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Types of Chinese characters

Learn Chinese (Mandarin)!

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Types of Chinese characters

Post Number: #1  Postby Jessica » June 17th, 2012, 9:44 pm

There are six types of Chinese characters:

  • Pictographs
  • Symbols
  • Sound loans
  • Sound-meaning compounds
  • Meaning-meaning compounds
  • Re-clarified compounds


Chinese characters which are symbols represent a concept rather than concrete objects. The numbers are an example of symbols, as are the characters for "above" and "below":

  • 一 - yī - one
  • 二 - èr - two
  • 三 - sān - three
  • 上 - shàng - above
  • 下 - xià - below

Sound Loans

There are a great number of homonyms in Mandarin Chinese, so necessarily there are many characters which have the same pronunciation but different meanings. The use of the four tones helps to clarify characters, but there can still be many characters represented by the same sound and the same tone.

The pronunciation yī, for example, is used for at least 19 different Chinese characters.

Historically, certain characters had two or more different meanings, with the context clarifying the meaning. The character 萬 (wàn) for example, originally meant "scorpion", and was also used for the number 10,000. These were originally homonyms, and since there was little danger of mixing up the meanings, also shared the same character. The modern character 萬 (wàn) has dropped its connection with scorpions, which are now represented by 蠆 (chài).

Sound-Meaning Compounds

Characters can be combined into compound characters in various ways. In sound-meaning compounds, one of the elements represents the sound, and the other represents the meaning. An example of this is 刨 (bào), which combines the sound of 包 (bāo - wrap; package) with the meaning of 刂 (dāo - knife), for the compound character's meaning of "carpenter's plane".

Meaning-Meaning Compounds

Another type of compound character juxtaposes the meaning of the separate components to suggest the new definition. An example of this is the character 好 (hǎo - good; well) which is a combination of 女 (nǚ - woman) with 子 (zǐ - child). A woman with a child is thought to be a symbol that things are good - 好 (hǎo).

Re-Clarified Compounds

The final type of Chinese character is the re-clarified compound. These are characters which have been altered to clarify their meaning.

Historically, some characters had more than one meaning, as we saw with the character 萬 (wàn). In order to make the meanings distinct from one another, an extra notation might be added to a character. In the case of 萬 (wàn), the "insect" radical (虫) was added to the character for scorpion to create the new character 蠆 (chài), which has only the one meaning of "scorpion".

Another example of a re-clarified compound is the character 廷 (tíng), which originally meant "courtyard". To make the distinction between the courtyard of a palace, and the more humble courtyard of a commoner, the radical 广 (meaning "wide"; "extensive"; or "broad") was added to form the character 庭 (tíng), meaning a palace courtyard or spacious hall.
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Re: Types of Chinese characters

Post Number: #2  Postby KarmaChameleon » March 3rd, 2013, 7:38 pm

cool! thanks for the information!
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