characters in various scripts, and you can see how they have developed over time from the very literal to the more symbolic.



Chinese characters are fascinating in themselves, and often possess fascinating stories. The character for “home” for example, is derived from the character for “pig” under a roof, symbolising that every home should have a pig…

Even though there is a “romanised” version of Chinese in existance, Pinyin, it doesn’t appear as if China is likely to abandon its characters any time soon. Although they are hard to learn, and hard to learn how to write, with practice it becomes possible to write long texts very quickly (140 characters in English equals a few words. In Chinese it can be a whole story which makes SMS and Twitter a much better form of communication)

Learning a few characters can be very rewarding and addictive – why not give it a go?


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