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Are Chinese characters pictures?

Have you ever wondered if Chinese characters began life as ‘pictures’ of physical objects? If not, what is the meaning of the symbols and do they hold any significance? As a non-native speaker of Chinese, I’m often asked about this. The subject is of interest to many, not just those who study Sinology.

While some Chinese characters (these are called hanzi, 汉字 or 漢字 in Chinese, by the way) are believed to have their origin in the visual depictions of their meanings, this is in fact an oversimplification and doesn’t apply to the vast majority of characters.

Let’s start with some hanzi that do represent their meanings. These can be referred to as pictograms because they are thought to have derived from pictures.

Chinese character Chinese Pinyin* (pronunciation) Meaning
shān mountain
chuān river
tián field, rice field
wood, tree

*‘Pinyin’ is the standard Romanization method use to transcribe Mandarin Chinese.

As you can see above, 山 means ‘mountain’ and you can just about visualize a mountain peak while looking at this character. Likewise, 川 is like a river flowing, 田 is clearly a field for growing rice, and 木 is a tree with its branches extending downward. Of course, these pictograms no longer really look like pictures, but you can easily understand how the ‘picture’ was simplified into the character that is used today.

However, most Chinese characters are not pictograms, they are usually considered phono-semantic compounds. These characters are composed of two elements, one phonetic, such as a pre-existing character with a similar pronunciation and the other semantic, such as a simplified pictogram or other character to suggest a general area of meaning.  So the character will borrow its pronunciation from one part and take the meaning from another part. For example, remember the character for ‘mountain’ we were just looking at, 山? It can appear as the semantic element in other characters, such as those below. Notice that all the meanings are somehow related to ‘mountain’.

Chinese character Chinese Pinyin (pronunciation) Meaning
岚(嵐) lán mountain mist
岭(嶺) lǐng mountain, mountain range
mountain recess
zhàng mountain peak

*Please note that traditional characters are given in brackets when different from simplified forms.

Looking at the last example 嶂 ‘mountain peak’, we can see that it borrows its sound from 章 zhāng (a noun with several senses: rules, item, chapter, order, badge, or stamp) and that in fact there are other characters which also contain 章 with a similar pronunciation, such as in the chart below:

Chinese character Chinese Pinyin (pronunciation) Meaning
zhàng mountain peak
zhàng verb to block; noun obstacle
zhāng adj evident; verb to make known
zhāng father-in-law (husband’s father)

I think of the characters as roots. If, like me, you’ve grown up as a native speaker of English, you’ve probably learned about Greek and Latin roots in many English words. Therefore I often draw the analogy that knowing what Chinese characters can mean (or how to pronounce them) is a bit like knowing your Latin and Greek roots as the Chinese characters may appear as elements in other words and compounds. It doesn’t mean you’ll always be right, but it is helpful and it’s a good starting point when you encounter a character you don’t know. This makes the prospect of learning thousands of Chinese characters less daunting to many students of Chinese.

Of course, knowing some Chinese characters doesn’t just improve your Chinese. For centuries, Chinese characters were used as the lingua franca of scholarly and official records across China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.  Until as recently as the mid-twentieth century Japan still used Chinese script for official documents. Of course, Japanese still uses Chinese characters, called kanji, as part of their writing system today and the phonetic syllabarieshiragana and katakana, are also derived from Chinese characters. Korean writing also used to be punctuated with Chinese characters, much like Japanese, and while hanja (the Korean word for ‘Chinese characters’) have fallen out of popularity recently, it’s still common to see Chinese characters in legal documents, official titles, or formal documentation. Up to the 1950s, Vietnamese used a writing system based on Chinese script which was then replaced by a Latin-based script first introduced and encouraged by the French. Before the thirteenth century, Chinese characters were commonly used as a means of phonetically transcribing Mongolian. (Although their current script is based on a Cyrillic transcription, Mongolian script has recently had a resurgence.)

So Chinese characters aren’t pictures, although some of them are pictograms, and knowing some common and basic characters will help you guess at the meaning and/or pronunciations of other more complex characters.