Introduction to Chinese Characters

Chinese characters, also known as Hanzi (漢字) are one of the earliest forms of written language in the world, dating back approximately five thousand years. Nearly one-fourth of the world’s population still use Chinese characters today. As an art form, Chinese calligraphy remains an integral aspect of Chinese culture.

There are 47,035 Chinese characters in the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典), the standard national dictionary developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, but the precise quantity of Chinese characters is a mystery; numerous, rare variants have accumulated throughout history. Studies from China have shown that 90% of Chinese newspapers and magazines tend to use 3,500 basic characters.

Evolution of Chinese Characters

Chinese characters have evolved over several thousands of years to include many different styles, or scripts. The main forms are: Oracle Bone Inscriptions (Jia Gu Wen 甲骨文), Bronze Inscriptions, (Jin Wen 金文), Small Seal Characters (Xiao Zhuan 小篆), Official Script (Li Shu 隸書), Regular Script (Kai Shu 楷書), Cursive Writing or Grass Stroke Characters (Cao Shu 草書), and Freehand Cursive (Xing Shu 行書).

The evolution of the Chinese character for dragon (long 龍) is illustrated below:

Oracle Bone Inscriptions refers to the writings inscribed on the carapaces of tortoises and mammals during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C.). This is the earliest form of Chinese characters. Because Oracle Bone inscriptions mainly recorded the art of divination, this script is also called bu ci (卜辭), divination writings. Over one thousand of the over four thousand characters inscribed on excavated oracle bones have been deciphered.

Bronze Inscriptions are the characters inscribed on bronze objects, such as ritual wine vessels, made during the Shang (1600 – 1046 B.C.) and Zhou (1046 – 256 B.C.) dynasties. Over two thousand of the nearly four thousand collected single characters from these bronze objects are now understood.

Small Seal Characters refer to the written language popular during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). In the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), different scripts were in use in different parts of the Chinese empire. Following the conquest and unification of the country, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty simplified and unified the written language. This unification of the written language during the Qin Dynasty significantly influenced the eventual standardization of the Chinese characters.

Official Script is the formal written language of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). Over time, curved and broken strokes gradually increased, becoming distinct characteristics of this style. Official Script symbolizes a turning point in the evolution history of Chinese characters, after which Chinese characters transitioned into a modern stage of development.

Regular Script first appeared at the end of the Han Dynasty. But it was not until the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.) that Regular Script rose to dominant status. During that period, regular script continued evolving stylistically, reaching full maturity in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Since that time, although developments in the art of calligraphy and in character simplification still lay ahead, there have been no more major stages of evolution for the mainstream script.

Cursive Writing first appeared at the beginning of the Han Dynasty. The earliest cursive writings were variants of the rapid, freestyle form of Official Script. Cursive Writing is not in general use, being a purely artistic, calligraphic style. This form can be cursive to the point where individual strokes are no longer differentiable, and characters are illegible to the untrained eye. Cursive Writing remains highly revered for the beauty and freedom it embodies.

Freehand Cursive (or semi-cursive writing) appeared and became popular during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 A.D.) and the Jin Dynasty (265-420 A.D.). Because this style is not as abbreviated as Cursive Writing, most people who can read Regular Script can read semi-cursive. Some of the best examples of semi-cursive are found in the work of Wang Xizhi (321-379 A.D.), the most famous calligrapher in Chinese history, from the Eastern Jin Dynasty (316-420 A.D.).

Simplified Chinese characters ( Jianti Zi, 简体字) are standardized Chinese characters used in Mainland China. The government of the People’s Republic of China began promoting this form for printing use in the 1950s ’60s in an attempt to increase literacy. Simplified characters are the official form of the People’s Republic of China and in Singapore; traditional Chinese characters are still used in Hong Kong, Macau and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Since 1954, over 2,200 Chinese characters have been simplified.

Click on the animation below to see the evolution of the character 龙.


The Formation of Chinese Characters

The presumed methods of forming characters was first classified by the Chinese linguist Xu Shen (許慎), whose etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字) divides the script into six categories, or liushu ( 六書): pictographic characters, (xiangxing zi 象形字), self-explanatory characters (zhishi zi 指示字), associative compounds (huiyi zi 會意字), pictophonetic characters (xingsheng zi 形聲字), mutually explanatory characters (zhuanzhu zi 轉注字), and phonetic loan characters (jiajie zi 假借字). The first four categories refer to ways of composing Chinese characters; the last two categorizes ways of using characters.

It is a popular myth that Chinese writing is pictographic, or that each Chinese character represents a picture. Some Chinese characters evolved from pictures, many of which are the earliest characters found on oracle bones, but such pictographic characters comprise only a small proportion (about 4%) of characters. The vast majority are pictophonetic characters consisting of a “radical,” indicating the meaning and a phonetic component for the original sound, which may be different from modern pronunciation.

Below is an example of how some of the earliest Chinese characters were built.

A woman holding a newborn in her arms, symbolizing goodness and happiness.


Click on the animation below to see the evolution of the character 龙.


Animated by Xiangjun Shi '13

Text by Yang Wang

Source of the images and the explanations of the images: Leyi Li. 2000. Tracing the Roots of Chinese Characters: 500 Cases. Beijing: Beijing Languages and Culture University Press.