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Chinese character

Chinese characters are employed to one degree or another in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages. They were also used in Vietnamese until the 20th century. In Chinese they are called Hnz (漢字), in Japanese the same characters are read Kanji, in Korean they are read Hanja (or Hanmun) and in Vietnamese they are read Hán tư. However, the last is considered an extremely sinified form and Chinese Characters are normally called chữ nho (字儒). (Note that the morphemes are reversed as is common in Vietnamese borrowings from Chinese.)

Table of contents
1 Classification
2 Dictionary
3 Radicals
4 Number of Chinese characters
5 Calligraphic styles
6 See also
7 External link


Chinese scholars classify Han characters by identifying several types of compounds. The first type, and the type most often associated with Chinese writing, are pictograms, which are pictorial representations of the morpheme represented. There are also ideograms that attempt to graphicalize abstract concepts, such as "up" or "down". However, these pictograms and ideograms take up a small proportion of Chinese logograms.

The more common types Chinese characters, on the other hand, are radical-radical compounds, in which each element (radical) of the character hints at the meaning, and radical-phonetic compounds, in which one component (the radical) indicates the kind of concept the character describes, and the other hints at the pronunciation. This last type accounts for the majority of Chinese logograms. Note that despite being called "compounds", these logograms are single entities in themselves; they are written so that they take up the same amount of space as any other logogram.

(Due to the long period of language evolution, hints within characters toward pronunciation and meanings are often useless and sometimes quite misleading, especially depending on which language is spoken.)

For example, the character for "East" (東; dong1) consists of the tree radical (木) and the sun radical (日). All in all it represents a sun rising through trees; this character falls in the radical-radical category.

Another example, the character for "mother" (媽 ma1) consists of one component meaning "female (女)" and another one meaning "horse (馬 ma3)" - now this does not mean Chinese view mothers as female horses! The first component (or "radical") simply tells that the character denotes a female entity, whereas the second acts as a pronunciation guide by referring to the word for "horse", which is also pronounced 'ma', though in a different tone.


The design and use of a dictionary of Chinese characters presents interesting problems. Dozens of indexing schemes have been created for the Chinese characters. The great majority of these schemes - beloved by their inventors but nobody else - have appeared in only a single dictionary; and only one such system has achieved truly widespread use. This is the system of radicals.

Many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dictionaries of Chinese characters list characters in radical order. Characters are grouped together by radical, and radicals containing fewer strokess come before radicals containing more strokes. Under each radical, characters are listed by their total number of strokes. Indices at the end of the dictionary list characters by sound (using Kana in Japanese and Hangeul in Korean) and by total number of strokes.

In Korean, character dictionaries are usually called Okpyeon (옥편; 玉篇), which literally means "Jewel Book."

Other dictionary systems include:


Main article:

Each character has a fundamental component, or radical (部首 bu4 shou3, literal meaning: "partial head (of the utmost importance)"), and this design principle is used in Chinese dictionaries to logically order characters in sets.

Full characters are ordered according to their initial radical, which fall into roughly 200 types. Then these are subcategorised by their total number of strokess.

This principle of categorisation is exploited by everybody who must learn to write Han characters: The vast number of Chinese characters can be much more easily memorized if they are mentally decomposed into their constituent radicals.

Number of Chinese characters

The question of how many characters there are is a subject of debate. In the 18th century, European scholars claimed the total tally to be about 80,000. This number, however, is exaggerated, as the most comprehensive dictionary (the Kangxi Dictionary 康熙字典) lists about 40,000 characters. One reason for large number of characters is that they include all of the different characters in the different variations of Chinese. Popular estimates say that about 3,000 characters are needed to read a Chinese newspaper, and 4,000 to 5,000 constitute a decent education. In Japan and North and South Korea, middle and high school students learn 1,800 to 2,000 basic characters.

Often a character which is not commonly used will appear in a personal or place name in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names (see Chinese name, Japanese name, and Korean name respectively). This has caused problems with some computer encoding systems which include only the 5,000 or so most common characters and exclude the less often used characters. For example, the Taiwanese politician Wang Jian-hsan has a name that is difficult to encode in some computer systems because the last character in the name is a uncommon character.

Calligraphic styles

Main article: Chinese calligraphy

The earliest Chinese characters are the so called "Oracle Script" or (甲骨文) jia3gu3wen2 during the Shang Dynasty, followed by the Bronzeware Script or (金文) jin1wen2 during the Zhou Dynasty. These scripts no longer serve as anything but a curiosity.

The first script that is still of relevance today is the "Seal Script" or 篆書[篆书] zhuan4shu1. It is the result of the efforts of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di, in the standardization of the Chinese script. The Seal Script, as the name suggests, is now only used in artistic seals. Few people are still able to read the seal script, although the art of carving a traditional seal in the seal script remains an art in China today.

Scripts that are still used regularly for print are the "Clerk Script" or 隸書[隶书] li4shu1, the "Wei Monumental" or 魏碑 wei4bei1, the "Regular Script" or 楷書[楷书] kai3shu1, the "Song Style" or 宋體[宋体] song4ti3 (only in printing), and the "Running Script" or 行書[行书] xing2shu1. Modern Chinese handwriting is usually modeled on the Running Script.

Finally, there is the "Draft Script", or 草書[草书] cao3shu1. The Draft Script is an idealized calligraphic style, where characters are suggested rather than realized. Despite being nearly illegible, the Draft Script is highly revered for the beauty and freedom that it embodies. Many simplified Chinese characters are based on this style.

See also

External link

zh-cn:汉字 zh-tw:漢字