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The Chinese Writing System (1)



The letters of the English alphabet, theoretically at least, represent the sounds of the language. Of course, English spelling is notoriously irregular and no-one would claim that it is completely phonetic. In fact, spelling often tells us more than just the sound. The ending '-tion', for instance, does not merely represent the pronunciation /-shon/, it also tells us that we are dealing with an abstract noun from Latin ('nation', 'ration', 'procrastination', 'concatenation', etc). But in the main, English spelling is tied to sound.

What, then, do Chinese characters represent?

In a nutshell, they represent specific meaningful forms of the Chinese language. (It would be nice to say they represent 'words', but since there is a surprising amount of contention over this, it's safer to say that they represent 'meaningful forms' and leave it at that).

'Meaningful forms' in any language have two aspects, namely pronunciation and meaning. Each character is thus associated with:

1. A specific pronunciation
2. A specific meaning

A few concrete examples may be useful in illustration.

The character 山 has 1. the pronunciation shān and 2. the meaning 'mountain'.
The character 火 has 1. the pronunciation huǒ and 2. the meaning 'fire'.

Sometimes the meaning is grammatical in nature. The character 了le, for instance, is a particle indicating the perfected action of the verb.

A few examples of Chinese characters:

Character Pronunc Meaning in English   Character Pronunc Meaning in English
shān 'mountain'   'big, large'
huǒ 'fire'   hóu 'monkey'
'sun' or 'day'   'not'
bái 'white'   le particle indicating perfected action of the verb

Since they are associated with specific pronunciations, Chinese characters do not represent disembodied or abstract concepts, as is sometimes believed -- they are unmistakably tied to the forms of language. Thus, although characters may at times be 'pictographic', acting as pictures of what they represent, they do not represent 'pure meaning'. For instance, while the character 山 physically resembles the shape of a mountain, what it represents is not some generalised concept of 'mountain' but the very specific Chinese word shān.

Modern Chinese is typically made up of short, simple syllables. Characters closely mirror this, almost invariably representing monosyllables (single syllables), with very few exceptions (See Note: Exceptions to the generalisation that Chinese characters represent monosyllables).

Distinguishing forms with the same pronunciation: The fact that characters are associated with both form and meaning has a very important consequence: Where forms are pronounced the same but have different meanings, different characters are used. This happens in English to some extent, too; for example 'rain', 'rein', 'reign' are all pronounced the same but have different meanings, hence different spellings. This principle is much more strongly entrenched in Chinese. Characters are very useful for distinguishing among the large number of homonyms in Chinese. For instance, has the following meanings, each written with a different character:

Pronunciation Meaning Character   Pronunciation Meaning Character
'road'   'heron' 鷺 (鹭)
'dew'   'to record' 錄 (录)
'deer' 鹿   'land' 陸 (陆)

Using the wrong character involves problems of meaning. It is poor English to write 'under the rain of Queen Elizabeth'; it is even worse in Chinese to write 'Tā zài lù-shàng' as 'He is on the deer' (他在鹿上) when what is meant is 'He is on the way' (他在路上). The possibility of a mistake like this is actually quite low as 鹿 'deer' is not the kind of character that springs spontaneously from the brush or comes up first in a computer input system in a sentence like this. However, mistakes of this nature do occur; the misuse of characters and the substitution of simpler characters is found in Chinese, just as misspellings are found in English.


As one might expect, this tidy system has its exceptions.

1. Multiple readings: First, there are cases, perhaps 10% of all characters, where the same character is used to write two or more different forms:

In conventional terms, such a character is said to have different readings. In some cases these readings are variants (e.g. / bǎi below) or forms with related meanings (liàng / liáng, kàn/ kān); in others the meaning is quite different (/ yuè, tiáo/ diào).

Character Pronunciation General meaning   Character Pronunciation General meaning
'uncle' 'pleasure'
bǎi used in word meaning 'brother-in-law'   yuè 'music'
liàng 'volume, amount'   調 (调) tiáo 'to fit in, mix, adjust, mediate; provoke, tease, incite'
liáng 'to measure'   diào 'to transfer, shift, move; accent, melody'
傳 (传) chuán 'to transmit'   liǎo 'to finish, conclude'
zhuàn 'story'   le particle indicating completed action
kàn 'to see, look at, watch; visit; depend on'   'to put on, apply, wipe'
kān 'to look after, take care of, watch'   'to wipe'
jiǎo 'corner, horn'   'to daub, plaster, skirt, bypass'
jué 'role'        

* Put cursor on top to see Simplified character

2. Multiple characters: The reverse case is where the same form is written with different characters:

. For example:

Characters in words Analysis Word Meaning
模倣(模仿) means 'pattern, standard, to imitate' mófǎng 'to copy, model on'
摹倣 (摹仿) means 'to copy, trace'
掉頭 (掉头) diáo 'wag, swing, turn'
頭 (头) tóu 'head'
diáo-tóu 'turn around, do a U-turn'
調頭 (调头) 調 (调) diáo 'transfer, shift, move'
頭 (头) tóu 'head'


The causes of these cases are somewhat varied. In mófǎng, two characters, 模 and 摹 , happen to coincide in meaning in a particular context. Diáo-tóu is fairly colloquial and it's not clear which character is appropriate -- neither is completely suitable to the meaning.



Given that characters possess meanings, how does Chinese deal with cases where only the sound is required, e.g., in foreign names, foreign words, and words representing sounds?

In representing foreign names, characters are used for their sound value only. For instance, '(Mike) Tyson' is known as 泰森 Tàisēn in Chinese. The characters mean 'peaceful forest', which doesn't sound much like the real Mike Tyson, but the meaning is largely irrelevant; what matters is that they sound like 'Tyson' when read out loud. A system has grown up whereby certain characters are customarily used to write foreign words and names: 斯 is commonly used for 's', 克 for 'k', etc. (As a character, 斯 is an archaic or very formal word for 'this'; 克 means 'conquer'. For information on the writing of foreign names in Chinese, see How do CJV handle foreign names?)

Phonetic renderings are also very common for foreign brand names. However, great care must be taken to choose characters with favourable meanings as they reflect vitally on product image. The classic example of a successful brand name is Coca Cola, in Chinese 可口可樂 (可口可乐) kěkǒu kělè, meaning 'palatable and fun'.

Chinese also usually writes foreign loan words phonetically. For instance, English 'microphone' becomes 麥克風 màikèfēng in Chinese, written 'grain' + 'conquer' + 'wind'. Since the three characters have been chosen for their sound, the meaning is irrelevant. On very rare occasions, there is a happy conjunction of meaning and sound, e.g., the loanword for 'gene', written 基因 jīyīn ('basic element'), and the word for 'hacker', adapted to Chinese as 黑客 hēikè ('black guest'). With the trend to use English words among educated urban speakers, English words are sometimes written in their original form, e.g., or .

Interjections and onomatopoeic words are another category where sounds must be represented directly. Chinese has developed characters to write this kind of word, many of which are formed with the 'mouth' radical 口 (see below, form of characters). Some examples:

ā, ǎ, à, or a 'ah, eh' interjection asking for answer, expressing surprise, expressing agreement, etc.
劈裡啪啦 pīli-pālā Represents a crackling sound.


In modern times, several systems have been developed for writing Chinese phonetically with the Roman alphabet. It has even been proposed that characters should be completely replaced with alphabetic writing. However, Roman letters have never actually gone beyond peripheral roles such as writing Chinese words in English, writing the pronunciation of place names on signs, or even just for decoration. They are mainly associated with schools and children's reading material. Pinyin is sometimes used by scholars to indicate the pronunciation of rare characters. They don't look like displacing Chinese characters in the foreseeable future.

The main systems of romanisation are the old Wade-Giles system, now used mainly by scholars, and the pin'yin system, which is the standard system on Mainland China. Because different romanisations may use slightly different phonological analyses of the Chinese sound system, converting between them can be confusing. A conversion chart between Wade-Giles and pin'yin can be found here.

One problem encountered when using Roman letters is word spacing. Since the normal Chinese script does not put spaces between words, rules have had to be created for word spacing in  pin'yin. This is not as easy as it sounds as there are many borderline cases. Not surprisingly, in writing  pin'yin, many Chinese are influenced by the characters, e.g., Beijing (北京) becomes 'Bei Jing' or 'BeiJing' instead of the officially correct 'Beijing'.



For more information on the Chinese writing system, see Links. See also the Japanese Writing System and the Vietnamese Writing System.

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