Chinese character classification

Chinese character classification
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All Chinese characters are logograms, but there are several derivative types. These include a handful which derive from pictograms (象形 pinyin: xiàngxíng) and a number which are ideographic (指事 zhǐshì) in origin, but the vast majority originated as phono-semantic compounds (形聲 xíngshēng). In older literature, Chinese characters in general may be referred to as ideograms, due to the misconception that characters represented ideas directly, whereas in fact they do so only through association with the spoken word.[1] This article therefore covers the origin of these logographic characters, not their current function in the Chinese writing system.


Traditional classification

Traditional Chinese lexicography divided characters into six categories (六書 liùshū "Six Writings"), which are described below. This classification is often attributed to Xu Shen's second century dictionary Shuowen Jiezi, but it has been dated earlier. The first mention is in the work Zhou Li of the late Zhou dynasty, and the six types are listed in the Hanshu of the first century CE, and in Zheng Zhong (鄭眾) quoted by Zheng Xuan (鄭玄) in his first-century commentary of Zhou Li, although the details vary. The traditional classification is still taught but is no longer the focus of modern lexicographic practice. Some categories are not clearly defined, nor are they mutually exclusive: the first four refer to structural composition, while the last two refer to usage. For this reason, some modern scholars view them as six principles of character formation rather than six types of characters.

The earliest significant, extant corpus of Chinese characters is found on turtle shells and the bones of livestock, chiefly the scapula of oxen, for use in pyromancy, a form of divination. These ancient characters are called oracle bone script. Roughly a quarter of these characters are pictograms while the rest are either phono-semantic compounds or compound ideograms. Despite millennia of change in shape, usage and meaning, a few of these characters remain recognizable to the modern reader of Chinese.

At present, more than 90% of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds, constructed out of elements intended to provide clues to both the meaning and the pronunciation. However, as both the meanings and pronunciations of the characters have changed over time, these components are no longer reliable guides to either meaning or pronunciation. The failure to recognize the historical and etymological role of these components often leads to misclassification and folk etymology. A study of the earliest sources (the oracle bones script and the Zhou-dynasty bronze script) is often necessary for an understanding of the true composition and etymology of any particular character. Reconstructing Middle and Old Chinese phonology from the clues present in characters is part of Chinese historical linguistics. In Chinese, it is called Yinyunxue (音韻學 "Studies of sounds and rimes").


Roughly 600 Chinese characters are pictograms (象形 xiàng xíng, "form imitation") — stylised drawings of the objects they represent. These are generally among the oldest characters. A few, indicated below with their earliest forms, date back to oracle bones from the twelfth century BCE.

These pictograms became progressively more stylized and lost their pictographic flavor, especially as they made the transition from the oracle bone script to the Seal Script of the Eastern Zhou, but also to a lesser extent in the transition to the clerical script of the Han Dynasty. The table below summarises the evolution of a few Chinese pictographic characters. Where no modern simplified form is provided, it is identical to the traditional character.


  • is a stylised drawing of a woman kneeling in profile. In the oracle bone, bronze and seal scripts, the torso vertically bisects the crossed arms; in the clerical and standard scripts, the graph is rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise so that the hands, not the feet, are pointed downward.
  • shuǐ "water" represents the lines of a flowing river.

Simple ideograms

Ideograms (指事 zhǐ shì, "indication") express an abstract idea through an iconic form, including iconic modification of pictographic characters. In the examples below, low numerals are represented by the appropriate number of strokes, directions by an iconic indication above and below a line, and the parts of a tree by marking the appropriate part of a pictogram of a tree.


Pinyin èr sān shàng xià běn
Gloss one two three up below root apex


  • běn, "root" - a tree (木 ) with the base indicated by an extra stroke.
  • , "apex" - the reverse of 本 (běn), a tree with the top highlighted by an extra stroke.

Ideogrammatic compounds

In ideogrammatic compounds (會意 huì yì, "joined meaning"), also called associative compounds or logical aggregates, two or more pictographic or ideographic characters are combined to suggest a third meaning. For example, the character 各 originally meant "to arrive". (It was long ago borrowed for "each".) The oracle-bone form of this compound, very similar to the modern glyph, shows 夂 a foot (the inverted form of 止 zhǐ, originally a foot) at a 凵 or 口 walled object, perhaps a dwelling. The meaning of "arrive" is thus suggested jointly, as a footstep at the door.

As these characters became more stylized over time, one or more of the components was often compressed or abbreviated. For example, the character 人 "human" was reduced to 亻, 水 "water" to 氵, and 艸 "grass" to 艹.

It is unclear whether a logical link induces a character layout, or the opposite, the association being a mnemonic artifact of striking truth. Juxtaposition of "woman" and "child" could as well be interpreted as "maternal love" or "weakness".

A few further examples:

×2 =
×3 =
+ =
two trees
three trees
a man leaning against a tree

+ = 雧(集)
×2 +=
+ =
+ = 采 (採)
three birds on a tree*
gather together
two birds in the right hand
a woman with a child
a hand on a bush
×2+ =
+ = 秋(龝)
wood on a fire
grain and fire
*Early forms of the character 集 ("gather together") show three birds (隹) on a tree.

Rebus (phonetic loan) characters

Jiajie (假借 jiǎjiè, "borrowing; making use of") are characters that are "borrowed" to write another homophonous or near-homophonous morpheme, comparable with using "4" as a rebus for English "for" in "4ever". For example, the character was originally a pictogram of a wheat plant and meant *mlək "wheat". As this was pronounced similarly to the Old Chinese word *mlək "to come", 來 was also used to write this verb. Eventually the more common usage, the verb "to come", became established as the default reading of the character 來, and a new character was devised for "wheat". (The modern pronunciations are lái and mài.) When a character is used as a rebus this way, it is called a jiajiezi 假借字 (lit. "loaned and borrowed character") (in Wade-Giles "chia-chie" or "chia-chieh"), translatable as "phonetic loan character" or "rebus character".

As in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform, early Chinese characters were used as rebuses to express abstract meanings that were not easily depicted. Thus many characters stood for more than one word. In some cases the extended use would take over completely, and a new character would be created for the original meaning, usually by modifying the original character with a radical (determinative). For instance, yòu originally meant "right hand; right" but was borrowed to write the abstract word yòu "again; moreover". In modern usage, the character 又 exclusively represents yòu "again" while , which adds the "mouth radical" to 又, represents yòu "right". This process of graphic disambiguation is a common source of phono-semantic compound characters.

Examples of jiajie
Pictograph or
New character for
original word
"four" "nostrils" (mucous; sniffle)
"flat, thin" "leaf"
běi "north" bèi "back (of the body)"
yào "to want" yāo "waist"
shǎo "few" shā "sand" and
yǒng "forever" yǒng "swim"

While this word jiajie dates from the Han Dynasty, the related term tongjia (通假 tōngjiǎ "interchangeable borrowing") is first attested from the Ming Dynasty. The two terms are commonly used as synonyms, but there is a linguistic distinction between jiajiezi being a phonetic loan character for a word that did not originally have a character, such as using "a bag tied at both ends" [1] for dōng "east", and tongjia being an interchangeable character used for an existing homophonous character, such as using zǎo "flea" for zǎo "early".

According to Bernhard Karlgren (1968:1), "One of the most dangerous stumbling-blocks in the interpretation of pre-Han texts is the frequent occurrence of [jiajie], loan characters."

Phono-semantic compound characters

  • 形聲 xíng shēng "form and sound"

These are often called radical-phonetic characters. They form the majority of Chinese characters by far—over 90%, and were created by combining a rebus with a determinative—that is, a character with approximately the correct pronunciation (the phonetic element, similar to a phonetic complement) with one of a limited number of determinative characters which supplied an element of meaning (the semantic element, called a "radical", which centuries later would be used to organize characters in a dictionary). As in ancient Egyptian writing, such compounds eliminated the ambiguity caused by phonetic loans (above). Phono-semantic compounds appeared prior to the first attested Chinese writing on Shang Dynasty oracle bones.

Most often, the radical is on one side (often the left), while the phonetic is on the other side (often the right), as in 沐 = 氵 "water" + 木 . Also common is for the semantic and phonetic elements to be stacked on top of each other, as in 菜 = 艹 "plant" + 采 cǎi. More rarely, the phonetic may be placed inside the semantic, as in 園 = 囗 "enclosure" + 袁, or 街 = 行 "go, movement" + 圭. More complicated combinations also exist, such as 勝 = 力 "strength" + 朕, where the semantic is in the lower-right quadrant, and the phonetic is the other three quadrants.

This process can be repeated, with a phono-semantic compound character itself being used as a phonetic in a further compound, which can result in quite complex characters, such as 劇 (豦 = 虍 + 豕, 劇 = 刂 + 豦).


As an example, a verb meaning "to wash oneself" is pronounced mù. Although difficult to draw, it happens to sound the same as the word "tree", which was written with the simple pictograph 木. The verb could simply have been written 木, like "tree", but to disambiguate, it was combined with the character for "water", giving some idea of the meaning. The resulting character eventually came to be written 沐 "to wash one's hair". Similarly, the water determinative was combined with 林 lín "woods" to produce the water-related homophone 淋 lín "to pour".

Determinative Rebus Compound


"to wash oneself"



lín "to pour"

However, the phonetic component is not always as meaningless as this example would suggest. Rebuses were sometimes chosen that were compatible semantically as well as phonetically. It was also often the case that the determinative merely constrained the meaning of a word which already had several. 菜 cài "vegetable" is a case in point. The determinative 艹 for plants was combined with 采 cǎi "harvest". However, 采 cǎi does not merely provide the pronunciation. In classical texts it was also used to mean "vegetable". That is, 采 underwent semantic extension from "harvest" to "vegetable", and the addition of 艹 merely specified that the latter meaning was to be understood.

Determinative Rebus Compound


"harvest, vegetable"

cài "vegetable"

Some additional examples:

Determinative Rebus Compound



pāi "to clap, to hit"

to dig into


jiū "to investigate"



yìng "reflection"

Sound change

Originally characters sharing the same phonetic had similar readings, though they have now diverged substantially. Linguists rely heavily on this fact to reconstruct the sounds of Old Chinese – see historical Chinese phonology. Contemporary foreign pronunciations (Sino-Xenic pronunciations) of characters are also used to reconstruct older Chinese, chiefly Middle Chinese.

When people try to read a two-part character of which they are ignorant, they will typically follow the folk wisdom of you bian du bian (有邊讀邊) "read the side" and take one component to be a phonetic, which often results in errors.


Since the phonetic elements of many characters no longer accurately represent their pronunciations, when the People's Republic of China simplified characters, they often substituted a phonetic that was not only simpler to write, but more accurate for a modern reading in Mandarin as well.[citation needed] This has sometimes resulted in forms which are less phonetic than the original ones in varieties of Chinese other than Mandarin. (Note for the example that many determinatives were simplified as well, usually by standardizing cursive forms.)

Traditional character
Determinative Rebus Compound



zhōng "bell"
Simplified character
New rebus New compound



Derivative cognates

The derivative cognate (轉注 zhuǎn zhù, "reciprocal meaning") is a classification of purely historical value, and is the least understood of the liushu principles of character formation. It may refer to characters which have similar meanings and often the same etymological root, but which have diverged in pronunciation and meaning. The English words chance and cadence would fit this pattern, as they share a common Latin root, cadentia "to fall". If English were written the way Chinese is, these two words might have similar characters.

The characters 老 lǎo "old" and 考 kǎo "a test" are the most commonly cited example. The words derive from a common etymological root (approximately *klao’[citation needed]), and the characters differ only in the modification of one part.

Modern classifications

The liushu had been the standard classification scheme for Chinese characters since Xu Shen's time. Generations of scholars modified it without challenging the basic concepts. Tang Lan (唐蘭) (1902–1979) was the first to dismiss liushu, offering his own sanshu (三書 "Three Principles of Character Formation"), namely xiangxing (象形 "form-representing"), xiangyi (象意 "meaning-representing") and xingsheng (形聲 "meaning-sound"). This classification was later criticised by Chen Mengjia (陳夢家) (1911–1966) and Qiu Xigui. Both Chen and Qiu offered their own sanshu. (Qiu 2000:chp. 6.3)

See also


  1. ^ Hansen 1993
  • This page draws heavily on the French Wikipedia page Classification des sinogrammes, retrieved 12 April 2005.
  • Boltz, William G. (1994). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-78-1.
  • DeFrancis, John (1984). The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6.
  • DeFrancis, John (1989). Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. ISBN 0-8248-1207-7.
  • Hansen, Chad (1993). "Chinese Ideographs and Western Ideas," The Journal of Asian Studies 52.2:373–399.
  • Karlgren, Bernhard. (1968). Loan Character in Pre-Han Texts. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.
  • Qiu Xigui (裘錫圭) (2000). Chinese Writing. Tran. Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7.
  • Wang Hongyuan (1993). The Origins of Chinese characters. Beijing: Sinolingua. ISBN 978-7-80052-243-7.
  • Woon, Wee Lee (雲惟利) (1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution (漢字的原始和演變), originally published by the University of East Asia, Macau (no ISBN).

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