Characters from pictures

China Travel Blog

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People who are new to Chinese think it is quite difficult to recognize Chinese characters. Unlike alphabet characters, there seems to be no rule to distinguish Chinese Characters. In fact, the best way to remember Chinese characters is to repeat: students write a character several ten times. Boring, isn't it?  

But when you study further, there are something interesting in those boring "squares".

The Chinese characters are from pictures. For example, the word "mountain" in Chinese is "山". This character was originally a picture with tops
of three mountains in a row. After many years, the three mounts were changed into three vertical lines. Observe “日”and imagine, you  may find it is “sun”. In the beginning, people used a circle surrounded by  light lines to represent sun. Gradually, they change the circle into square and abstract light lines into one, and put it in the circle. Guess what “旦”is, this is a picture of sun is just above the horizon, so it is “dawn”. Then it is quite easy to find out “口”is mouth. “笑” and “哭”need more imagination, they are laugh and cry.
After enough characters are created from pictures, some characters representing more complicated concepts are created from existing characters. For example, “财”is “treasure”, it has a part “贝”, which means shell (See, in the middle is the soft body of a shell, which is enclosed by its shell.). In ancient time, people used shells as currencies, like coins or gold coins. The another part is “才”, it is to mark the pronunciation--”chai”, so we know that”财”is read as “chai”. However “才”has another meaning which is "capability", this gives us a better understanding of “财(treasure)”: “treasure” is money from capability. Further more, all Chinese characters with part ”贝”are something related to money. Like, “贵”means “noble”, because it put money under its feet; “贱”means “mean”, because it put money ahead of it.
Sometimes you may find valuable truths from such kind of compositions.
“黨”is “party (political parties)”. It is formed by two words “尚”(upper part) and “黑”(lower part), “尚”means “advocate”, “黑”means “black”. So “political parities” are something advocating black. Well, which party will you vote?
“福”means “blessings”.  The left part is “礻”represents God, it was derived from the shape of a shrine. The right part is derived from “富”which is from a picture of a big and full belly and representing “richness”. From these, we can understand that blessing means the richness from God.
“義”means “righteousness”. The upper part is “羊”, which is lamb; the lower part is “我”, which is me or self. Lambs were good sacrifices in ancient China. So “羊”can be regarded as “sacrifice”. Then we can get the definition of righteousness:  to sacrifice self.
“心”is “heart”. It will be “忄”if used as left part in a Chinese character. There are many Chinese characters describing something about human being have “心”or “忄”because human activities are related to hearts.
“恨”is “hate”. The left is “heart” as mentioned above. The right means “stiff”. When you hate, your heart will be stiffened. So don't hate, it's no good to your heart.
“怒”is “anger”. The lower part is “heart”, as mentioned above. The upper part is “slave”. When you are angry,  your heart is enslaved, you can not make right decision at that moment.
“恕” is “forgive”. The lower part is “heart”, the upper part is “like” or “similar”. To forgive is to compare your heart with other's: if I were in his (or her) situation, what I would think, or say, or do, or feel?
“愛”is “love”. From the top, the components are “爫”, “冖”, “心”and “友”. “爫”means “claw” or “hand”, “冖”means “cover”, “心”means “heart”, “友” means “friendship”. So here's the picture for “love”: “heart” is put on “friendship” and covered by “hand”. Therefore we can describe “love” as: put “heart” which might be stiffened by “恨(hate)” and enslaved by “怒(anger)” on the comfortable bed of “friendship” and give it a massage to make it relaxed. Wow, “love” is massage.  

Ape says:
Wow. Seriously, this is brilliant, and makes complete sense. Thank you so much for writing this down. Not only is it handy and pracitical, it also gives us an insight in another culture and it's evolution (shells and sun and picturing words). Please write more about the Chinese characters. How does this relate to Mandarin and other dialects?
Posted on: Apr 01, 2008
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