Character formation in Chinese

Character formation in Chinese

As for the formation of Chinese characters, there are six different ways. Four of them are most important for analyzing the character formation. 

Even though Rebus (borrowings or phonetic loan characters) and Transformed cognates are traditionally included in the character formation, strictly speaking they are methods of using characters.

1. Pictograms 象形字 xiàng xíng zì, the most original method of character formation

Character formation in Chinese

Derive characters from pictures drawn in accordance with the physical characteristics of the objects, e.g. 日 rì sun, 月 yuè moon, 水 shuǐ water, 火 huǒ fire, 山 shān mountain, 人 rén person, 口 kǒu mouth, 手 shǒu hand. etc.. This is the most original method for Chinese character formation.

This kind of characters are very easy to learn because of the similarity between their writing and the forms of the objects they denote, however they just make up a small portion of the Chinese characters. Through pictogramas, the ancient people could express only the easy, basic and objective things in their life, so they updated the methods of Chinese character formation. Even though pictograms account for a small portion of the Chinese characters, they can’t be more important to other types of formation.

2. Simple ideograms 指事字 zhǐ shì zì – The most creative character formation

Character formation in Chinese

Signify a thing or an abstract meaning, using a symbolic illustration or adding strokes to a pictogram, e.g. 一 yī one, 二 èr two, 三 sān three, 上 shàng up, 下 xià down, 刃 rèn blade, 中 zhōng center, 本 běn root, etc..

3. Compound ideograms 会意字 huì yì zì-The most meaningful character formation

Combine two or more pictographic or ideographic characters to form a new characer to express a third meaning, e.g. 日 sun + 月 moon = 明 míng bright , 小 small + 大 big = 尖 jiān sharp,小 small + 土 earth = 尘 chén dust, 火 fire +火 fire  = 炎 yán scorching,火 fire + 火 fire +火 fire  = 焱 yàn flame,人 person + 人 person = 从 cóng follow,人 person + 人 person + 人 person = 众 zhòng crowd, etc. etc..

4. Phono-semantic compounds 形声字xíng shēng zì-The most practical character formation

Combine two parts to form a new character: one part is the semantic indicator of the new character, and the other part is the phonetic indicator of the new character. Because it’s quite productive to make new words using this method, the most numerous characters in Chinese are Semantic-phonetic compounds. So, you can say this is the most important Chinese character formation. Here are the eight combinations of this type of Chinese character formation:

1). Semantic left + phonetic right 钢材指估 gāng cái zhǐ gū

2). Phonetic left + semantic right 救歉放鸭  jiù qiàn fàng yā

3). Semantic top + phonetic bottom 空花茅简  kōng huā máo jiǎn

4). Phonetic top + semantic bottom 酱盆娶基  jiàng pén qǔ jī

5). Semantic inside + phonetic outside 问闷闻辩  wèn mèn wén Bini

6). Phonetic inside + semantic outside 园病衷阁  yuán bìng zhōng gé

7). Semantic in one corner 载 栽 zài zāi

8). Phonetic in one corner 渠 醛 qú quán

Learning the Chinese character formation helps you understand better how Chinese characters were created and developed historically. You can read more about the Character structure and word formation to get a deeper understanding about the Chinese language.

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