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Chinese characters

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Type Logographic
Languages Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese
Time period Bronze Age China to present
Parent systems
Oracle Bone Script
  • Chinese
ISO 15924 Hani, 500
Direction Left-to-right
Unicode alias Han
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols.
Chinese characters
Left: "Chinese character" in traditional Chinese. Right: "Chinese character" in simplified Chinese. Pronounced as hànzì (Chinese), kanji (Japanese), hanja (Korean), or Hán tự (Vietnamese).
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 漢字
Simplified Chinese 汉字
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet chữ Hán
Hán-Nôm 𡨸
Zhuang name
Zhuang Saw sawndip.svg
Korean name
Hangul 한자
Hanja 漢字
Japanese name
Kanji 漢字
Hiragana かんじ

Chinese characters are logograms used in the writing of Chinese (where they may be called hanzi; 汉字/ 漢字 " Han character") and Japanese ( kanji). Such characters are also used, albeit less frequently, in Korean ( hanja), and were formerly used in Vietnamese ( chữ Hán), as well as in a number of other languages. Chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world. By nature of widespread use in China and Japan, Chinese characters are among the most widely adopted writing systems in the world.

Chinese characters number in the tens of thousands, though most of these are minor graphic variants only encountered in historical texts. Studies carried out in China have shown that functional literacy requires a knowledge of between three and four thousand characters.

In Chinese orthography, the characters are largely morphosyllabic, each corresponding to a spoken syllable with a distinct meaning. However, the majority of Chinese words today consist of two or more characters. About 10% of native words have two syllables without separate meanings, but they are nonetheless written with two characters. Some characters, generally ligatures, represent polysyllabic words or even phrases, though this is the exception and is generally informal.

Cognates in the several varieties of Chinese are generally written with the same character. They typically have similar meanings, but often quite different pronunciations. In other languages, most significantly today in Japanese, characters are used to represent native words, ignoring the Chinese pronunciation, to represent Chinese loanwords, and as purely phonetic elements based on their pronunciation in the historical variety of Chinese from which they were acquired. These foreign adaptations of Chinese pronunciation are known as Sinoxenic pronunciations, and have been useful in the reconstruction of Ancient Chinese.



In recent decades, inscriptions have been found on Neolithic pottery and on bones at a variety of locations in China, including Banpo and Hualouzi near Xi'an. These simple, often geometric marks are similar to some of the earliest known Chinese characters, potentially indicating that the history of Chinese writing extends back over six millennia.

However, because these marks occur singly, without any implied context, and are made crudely and simply, Qiu Xigui concluded that "we do not have any basis for stating that these constituted writing nor is there reason to conclude that they were ancestral to Shang Dynasty Chinese characters." Nonetheless, isolated graphs and pictures continue to be found periodically, frequently accompanied by media reports that push back the purported beginnings of Chinese writing by thousands of years. For example, at Damaidi in Ningxia, 3,172 pictorial cliff carvings dating to 6000–5000 BC were discovered, leading to headlines such as "Chinese writing '8,000 years old.'" Similarly, archaeologists reported finding a few inscribed symbols on tortoise shells at the neolithic site of Jiahu in Henan dated to around 6600–6200 BC, leading to headlines of "'Earliest writing' which was found in China".

In a comment released to the BBC, Professor David Keightley urged caution in the latter instance, pointing to the lack of any direct connection to the Shang culture, considering that the Shang Dynasty arose several millennia later. However, in the same BBC article, a supporting argument was provided by Dr. Garman Harbottle of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York, who collaborated with a team of archaeologists at the University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui in the discovery. Dr. Harbottle pointed to the persistence of sign use at different sites along the Yellow River throughout the neolithic and up to the Shang period, when a complex writing system appears.

One interesting group of sites comprises the Dawenkou sites (2800–2500 BC), only a millennium earlier than the early Shang sites and plausibly positioned as ancestral to the Shang. There, a few inscribed pottery and jade pieces have been found, one of which combines pictorial elements (a sun, moon or clouds, and a fire or a mountain) in a stack which brings to mind the compounding of elements in Chinese characters. Major scholars are divided in their interpretation of such inscribed symbols. Some, such as Yu Xingwu, Tang Lan, and Li Xueqin have identified these with specific Chinese characters. Others such as Wang Ningsheng interpret them as pictorial symbols such as clan insignia, rather than writing. But in the view of Wang Ningsheng, "True writing begins when it represents sounds and consists of symbols that are able to record language. The few isolated figures found on pottery still cannot substantiate this point."

Legendary origins

According to legend, Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie (c. 2650 BC), a bureaucrat under the legendary Yellow Emperor. There are quite a few variations of the legend. One of them tells that Cangjie was hunting on Mount Yangxu in modern Shanxi when he saw a tortoise whose veins caught his curiosity. Inspired by the possibility of a logical relation of those veins, he studied the animals of the world, the landscape of the earth, and the stars in the sky, and invented a symbolic system called (字) — the first Chinese characters. It was said that on the day the characters were born, Chinese people heard the devil mourning and saw crops falling like rain, as it marked a second beginning of the world.

Oracle bone script

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone Script on Ox Scapula, Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, Germany. Photo by Dr. Meierhofer

The earliest confirmed evidence of the Chinese script yet discovered is the oracle bone script (Chinese: ; pinyin: jiǎgǔwén; literally "shell-bone script") of the late Shang dynasty. Oracle bone inscriptions were identified by scholars in 1899 on pieces of bone and turtle shell being sold as "dragon bones" with medicinal properties. By 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced to a village near Anyang in Henan Province, where official archaeological excavations between 1928 and 1937 discovered 20,000 inscriptions – since then, 130,000 additional inscriptions have been found.

Oracle bone inscriptions are records of divinations performed in communication with royal ancestral spirits. The shortest are only several characters long, while the longest are thirty to forty characters in length. The Shang king would communicate with his ancestors on topics relating to the royal family, military success, weather forecasting, ritual sacrifices, and related topics by means of scapulimancy, and the answers would be recorded on the divination material itself.

The oracle-bone script is a well-developed writing system, suggesting that the Chinese script's origins lie even earlier than the second millennium BC. Although these divinatory inscriptions are the earliest surviving evidence of ancient Chinese writing, it is widely accepted that writing was used for many other non-official purposes, but that the materials upon which non-divinatory writing was done – likely wood and bamboo – were less durable than bone and shell and have since decayed away.

Bronze Age: parallel script forms and gradual evolution

The traditional picture of an orderly series of scripts, each one invented suddenly and then completely displacing the previous one, has been conclusively demonstrated to be fiction by the archaeological finds and scholarly research of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Gradual evolution and the coexistence of two or more scripts was more often the case. As early as the Shang Dynasty, oracle-bone script coexisted as a simplified form alongside the normal script of bamboo books (preserved in typical bronze inscriptions), as well as the extra-elaborate pictorial forms (often clan emblems) found on many bronzes.

Left: Bronze fāngzūn (方樽) ritual wine container dated about 1000 BC. The written inscription cast in bronze on the vessel commemorates a gift of cowrie shells (then used as currency in China) from someone of presumably elite status in Zhou Dynasty society. Right: Bronze fāngyí (方彝) ritual container dated about 1000 BC. A written inscription of some 180 Chinese characters appears twice on the vessel. The written inscription comments on state rituals that accompanied court ceremony, recorded by an official scribe.

Based on studies of these bronze inscriptions, it is clear that, from the Shang Dynasty writing to that of the Western Zhou and early Eastern Zhou, the mainstream script evolved in a slow, unbroken fashion, until assuming the form that is now known as seal script in the late Eastern Zhou in the state of Qin, without any clear line of division. Meanwhile other scripts had evolved, especially in the eastern and southern areas during the late Zhou Dynasty, including regional forms, such as the guwen (“ancient forms”) of the eastern Warring States preserved in the Han Dynasty character dictionary Shuowen Jiezi as variant forms, as well as decorative forms such as bird and insect scripts.

Unification: seal script, vulgar writing and proto-clerical
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Seal script, which had evolved slowly in the state of Qin during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, became standardized and adopted as the formal script for all of China in the Qin Dynasty (leading to a popular misconception that it was invented at that time), and was still widely used for decorative engraving and seals (name chops, or signets) in the Han Dynasty period. However, despite the Qin script standardization, more than one script remained in use at the time. For example, a little-known, rectilinear and roughly executed kind of common (vulgar) writing had for centuries coexisted with the more formal seal script in the Qin state, and the popularity of this vulgar writing grew as the use of writing itself became more widespread. By the Warring States period, an immature form of clerical script called “early clerical” or “proto-clerical” had already developed in the state of Qin based upon this vulgar writing, and with influence from seal script as well. The coexistence of the three scripts – small seal, vulgar and proto-clerical, with the latter evolving gradually in the Qin to early Han dynasties into clerical script – runs counter to the traditional belief that the Qin Dynasty had one script only, and that clerical script was suddenly invented in the early Han Dynasty from the small seal script.

Han Dynasty

Proto-clerical evolving to clerical

Proto-clerical script, which had emerged by the time of the Warring States period from vulgar Qin writing, matured gradually, and by the early Western Han period, it was little different from that of the Qin. Recently discovered bamboo slips show the script becoming mature clerical script by the middle-to-late reign of Emperor Wu of the Western Han, who ruled from 141 BC to 87 BC.

Clerical and clerical cursive

Contrary to the popular belief of there being only one script per period, there were in fact multiple scripts in use during the Han period. Although mature clerical script, also called 八分 (bāfēn) script, was dominant at that time, an early type of cursive script was also in use by the Han by at least as early as 24 BC (during the very late Western Han period), incorporating cursive forms popular at the time, well as many elements from the vulgar writing of the Warring State of Qin. By around the time of the Eastern Jin dynasty, this Han cursive became known as 章草 zhāngcǎo (also known as 隶草 / 隸草 lìcǎo today), or in English sometimes clerical cursive, ancient cursive, or draft cursive. Some believe that the name, based on 章 zhāng meaning "orderly", arose because the script was a more orderly form of cursive than the modern form, which emerged during the Eastern Jin Dynasty and is still in use today, called 今草 jīncǎo or "modern cursive".


Around the mid- Eastern Han period, a simplified and easier-to-write form of clerical script appeared, which Qiú (2000, p. 113 & 139) terms "neo-clerical" (新隶体 / 新隸體, xīnlìtǐ). By the late Eastern Han, this had become the dominant daily script, although the formal, mature bāfēn (八分) clerical script remained in use for formal works such as engraved stelae. Qiú describes this neo-clerical script as a transition between clerical and regular script, and it remained in use through the Cao Wei and Jin dynasties.


By the late Eastern Han period, an early form of semi-cursive script appeared, developing out of a cursively written form of neo-clerical script and simple cursive. This semi-cursive script was traditionally attributed to Liu Desheng ca. 147–188 AD, although such attributions refer to early masters of a script rather than to their actual inventors, since the scripts generally evolved into being over time. Qiu gives examples of early semi-cursive script, showing that it had popular origins rather than being purely Liu’s invention.

Written styles

Sample of the cursive script by Chinese Tang Dynasty calligrapher Sun Guoting, c. 650 AD.

There are numerous styles, or scripts, in which Chinese characters can be written, deriving from various calligraphic and historical models. Most of these originated in China and are now common, with minor variations, in all countries where Chinese characters are used.

The Shang Dynasty oracle bone script and the Zhou Dynasty scripts found on Chinese bronze inscriptions are no longer used; the oldest script that is still in use today is the Seal Script (篆書(书), zhuànshū). It evolved organically out of the Spring and Autumn period Zhou script, and was adopted in a standardized form under the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. The seal script, as the name suggests, is now used only in artistic seals. Few people are still able to read it effortlessly today, although the art of carving a traditional seal in the script remains alive; some calligraphers also work in this style.

Scripts that are still used regularly are the " Clerical Script" (隸書(隶书), lìshū) of the Qin Dynasty to the Han Dynasty, the Weibei (魏碑, wèibēi), the " Regular Script" (楷書(书), kǎishū), which is used mostly for printing, and the " Semi-cursive Script" (行書(书), xíngshū), used mostly for handwriting.

The cursive script (草書(书), cǎoshū, literally "grass script") is used informally. The basic character shapes are suggested, rather than explicitly realized, and the abbreviations are sometimes extreme. Despite being cursive to the point where individual strokes are no longer differentiable and the characters often illegible to the untrained eye, this script (also known as draft) is highly revered for the beauty and freedom that it embodies. Some of the simplified Chinese characters adopted by the People's Republic of China, and some of the simplified characters used in Japan, are derived from the cursive script. The Japanese hiragana script is also derived from this script.

There also exist scripts created outside China, such as the Japanese Edomoji styles; these have tended to remain restricted to their countries of origin, rather than spreading to other countries like the Chinese scripts.

Wei to Jin period

Regular script

Regular script has been attributed to Zhong Yao, of the Eastern Han to Cao Wei period (ca. 151–230 AD), who has been called the “father of regular script”. However, some scholars postulate that one person alone could not have developed a new script which was universally adopted, but could only have been a contributor to its gradual formation. The earliest surviving pieces written in regular script are copies of Yao's works, including at least one copied by Wang Xizhi. This new script, which is the dominant modern Chinese script, developed out of a neatly written form of early semi-cursive, with addition of the pause (頓(顿), dùn) technique to end horizontal strokes, plus heavy tails on strokes which are written to the downward-right diagonal. Thus, early regular script emerged from a neat, formal form of semi-cursive, which had itself emerged from neo-clerical (a simplified, convenient form of clerical script). It then matured further in the Eastern Jin Dynasty in the hands of the "Sage of Calligraphy", Wang Xizhi, and his son Wang Xianzhi. It was not, however, in widespread use at that time, and most writers continued using neo-clerical, or a somewhat semi-cursive form of it, for daily writing, while the conservative bafen clerical script remained in use on some stelae, alongside some semi-cursive, but primarily neo-clerical.

Modern cursive

Meanwhile, modern cursive script slowly emerged out of the clerical cursive (zhāngcǎo) script during the Cao Wei to Jin period, under the influence of both semi-cursive and the newly emerged regular script. Cursive was formalized in the hands of a few master calligraphers, the most famous and influential of which was Wang Xizhi.

Dominance and maturation of regular script

It was not until the Southern and Northern Dynasties that regular script rose to dominant status. During that period, regular script continued evolving stylistically, reaching full maturity in the early Tang Dynasty. Some call the writing of the early Tang calligrapher Ouyang Xun (557–641) the first mature regular script. After this point, although developments in the art of calligraphy and in character simplification still lay ahead, there were no more major stages of evolution for the mainstream script.

Modern history

Although most of the simplified Chinese characters in use today are the result of the works moderated by the government of the People's Republic of China in the 1950s and 60s, character simplification predates the republic's formation in 1949. One of the earliest proponents of character simplification was Lufei Kui, who proposed in 1909 that simplified characters should be used in education. In the years following the May Fourth Movement in 1919, many anti-imperialist Chinese intellectuals sought ways to modernise China. In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that character simplification would help boost literacy in China. In many world languages, literacy has been promoted as a justification for spelling reforms. The People's Republic of China issued its first round of official character simplifications in two documents, the first in 1956 and the second in 1964. In the 1950s and 1960s, while confusion about simplified characters was still rampant, transitional characters that mixed simplified parts with yet-to-be simplified parts of characters together appeared briefly, then disappeared.

" Han unification" was an effort by the authors of Unicode and the Universal Character Set to map multiple character sets of the so-called CJK languages (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) into a single set of unified characters and was completed for the purposes of Unicode in 1991 (Unicode 1.0).

Formation of characters

Chinese character classification
Category Percentage of characters (approximation)
Phono-semantic compounds 82%
Ideogrammic compounds 13%
Pictograms 4%
Ideograms Few (less than 1%)
Transformed cognates Few
Rebus Few
Excerpt from a 1436 primer on Chinese characters

The earliest known Chinese texts, in the Oracle bone script, display a fully developed writing system, with little difference in functionality from modern characters. It is assumed that the early stages of the development of characters were dominated by pictograms, which were the objects depicted, and ideograms, in which meaning was expressed iconically. The demands of writing full language, including words which had no easy pictographic or iconic representation, forced an expansion of this system, presumably through use of rebus.

The presumed methods of forming characters were first classified c. 100 AD by the Chinese linguist Xu Shen (許慎), whose etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字 / 說文解字) divides the script into six categories, the liùshū (六书 / 六書). While the categories and classification are occasionally problematic and arguably fail to reflect the complete nature of the Chinese writing system, this account has been perpetuated by its long history and pervasive use.

Four percent of Chinese characters are derived directly from individual pictograms, though in most cases the resemblance to an object is no longer clear. Others were derived as ideograms; as compound ideograms, where two ideograms are combined to give a third reading; and as rebuses. But most characters were devised as phono-semantic compounds, with one element to indicate the general category of meaning and the other to suggest the pronunciation. Again, in many cases the suggested sound is no longer accurate. All today are logograms, and are not actually used pictographically or ideographically.


  • 象形字 xiàngxíngzì

Pictograms make up only a small portion of Chinese characters. While characters in this class derive from pictures, they have been standardized, simplified, and stylized to make them easier to write, and their derivation is therefore not always obvious. Examples include for "sun", yuè for "moon", and for "tree" or "wood"....

There is no concrete number for the proportion of modern characters that are pictographic in nature; however, Xu Shen (c. 100 AD) estimated that 4% of characters fell into this category.


  • 指事字 zhǐshìzì

Also called simple indicatives or simple ideographs, these characters either modify existing pictographs iconically, or are direct iconic illustrations. For instance, by modifying dāo, a pictogram for "knife", by marking the blade, an ideogram rèn for "blade" is obtained. Similarly, doubling the pictogram "tree" produces lín "grove", while tripling it produces sēn "forest". (It is interesting to note (see below) that and have the same reconstructed Old Chinese final *-ǐǝm.)

Direct examples include shàng "up" and xià "down", originally a dot above and below a line. This category is small.

Ideogrammic compounds

  • 会意字 / 會意字 huìyìzì

Translated literally as logical aggregates or associative compounds, these characters symbolically combine pictograms or ideograms to create a third character. For instance, combining "sun" and yuè "moon", the two natural sources of light, makes míng "bright". Other commonly cited examples include the characters xiū "rest", composed of the pictograms rén "person" and "tree", and also hǎo "good", composed of the pictograms "woman" and "child".

Xu Shen estimated that 13% of characters fall into this category.

Some scholars flatly reject the existence of this category, opining that failure of modern attempts to identify a phonetic in a compound is due simply to our not looking at ancient "secondary readings", which were lost over time. For example, the character ān "peace", a combination of "roof" and "woman" , is commonly cited as an ideogrammic compound, purportedly motivated by a meaning such as "all is peaceful with the woman at home". However, there is evidence that 女 was once a polyphone with a secondary reading of *an, as may be gleaned from the set yàn "tranquil", nuán "to quarrel", and jiān "licentious". Supporting this reasoning is the fact that modern interpretations often neglect archaic forms that were in use when the characters were created.

These arguments notwithstanding, there are some characters that do appear to genuinely belong to this category. It is doubtful that secondary readings can be found for many cases, and the characters , , and are all attested in oracle bone script, with the same components as the modern forms.

Further, some modern characters have certainly been coined by this method, such as some chemical names such as 鉑 (platinum, "white metal"), created in 19th century China – see chemical elements in East Asian languages – and the Japanese-coined ( kokuji) Chinese characters for SI units for some (but not all) SI units, such as 粁 (米 "meter" + 千 "thousand, kilo-") for kilometer, coined in the late 19th century ( Meiji era).


  • 假借字 jiǎjièzì

Also called borrowings or phonetic loan characters, this category covers cases where an existing character is used to represent an unrelated word with similar or identical pronunciation; sometimes the old meaning is then lost completely, as with characters such as , which has lost its original meaning of "nose" completely and exclusively means "oneself", or wàn, which originally meant "scorpion" but is now used only in the sense of "ten thousand".

Rebus was pivotal in the history of writing in China insofar as it represented the stage at which logographic writing could become purely phonetic (phonographic). Chinese characters used purely for their sound values are attested in the Chun Qiu 春秋 and Zhan Guo 戰國 manuscripts, in which zhi 氏 was used to write shi 是 and vice versa, just lines apart; the same happened with shao 勺 for Zhao 趙, with the characters in question being homophonous or nearly homophonous at the time.

Phono-semantic compounds

  • 形声字 / 形聲字 xíngshēngzì

By far the most numerous characters are the phono-semantic compounds, also called semantic-phonetic compounds or pictophonetic compounds. These characters are composed of two parts: one of a limited set of characters called 'radicals', which are often graphically simplified and which suggests the general meaning of the character, and an existing character pronounced approximately as the new target word.

Examples are "river", "lake", liú "stream", chōng "riptide" (or "flush"), huá "slippery". All these characters have on the left a radical of three short strokes, which is a simplified pictograph for a river, indicating that the character has a semantic connection with water; the right-hand side in each case is a phonetic indicator. For example, in the case of chōng (Old Chinese /druŋ/), the phonetic indicator is zhōng (Old Chinese /truŋ/), which by itself means "middle". In this case it can be seen that the pronunciation of the character is slightly different from that of its phonetic indicator; this process means that the composition of such characters can sometimes seem arbitrary today.

Xu Shen (c. 100 AD) placed approximately 82% of characters into this category, while in the Kangxi Dictionary (1716 AD) the number is closer to 90%, due to the extremely productive use of this technique to extend the Chinese vocabulary.

This method is still sometimes used to form new characters, for example ("plutonium") is the metal radical jīn plus the phonetic component , described in Chinese as " gives sound, gives meaning". Many Chinese names of elements in the periodic table and many other chemistry-related characters were formed this way.

In occasional cases, a 2-character compound word will share a radical across both characters (use the same radical on both characters), with the radical serving to disambiguate the entire word. A notable example is biwa (a Chinese lute, also a fruit, the loquat, of similar shape) – originally written as 批把 with the hand radical, referring to the down and up strokes when playing this instrument, which was then changed to 枇杷 (tree radical), which is still used for the fruit, while the character was changed to 琵琶 when referring to the instrument. Another example, this one in Japanese, is 醗酵 (fermentation – 酵 is a Japanese kokuji), which shares the wine bottle radical 酉, due to relation of wine to fermentation, though this may also be written 発酵. In other cases a compound word may coincidentally share a radical without this being meaningful.

Transformed cognates

  • 转注字 / 轉注字 zhuǎnzhùzì

Characters in this category originally didn't represent the same meaning but have bifurcated through orthographic and often semantic drift. For instance, kǎo "to verify" and lǎo "old" were once the same word, meaning "elderly person", but became lexicalized into two separate words. Characters of this category are rare, so in modern systems this group is often omitted or combined with others.

Polysyllabic words and polysyllabic characters

Most Chinese morphemes (not necessarily words) are monosyllabic and are written with a single character. However, a number of basic morphemes are disyllabic, and this dates back to Classical Chinese. Excluding foreign loan words, these are typically words for plants and small animals. Usually the two characters, which may have no independent meaning apart from poetic abbreviation for the disyllabic word, will each have a phonetic for that syllable and share a common radical. Examples are 蝴蝶 húdié 'butterfly' and 珊瑚 shānhú 'coral'. Note that the 蝴 of húdié and the 瑚 of shānhú have the same phonetic, 胡, but different radicals (insect and stone, respectively). Neither exists as an independent morpheme except as an abbreviation.

With the fusion of the diminutive -er suffix in Mandarin, monosyllabic words may even be written with two characters, as in 花儿 huār 'flower'.

On the other hand, compound words and set phrases may be contracted into single characters. Common examples are 圕 túshūguǎn 'library', a contraction of 圖書館, and 瓩 qiānwǎ 'kilowatt', a contraction of 千瓦. A four-morpheme word, 社会主义 shèhuì zhǔyì 'socialism', is commonly written with a single character formed by combining the last character, 义, with the radical of the first, 社. This is not a recent phenomenon; in medieval manuscripts 菩薩 púsà 'bodhisattva' is sometimes written with a single character formed of four 十. In the Oracle Bone script, personal names and ritual items are commonly contracted into single characters, and although it is discouraged by language planners, in the modern language phrases such as 七十人 qīshí rén 'seventy people' and 受又(祐) shòu yòu 'receive blessings' are fused into single characters as well. There are elements here of true logographology, where characters represent whole words rather than syllable-morphemes, though some are phrases rather than words. They might be better seen as ligatures. (See Chinese ligatures.)


Variants of the Chinese character for guī 'turtle', collected ca. 1800 from printed sources. The one at left is the traditional form used today in Taiwan and Hong Kong, 龜, though 龜 may look slightly different, or even like the second variant from the left, depending on your font (see Wiktionary). The modern simplified forms used in China, 龟, and in Japan, 亀, are most similar to the variant in the middle of the bottom row, though neither is identical. A few more closely resemble the modern simplified form of the character for diàn 'lightning', 电.
Five of the 30 variant characters found in the preface of the Imperial (Kangxi) Dictionary which are not found in the dictionary itself. They are 為 (爲) wèi 'due to', 此 'this', 所 suǒ 'place', 能 néng 'be able to', 兼 jiān 'concurrently'. (Although the form of 為 is not very different, and in fact is used today in Japan, the radical 爪 has been obliterated.) Another variant from the preface, 来 for 來 lái 'to come', also not listed in the dictionary, has been adopted as the standard in Mainland China and Japan.
CJK ideograph 次 in Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Japanese Kanji and Korean Hanja.

Just as Roman letters have a characteristic shape (lower-case letters mostly occupying the x-height, with ascenders or descenders on some letters), Chinese characters occupy a more or less square area in which the components of every character are written to fit in order to maintain a uniform size and shape, especially with small printed characters in Ming and sans-serif styles. Because of this, beginners often practise writing on squared graph paper, and the Chinese sometimes use the term "Square-Block Characters" (方块字 / 方塊字, fāngkuàizì), sometimes translated as tetragraph, in reference to Chinese characters.

Despite standardization, some nonstandard forms are commonly used, especially in handwriting. In older sources, even authoritative ones, variant characters are commonplace. For example, in the preface to the Imperial Dictionary, there are 30 variant characters which are not found in the dictionary itself. A few of these are reproduced at right.

Regional standards

The nature of Chinese characters makes it very easy to produce allographs for many characters, and there have been many efforts at orthographical standardization throughout history. In recent times, the widespread usage of the characters in several different nations has prevented any particular system becoming universally adopted and the standard form of many Chinese characters thus varies in different regions.

Mainland China adopted simplified Chinese characters in 1956. They are also used in Singapore. Traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Postwar Japan has used its own less drastically simplified characters, Shinjitai, since 1946, while South Korea has limited its use of Chinese characters, and Vietnam and North Korea have completely abolished their use in favour of Vietnamese alphabet and Hangul, respectively.

The standard character forms of each region are described in:

  • The List of Frequently Used Characters in Modern Chinese for Mainland China.
  • The List of Forms of Frequently Used Characters for Hong Kong.
  • The Standard Form of National Characters for Taiwan.
  • The list of Jōyō kanji for Japan.
  • The Kangxi Dictionary (de facto) for Korea.

In addition to strictness in character size and shape, Chinese characters are written with very precise rules. The most important rules regard the strokes employed, stroke placement, and stroke order. Just as each region that uses Chinese characters has standardized character forms, each also has standardized stroke orders, with each standard being different. Most characters can be written with just one correct stroke order, though some words also have many valid stroke orders, which may occasionally result in different stroke counts. Some characters are also written with different stroke orders due to character simplification.

Typography and design

A page from a Ming Dynasty edition of the Book of Qi
The first four characters of Thousand Character Classic in different typeface styles script styles and type styles. From right to left: seal script, clerical script, regular script, Ming and sans-serif.
A page from a Song Dynasty publication in a regular script typeface which resembles the handwriting of Ouyang Xun.

There are three major families of typefaces used in Chinese typography:

  • Song / Ming
  • Sans-serif
  • Regular script

Ming and sans-serif are the most popular in body text and are based on regular script for Chinese characters akin to Western serif and sans-serif typefaces, respectively. Regular script typefaces emulate regular script.

The Song typeface (宋体 / 宋體, sòngtǐ) is known as the Ming typeface (明朝, minchō) in Japan, and it is also a bit more prevalent known as the Ming typeface (明体 / 明體, míngtǐ) over the term Song typeface in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The names of these styles come from the Song and Ming dynasties, when block printing flourished in China.

Sans-serif typefaces, called black typeface (黑体 / 黑體, hēitǐ) in Chinese and Gothic typeface (ゴシック体) in Japanese, are characterized by simple lines of even thickness for each stroke, akin to sans-serif styles such as Arial and Helvetica in Western typography.

Regular script typefaces are also commonly used, but not as common as Ming or sans-serif typefaces for body text. Regular script typefaces are often used to teach students Chinese characters, and often aim to match the standard forms of the region where they are meant to be used. Most typefaces in the Song Dynasty were regular script typefaces which resembled a particular person's handwriting (e.g. the handwriting of Ouyang Xun, Yan Zhenqing, or Liu Gongquan), while most modern regular script typefaces tend toward anonymity and regularity.


Chinese character simplification is the overall reduction of the number of strokes in the regular script of a set of Chinese characters.

Simplification in China

The use of traditional Chinese characters versus simplified Chinese characters varies greatly, and can depend on both the local customs and the medium. Before the official reform, character simplifications were not officially sanctioned and generally adopted vulgar variants and idiosyncratic substitutions. Orthodox variants were mandatory in printed works, while the (unofficial) simplified characters would be used in everyday writing or quick notes. Since the 1950s, and especially with the publication of the 1964 list, the People's Republic of China has officially adopted simplified Chinese characters for use in mainland China, while Hong Kong, Macau, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) were not affected by the reform. There is no absolute rule for using either system, and often it is determined by what the target audience understands, as well as the upbringing of the writer.

Although most often associated with the People's Republic of China, character simplification predates the 1949 communist victory. Caoshu, cursive written text, almost always includes character simplification, and simplified forms have always existed in print, albeit not for the most formal works. In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that character simplification would help boost literacy in China. Indeed, this desire by the Kuomintang to simplify the Chinese writing system (inherited and implemented by the Communist Party of China) also nursed aspirations of some for the adoption of a phonetic script based on the Latin script, and spawned such inventions as the Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

The People's Republic of China issued its first round of official character simplifications in two documents, the first in 1956 and the second in 1964. A second round of character simplifications (known as erjian, or "second round simplified characters") was promulgated in 1977. It was poorly received, and in 1986 the authorities rescinded the second round completely, while making six revisions to the 1964 list, including the restoration of three traditional characters that had been simplified: 叠 dié, 覆 , 像 xiàng.

The majority of simplified characters are drawn from conventional abbreviated forms, or ancient standard forms. For example, the orthodox character 來 lái ("come") was written with the structure 来 in the clerical script (隶书 / 隸書, lìshū) of the Han Dynasty. This clerical form uses one fewer stroke, and was thus adopted as a simplified form. The character 雲 yún ("cloud") was written with the structure 云 in the oracle bone script of the Shang Dynasty, and had remained in use later as a phonetic loan in the meaning of "to say" while the 雨 radical was added to differentiate meanings. The simplified form adopts the original structure.

Japanese kanji

In the years after World War II, the Japanese government also instituted a series of orthographic reforms. Some characters were given simplified forms called shinjitai 新字体 (lit. "new character forms", the older forms were then labelled the kyūjitai 旧字体, lit. "old character forms"). The number of characters in common use was restricted, and formal lists of characters to be learned during each grade of school were established, first the 1850-character tōyō kanji 当用漢字 list in 1945, the 1945-character jōyō kanji 常用漢字 list in 1981, and a 2136-character reformed version of the jōyō kanji in 2010. Many variant forms of characters and obscure alternatives for common characters were officially discouraged. This was done with the goal of facilitating learning for children and simplifying kanji use in literature and periodicals. These are simply guidelines, hence many characters outside these standards are still widely known and commonly used, especially those used for personal and place names (for the latter, see jinmeiyō kanji).

Southeast Asian Chinese communities

Singapore underwent three successive rounds of character simplification. These resulted in some simplifications that differed from those used in mainland China. It ultimately adopted the reforms of the People's Republic of China in their entirety as official, and has implemented them in the educational system. However, unlike in China, personal names may still be registered in traditional characters.

Malaysia started teaching a set of simplified characters at schools in 1981, which were also completely identical to the Mainland China simplifications. Chinese newspapers in Malaysia are published in either set of characters, typically with the headlines in traditional Chinese while the body is in simplified Chinese.

Although in both countries the use of simplified characters is universal among the younger Chinese generation, a large majority of the older Chinese literate generation still use the traditional characters. Chinese shop signs are also generally written in traditional characters.

In the Philippines, most Chinese schools and businesses still use the traditional characters and bopomofo, owing from influence from the Republic of China (Taiwan) due to the shared Hokkien heritage. Recently, however, more Chinese schools now use both simplified characters and pinyin. Since most readers of Chinese newspapers in the Philippines belong to the older generation, they are still published largely using traditional characters.

Comparisons of traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and Japanese

The following is a comparison of Chinese characters in the Standard Form of National Characters, a common traditional Chinese standard used in Taiwan; the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Chángyòng Zìbiǎo, the standard for Mainland Chinese simplified Chinese characters; and the jōyō kanji, the standard for Japanese kanji. "Simplified" refers to having significant differences from the Taiwan standard, not necessarily being a newly created character or a newly performed substitution. The characters in the Hong Kong standard and the Kangxi Dictionary are also known as "Traditional," but are not shown.

Comparisons of traditional Chinese characters, simplified Chinese characters, and simplified Japanese characters in their modern standardized forms [a]
Traditional Chinese Simplified Chinese Japanese meaning
Simplified in mainland China, not Japan
(Some radicals were simplified)
car, vehicle
red (crimson in Japanese)
spoken language
Simplified in Japan, not Mainland China
(In some cases this represents the adoption
of different variants as standard)
Tin can
moral, virtue
kowtow, pray to, worship
Simplified in Mainland China and Japan,
but different
certificate, proof
turtle, tortoise
art, arts
fight, war
to close, relationship
iron, metal
picture, diagram
group, regiment
广 wide, broad
bad, evil
pressure, compression
hall, office
Simplified in Mainland China and Japan
but identical
sound, voice
dot, point
can (verb), meeting

[a] This table is merely a brief sample, not a complete listing.


Dozens of indexing schemes have been created for arranging Chinese characters in Chinese dictionaries. The great majority of these schemes have appeared in only a single dictionary; only one such system has achieved truly widespread use. This is the system of radicals.

Chinese character dictionaries often allow users to locate entries in several different ways. Many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dictionaries of Chinese characters list characters in radical order: characters are grouped together by radical, and radicals containing fewer strokes come before radicals containing more strokes. Under each radical, characters are listed by their total number of strokes. It is often also possible to search for characters by sound, using pinyin (in Chinese dictionaries), zhuyin (in Taiwanese dictionaries), kana (in Japanese dictionaries) or hangul (in Korean dictionaries). Most dictionaries also allow searches by total number of strokes, and individual dictionaries often allow other search methods as well.

For instance, to look up the character where the sound is not known, e.g., 松 (pine tree), the user first determines which part of the character is the radical (here 木), then counts the number of strokes in the radical (four), and turns to the radical index (usually located on the inside front or back cover of the dictionary). Under the number "4" for radical stroke count, the user locates 木, then turns to the page number listed, which is the start of the listing of all the characters containing this radical. This page will have a sub-index giving remainder stroke numbers (for the non-radical portions of characters) and page numbers. The right half of the character also contains four strokes, so the user locates the number 4, and turns to the page number given. From there, the user must scan the entries to locate the character he or she is seeking. Some dictionaries have a sub-index which lists every character containing each radical, and if the user knows the number of strokes in the non-radical portion of the character, he or she can locate the correct page directly.

Another dictionary system is the four corner method, where characters are classified according to the "shape" of each of the four corners.

Most modern Chinese dictionaries and Chinese dictionaries sold to English speakers use the traditional radical-based character index in a section at the front, while the main body of the dictionary arranges the main character entries alphabetically according to their pinyin spelling. To find a character with unknown sound using one of these dictionaries, the reader finds the radical and stroke number of the character, as before, and locates the character in the radical index. The character's entry will have the character's pronunciation in pinyin written down; the reader then turns to the main dictionary section and looks up the pinyin spelling alphabetically.

Other languages

Countries (modern boundaries drawn) where Chinese characters were/are used in its official/dominant language or at least one of its official/dominant languages:
Dark Green - Traditional Chinese characters used exclusively or almost exclusively (Taiwan Taiwan, Macau Macau and Hong Kong Hong Kong)
Medium Green - Simplified Chinese characters used formally but traditional characters continue to be used widely (Singapore Singapore and Malaysia Malaysia)
Green - Simplified Chinese characters used exclusively or almost exclusively (China Mainland China)
Light Green- Chinese characters used in conjunction with other systems of writing in the same language (South Korea South Korea and Japan Japan)
Light Yellow - Chinese characters were once used in the official language but is not used any more (Mongolia Mongolia, North Korea North Korea and Vietnam Vietnam)

Besides Chinese/ Sinitic languages, Japanese/ Japonic languages, Korean, and Vietnamese language ( Nôm), a number of smaller Asian languages have been written or continue to be written using Hanzi, characters modified from Hanzi, or Hanzi in combination with native characters. They include:

  • Bai language
  • Dong language
  • Iu Mien language
  • Jurchen language, Jurchen script
  • Khitan language, Khitan script
  • Miao languages
  • Nakhi (Naxi) language ( Geba script)
  • Tangut language, Tangut script
  • Zhuang language (using Zhuang logograms, or "sawndip")
  • Sui script

In addition, the Yi script is similar to Hanzi, but is not known to be directly related to it.

Mongolian text from The Secret History of the Mongols in Chinese transcription, with a glossary on the right of each row.

Along with Persian and Arabic, Chinese characters were also used as a foreign script to write the Mongolian language, where characters were used to phonetically transcribe Mongolian sounds. Before the 13th century and the establishment of the Mongolian script, foreign scripts such as Chinese had to be used to write the Mongolian language. Most notably, the only surviving copies of The Secret History of the Mongols were written in such a manner; the Chinese characters 忙豁侖紐察 脫[卜]察安 (pinyin: mánghuōlúnniǔchá tuō[bo]chá'ān) is the rendering of Mongγol-un niγuca tobčiyan, the title in Mongolian.

Historical spread

Chinese characters were first used in Vietnam during the period of Chinese rule, starting in 111 BC. They were used to write both Classical Chinese and Nôm, a form of Vietnamese written in Chinese characters which emerged around the 13th century.

The oldest known record of the Sawndip characters used by the Zhuang, a non- Han peoples from what is today known as Guangxi, is from a stele dating from 689, which predates the earliest example of Vietnamese Nôm. The Zhuang word for characters used in the Chinese language is "sawgun" (saw Saw sawndip.svg meaning character, and cognate to Chinese 字, and gun 倱 meaning ethnic Chinese, cognate to 漢), while "sawndip" (⿰書史⿰立生, lit. "immature character") refers to the characters used in the Zhuang language.

The Chinese script spread to Korea together with Buddhism from the 2nd century BC to 5th century AD ( hanja). The Japanese kanji were adopted for recording the Japanese language from the 8th century AD.

Representation of foreign languages

According to the Rev. John Gulick: "The inhabitants of other Asiatic nations, who have had occasion to represent the words of their several languages by Chinese characters, have as a rule used unaspirated characters for the sounds, g, d, b. The Muslims from Arabia and Persia have followed this method … The Mongols, Manchu, and Japanese also constantly select unaspirated characters to represent the sounds g, d, b, and j of their languages. These surrounding Asiatic nations, in writing Chinese words in their own alphabets, have uniformly used g, d, b, & c., to represent the unaspirated sounds."

Chinese characters were also used to phonetically transcribe the Manchu language in the Qing dynasty.

Number of Chinese characters

The total number of Chinese characters from past to present remains unknowable because new ones are developed all the time – for instance, brands may create new characters when none of the existing ones allow for the intended meaning. Chinese characters are theoretically an open set and anyone can create new characters as they see fit. Such inventions are however often excluded from officialized character sets. The number of entries in major Chinese dictionaries is the best means of estimating the historical growth of character inventory.

Number of characters in Chinese dictionaries
Year Name of dictionary Number of characters
100 Shuowen Jiezi 9,353
543? Yupian 12,158
601 Qieyun 16,917
997 Longkan Shoujian 26,430
1011 Guangyun 26,194
1039 Jiyun 53,525
1615 Zihui 33,179
1675 Zhengzitong 33,440
1716 Kangxi Zidian 47,035
1916 Zhonghua Da Zidian 48,000
1989 Hanyu Da Zidian 54,678
1994 Zhonghua Zihai 85,568
2004 Yitizi Zidian 106,230
Number of Chinese characters in non-Chinese dictionaries
Year Country Name of dictionary Number of characters
2003 Japan Dai Kan-Wa jiten 50,000+
2008 South Korea Han-Han Dae Sajeon 53,667

Even the Zhonghua Zihai fails to be completely comprehensive, as it ignores the roughly 1,500 Japanese-made kokuji given in the Kokuji no Jiten, as well as the Han-Nom characters formerly used in Vietnam.

Modified radicals and new variants are two common reasons for the ever-increasing number of characters. There are about 300 radicals and 100 are in common use. Creating a new character by modifying the radical is an easy way to disambiguate homographs among xíngshēngzì pictophonetic compounds. This practice began long before the standardization of Chinese script by Qin Shi Huang and continues to the present day. The traditional 3rd-person pronoun (他 "he, she, it"), which is written with the "person radical", illustrates modifying significs to form new characters. In modern usage, there is a graphic distinction between (她 "she") with the "woman radical", (牠 "it") with the "animal radical", (它 "it") with the "roof radical", and (祂 "He") with the "deity radical", One consequence of modifying radicals is the fossilization of rare and obscure variant logographs, some of which are not even used in Classical Chinese. For instance, he 和 "harmony, peace", which combines the "grain radical" with the "mouth radical", has infrequent variants 咊 with the radicals reversed and 龢 with the "flute radical".


Note that Chinese characters should not be confused with Chinese words, as the majority of modern Chinese words, unlike their Old Chinese and Middle Chinese counterparts, are multi-morphemic and multi-syllabic compounds, that is, most Chinese words are written with two or more characters; each character representing one syllable. Knowing the meanings of the individual characters of a word will often allow the general meaning of the word to be inferred, but this is not invariably the case.

In China, which uses simplified Chinese characters, the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Chángyòng Zìbiǎo (现代汉语常用字表, Chart of Common Characters of Modern Chinese) lists 2,500 common characters and 1,000 less-than-common characters, while the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Tōngyòng Zìbiǎo (现代汉语通用字表, Chart of Generally Utilized Characters of Modern Chinese) lists 7,000 characters, including the 3,500 characters already listed above. GB2312, an early version of the national encoding standard used in the People's Republic of China, has 6,763 code points. GB18030, the modern, mandatory standard, has a much higher number. The New Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (汉语水平考试, Chinese Proficiency Test) proficiency test covers approximately 2,600 characters in its highest level (level six).

In the Republic of China (Taiwan), which uses traditional Chinese characters, the Ministry of Education's Chángyòng Guózì Biāozhǔn Zìtǐ Biǎo (常用國字標準字體表, Chart of Standard Forms of Common National Characters) lists 4,808 characters; the Cì Chángyòng Guózì Biāozhǔn Zìtǐ Biǎo (次常用國字標準字體表, Chart of Standard Forms of Less-Than-Common National Characters) lists another 6,341 characters. The Chinese Standard Interchange Code ( CNS11643)—the official national encoding standard—supports 48,027 characters, while the most widely used encoding scheme, BIG-5, supports only 13,053.

In Hong Kong, which uses traditional Chinese characters, the Education and Manpower Bureau's Soengjung Zi Zijing Biu (常用字字形表), intended for use in elementary and junior secondary education, lists a total of 4,759 characters.

In addition, there is a large corpus of dialect characters (方言字), which are not used in formal written Chinese but represent colloquial terms in non-Mandarin Chinese spoken forms. One such variety is Written Cantonese, in widespread use in Hong Kong even for certain formal documents, due to the former British colonial administration's recognition of Cantonese for use for official purposes. In Taiwan, there is also an informal body of characters used to represent the spoken Hokkien ( Min Nan) dialect. Many dialects have specific characters for words exclusive to the dialect, for example, the vernacular character F35B hakka cii11.png, pronounced cii11 in Hakka, means "to kill". Furthermore, Shanghainese and Sichuanese also have their own series of written text, but these are not widely used in actual texts, Mandarin being the preference for all mainland regions.


In Japanese there are 2,136 jōyō kanji (常用漢字, lit. "frequently used kanji") designated by the Japanese Ministry of Education; these are taught during primary and secondary school. The list is a recommendation, not a restriction, and many characters missing from it are still in common use.

The one area where character usage is officially restricted is in names, which may contain only government-approved characters. Since the jōyō kanji list excludes many characters which have been used in personal and place names for generations, an additional list, referred to as the jinmeiyō kanji (人名用漢字, lit. "kanji for use in personal names"), is published. It currently contains 983 characters, bringing the total number of government-endorsed characters to 2928. (See also the Names section of the kanji article.)

Today, a well-educated Japanese person may know upwards of 3,500 kanji. The kanji kentei (日本漢字能力検定試験, Nihon Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Shiken or Test of Japanese Kanji Aptitude) tests a speaker's ability to read and write kanji. The highest level of the kanji kentei tests on 6,000 kanji, though in practice few people attain (or need to attain) this level.

Written Japanese also includes a pair of syllabic scripts known as kana, which are used in combination with kanji. In Japanese, verb and adjective inflections, many small and common grammatical and function words, many loanwords, as well as miscellaneous other words, have no kanji forms and are instead written in kana. Therefore, written communication generally requires the use of kana as well as kanji.


In times past, until the 15th century, in Korea, Literary Chinese was the dominant form of written communication, prior to the creation of hangul, the Korean alphabet. Much of the vocabulary, especially in the realms of science and sociology, comes directly from Chinese, comparable to Latin or Greek root words in European languages. However due to the lack of tones in Korean, as the words were imported from Chinese, many dissimilar characters took on identical sounds, and subsequently identical spelling in hangul. Chinese characters are sometimes used to this day for either clarification in a practical manner, or to give a distinguished appearance, as knowledge of Chinese characters is considered a high class attribute and an indispensable part of a classical education.. It is also observed that the preference for Chinese characters is treated as being conservative and Confucian.

In Korea, 한자 hanja have become a politically contentious issue, with some Koreans urging a "purification" of the national language and culture by totally abandoning their use. These individuals encourage the exclusive use of the native hangul alphabet throughout Korean society and the end to character education in public schools.

In South Korea, educational policy on characters has swung back and forth, often swayed by education ministers' personal opinions. At times, middle and high school students have been formally exposed to 1,800 to 2,000 basic characters, albeit with the principal focus on recognition, with the aim of achieving newspaper-literacy. Since there is little need to use hanja in everyday life, young adult Koreans are often unable to read more than a few hundred characters.

There is a clear trend toward the exclusive use of hangul in day-to-day South Korean society. Hanja are still used to some extent, particularly in newspapers, weddings, place names and calligraphy. Hanja is also extensively used in situations where ambiguity must be avoided, such as academic papers, high-level corporate reports, government documents, and newspapers; this is due to the large number of homonyms that have resulted from extensive borrowing of Chinese words.

The issue of ambiguity is the main hurdle in any effort to "cleanse" the Korean language of Chinese characters. Characters convey meaning visually, while alphabets convey guidance to pronunciation, which in turn hints at meaning. As an example, in Korean dictionaries, the phonetic entry for 기사 gisa yields more than 30 different entries. In the past, this ambiguity had been efficiently resolved by parenthetically displaying the associated hanja.

In the modern hangul-based Korean writing system, Chinese characters are no longer used to represent native morphemes.

In North Korea, the government, wielding much tighter control than its sister government to the south, has banned Chinese characters from virtually all public displays and media, and mandated the use of hangul in their place.


Although now nearly extinct in Vietnam, Chinese characters were once in widespread. They became limited to ceremonial uses beginning in the 20th century. Similarly to Japan and Korea, Chinese (especially Literary Chinese) was used by the ruling classes, and the characters were eventually adapted to write Vietnamese. To express native Vietnamese words which had different pronunciations from the Chinese, Vietnamese developed the Nôm script which used various methods to distinguish native Vietnamese words from Chinese. Vietnamese is currently exclusively written in the Vietnamese alphabet, a derivative of the Latin alphabet.

Modern creation

New characters can in principle be coined at any time, just as new words can be, but they may not be adopted. Significant historically recent coinages date to scientific terms of the 19th century. Specifically, Chinese coined new characters for chemical elements – see chemical elements in East Asian languages – which continue to be used and taught in schools in China and Taiwan. In Japan, in the Meiji era (specifically, late 19th century), new characters were coined for some (but not all) SI units, such as 粁 (米 "meter" + 千 "thousand, kilo-") for kilometer. These kokuji (Japanese-coinages) have found use in China as well – see Chinese characters for SI units for details.

While new characters can be easily coined by writing on paper, they are difficult to represent on a computer – they must generally be represented as a picture, rather than as text – which presents a significant barrier to their use or widespread adoption. Compare this with the use of symbols as names in 20th century musical albums such as Led Zeppelin IV (1971) and Love Symbol Album (1993); an album cover may potentially contain any graphics, but in writing and other computation these symbols are difficult to use.

Rare and complex characters

Often a character not commonly used (a "rare" or "variant" character) will appear in a personal or place name in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese (see Chinese name, Japanese name, Korean name, and Vietnamese name, respectively). This has caused problems as many computer encoding systems include only the most common characters and exclude the less oft-used characters. This is especially a problem for personal names which often contain rare or classical, antiquated characters.

One man who has encountered this problem is Taiwanese politician Yu Shyi-kun, due to the rarity of the last character in his name. Newspapers have dealt with this problem in varying ways, including using software to combine two existing, similar characters, including a picture of the personality, or, especially as is the case with Yu Shyi-kun, simply substituting a homophone for the rare character in the hope that the reader would be able to make the correct inference. Taiwanese political posters, movie posters etc. will often add the bopomofo phonetic symbols next to such a character. Japanese newspapers may render such names and words in katakana instead of kanji, and it is accepted practice for people to write names for which they are unsure of the correct kanji in katakana instead.

There are also some extremely complex characters which have understandably become rather rare. According to Joël Bellassen (1989), the most complex Chinese character is Zhé.svg/𪚥 (U+2A6A5) zhé listen, meaning "verbose" and containing sixty-four strokes; this character fell from use around the 5th century. It might be argued, however, that while containing the most strokes, it is not necessarily the most complex character (in terms of difficulty), as it simply requires writing the same sixteen-stroke character 龍 lóng (lit. "dragon") four times in the space for one. Another 64-stroke character is Zhèng.svg/𠔻 (U+2053B) zhèng composed of 興 xīng/xìng (lit. "flourish") four times.

One of the most complex characters found in modern Chinese dictionaries is 齉 (U+9F49) (nàng, listen, pictured below, middle image), meaning "snuffle" (that is, a pronunciation marred by a blocked nose), with "just" thirty-six strokes. However, this is not in common use. The most complex character that can be input using the Microsoft New Phonetic IME 2002a for traditional Chinese is 龘 (, "the appearance of a dragon flying"). It is composed of the dragon radical represented three times, for a total of 16 × 3 = 48 strokes. Among the most complex characters in modern dictionaries and also in frequent modern use are 籲 (, "to implore"), with 32 strokes; 鬱 (, "luxuriant, lush; gloomy"), with 29 strokes, as in 憂鬱 (yōuyù, "depressed"); 豔 (yàn, "colorful"), with 28 strokes; and 釁 (xìn, "quarrel"), with 25 strokes, as in 挑釁 (tiǎoxìn, "to pick a fight"). Also in occasional modern use is 鱻 (xiān “fresh”; variant of 鮮 xiān) with 33 strokes.

In Japanese, an 84-stroke kokuji exists: Taito 1.svg—it is composed of three "cloud" (雲) characters on top of the abovementioned triple "dragon" character (龘). Also meaning "the appearance of a dragon in flight", it has been pronounced おとど otodo, たいと taito, and だいと daito.

The most complex Chinese character still in use may be biáng (pictured right, bottom), with 57 strokes, which refers to Biang biang noodles, a type of noodle from China's Shaanxi province. This character along with syllable biang cannot be found in dictionaries. The fact that it represents a syllable that does not exist in any Standard Chinese word means that it could be classified as a dialectal character.

Chinese calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy of mixed styles written by Song Dynasty (1051–1108 AD) poet Mifu. For centuries, the Chinese literati were expected to master the art of calligraphy.

The art of writing Chinese characters is called Chinese calligraphy. It is usually done with ink brushes. In ancient China, Chinese calligraphy is one of the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholars. There is a minimalist set of rules of Chinese calligraphy. Every character from the Chinese scripts is built into a uniform shape by means of assigning it a geometric area in which the character must occur. Each character has a set number of brushstrokes; none must be added or taken away from the character to enhance it visually, lest the meaning be lost. Finally, strict regularity is not required, meaning the strokes may be accentuated for dramatic effect of individual style. Calligraphy was the means by which scholars could mark their thoughts and teachings for immortality, and as such, represent some of the more precious treasures that can be found from ancient China.

Works cited

  •  This article incorporates text from The Chinese recorder and missionary journal, Volume 3, a publication from 1871 now in the public domain in the United States.
  • Boltz, William G. (1994). The origin and early development of the Chinese writing system. New Haven: The American Oriental Society.
  • Kern, Martin (2010). "Early Chinese Literature, Beginnings Through Western Han", The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, vol. 1, ed. Stephen Owen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-115.
  • Keightley, David (1978). Sources of Shang history: the oracle-bone inscriptions of bronze-age China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Qiú, Xīguī 裘錫圭 (2000). Chinese writing. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies. [English translation by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman of Wénzìxué Gàiyào 文字學概要, Shangwu, 1988.]
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