Chinese Writing System

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Chinese Writing System


a writing system that uses special symbols (characters) to denote words or morphemes.

Phonetically each character corresponds to a syllable with a tone. Characters are written using between one and 28 standard strokes which are repeated in various combinations. Compound characters are a combination of simple symbols that also are used independently. The oldest pictographic characters were schematized representations of objects and date from the middle of the second millennium B.C. The method of writing and the form of the characters have changed repeatedly. In the first century A.D. the modern style of writing characters (k’ai-shu—“exemplary writing”) was developed. There are approximately 50,000 symbols in the Chinese writing system. Some 4,000 to 7,000 characters are used in contemporary Chinese.

Chinese tradition distinguished six categories of characters; at present, three groups are distinguished. The first is pictograms and ideograms (about 1,500), which include the ancient simple symbols (for example, 木 “tree,” 山 “mountain,” 上 “top,” 下 “bottom”) and also combined symbols that indicate more abstract meanings (for example, 人 “man” + 木 “tree” = 休 “to rest”; 日 “sun” + 月 “moon” = 日 月 “clear, bright”). The second group consists of phonograms, which make up the majority of characters—compound symbols that consist of radicals, which indicate the meaning of the word or morpheme—and of phonetics, which indicate the exact or approximate pronunciation of the symbol. Radicals are always simple symbols; phonetics may be either simple or compound. For example, in the symbol 女焦 ma (“mother”) the symbol 女 “woman”—is the radical, and 焦 ma (“horse,” an ancient pictogram)—is the phonetic. In Chinese dictionaries the characters are usually ordered according to the radicals, of which there are 214. The third group includes “borrowed” characters—symbols of a different structure that originally were devised to write certain words and later were used to denote those with an abstract meaning. For example, the symbol 钱 (a type of ancient weapon) was used to denote a personal pronoun of the first person; the symbol 又 (“hand”) was borrowed to denote the adverb “again.”

The same character may be used to write phonetically different but semantically identical words in different dialects and words of the ancient and modern language that have diverged greatly in pronunciation. This characteristic made it possible for the peoples of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, whose languages differ greatly from Chinese, to borrow the Chinese writing system and many Chinese words. In the mid-20th century characters are used widely only in Japan and South Korea, in combination with the Japanese syllabary or Korean alphabet.

The Chinese writing system is adapted to the phonetic and morphologic structure of the Chinese language but is complicated and cumbersome to study and to use. Since the early 17th century attempts have been made to develop phonetic alphabets. In 1958 a transcriptional alphabet of 26 letters based on the Latin alphabet was adopted in the People’s Republic of China. (It is used for special purposes—indexes, telegraph messages, and textbooks.) The Chinese writing reform and the changeover to alphabetic writing entail great difficulties, including dialectical diversity and the problem of the cultural heritage. Since 1956 work on the graphic simplification of the characters has been carried out in the People’s Republic. The introduction of simplified characters is considered to be a stage preparatory to fundamental writing reform.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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