On the nature of Chinese characters

Given the current amount of time that I spend thinking about language, specifically Chinese, I have been shy about mentioning any of my thoughts on language. I have no formal training in linguistics, which has made me feel quite unqualified to go forth and write things about this topic (I have taken a few language classes in the past few years, but all have been with the primary goal of increasing my ability to communicate).


Then again, I realized that this can only be to my benefit: what better way to learn some? If end up writing something ridiculous and people want to tell me how I am egregiously wrong I am, I only serve to benefit.


So welcome to what may the first of several musings on language learning and the Chinese language. I hope you enjoy, and if you have thoughts or ideas related to it, please share. (Also, this is a lot longer than a lot of other things I’ve written, which I suppose is what happens when I keep ideas pent up for a long time.)


Literacy is one of the very unique struggles and joys of learning Chinese.


It is special and rewarding to learn to read Chinese characters. After all, it is the world’s oldest continuously used writing system (we’re talking thousands of years old, how is that not cool?), and simultaneously one of most widely spread writing systems (so it can certainly be useful!)


It also presents challenges that literacy in no other language does.


Let me take a moment to acknowledge that Japanese kanji are essentially the same as Chinese characters, and learning kanji is definitely required to be literate in Japanese. (More points to the wide functionality of Chinese characters: being able to infer some meanings of written Japanese!) But still, I argue that the challenge presented by literacy in Chinese is a uniquely difficult beast. First, the number of kanji required for functional literacy is estimated to be around 1,000-2,000, whereas the number of Chinese characters required is around 3,000-5,000. The effort required to keep all those characters straight must increase as the quantity bouncing around in your brain doubles and even triples. Because some characters are very, very similar. I mean, 烏 and 鳥…really? (meaning bird and black/dark, respectively. No wait – it’s the other way around!…or is it? Argh!)

[To supplement this opinion that learning 3k characters becomes exponentially harder than 1k, I would love some real data – so perhaps it’s a direction for further research. Maybe on memory capabilities? But also on what the differences are between the common kanji and Chinese characters? …?]


Furthermore, see the paragraph above where I mentioned that Chinese characters are old and widely spread. A side effect of this is that a great many characters currently have multiple forms that anyone who wishes to be functionally literate in Chinese needs to recognize.


The most obvious source for the multiple appearances of modern characters is the contemporaneous usage of Traditional and Simplified character systems*. Simplified Chinese characters were introduced by the Communist Party in mainland China in the mid-twentieth century in an effort to make writing characters easier and thus increase literacy rates. Regions not under the control of the CPC did not adopt this new character writing system, and the characters that they use are now widely known as Traditional Chinese characters. The two systems continue to coexist, and to represent unresolved political and cultural conflicts for many people. The general state of things is that mainland China uses Simplified characters while Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan use primarily Traditional characters. When I was in Malaysia and Singapore, I saw both kinds of characters (despite what Wikipedia says on the matter).


Regardless of the political reasons, the fact of the matter is that there is now plenty of communication and mutual exchange of materials between mainland China and the strongholds of Traditional characters (especially given that Taiwan and Hong Kong have high outputs of media that is eagerly consumed by the entire Mandarin-speaking world). As a result, I am pretty sure that the average person is likely versed in both the forms of the most common characters; some of which are pretty easy to understand, such as 说 , 說 (to speak), but even others that appear very different, eg. 让 , 讓 (to yield, to allow).


Thus that 3,000-5,000 characters is actually 3,000-5,000 characters plus common variations*.


Another aspect of the two writing systems is the choice that it presents to a foreign student who begins studying Chinese: unlike someone who is living in a society that uses one system or another, the foreign student has an opportunity to choose which system of characters to study. I have so many more thoughts and insights into this choice than I did when I was first asked to make it, that fall of my first Chinese class 5+ years ago. This is actually the main reason that inspired me to write all of this.


To some people, the choice between Traditional characters and Simplified characters is one of politics. To these people, I think the answer is fairly clear cut: use the system of whichever region you support.


To some people, the choice is simply one of practicality. Back when I first decided what to study, I was one of these people. I still am one of these people. Unfortunately, I’ve realized that defining the “pragmatic” choice is not as easy as it first sounds.


A “pure numbers” argument might say that it’s best to go with Simplified, considering that the entire population of China works on this system and it’s therefore much more widely spread than Traditional. But then again, this would disconnect you from proportionally large media sources of Taiwan and Hong Kong, and also discount that special bonus of inferring the meanings of Japanese kanji. (The incorporation of kanji in the Japanese writing system was long before the CPC. Fun fact, some reconstructions for archaic pronunciations of Chinese have been inferred from the Japanese pronunciations for kanji.)


However, most importantly, I think it is necessary for a Chinese learner to first understand their goals because this can guide the decision between studying Traditional or Simplified characters.


From a practical standpoint, it would be best to study one particular system if you know that you are only going to be in that region or interacting with materials from that region. This is straightforward enough, except I will point out the modern day inevitability of encountering materials from the other system. Similarly, if your intent is to conduct some form or research for which you have to read certain documents, it’s pretty obvious that you need to be fluent in whichever system is used in those documents.


But if that’s not so clear, then an understanding of your commitment to this quest of “learning Chinese” is important. If you’re in it for the long haul (that is, really trying to get to literacy), I think it’s best to go for learning Traditional.  If you’re interested in a smaller extent of functionality and shorter amount of time studying (and you’re not living in a place using Traditional characters), I’d probably recommend Simplified characters.


There’s no denying the previous “argument of numbers” and the fact that Simplified characters take less time to write (I even see plenty of Taiwanese people who use Simplified characters in their handwritten notes). They’re also much easier to learn at first, when the entire process of learning characters is very foreign and strange. I looked at these reasons, and went with Simplified characters when I first started. This was a good choice at the time, considering that I also went on to study abroad in Beijing.


But as I have persisted much farther along in studying Chinese than I ever expected, I have gotten enough a lot more perspective and now I would strongly advocate for anyone who is thinking that they might stick with Chinese to the level that I have (or beyond) to study Traditional.


First, it is almost universally acknowledged that it’s much easier to read Simplified if you have experience with Traditional than for someone familiar with Simplified to pick up Traditional. Having switched from using only Simplified to mostly Traditional, I will add my personal anecdote to saying that it’s now way easier for me to switch back and skim through a piece of Simplified text (even though I haven’t studied it in years) than it ever was for me to tackle deciphering Traditional back in the days when I lived in the land of Simplified. (But the switch generally was not all that difficult, in the overall scheme of things, so I consider this as a helpful perk, but not a deciding factor).


But when it comes to really learning all those thousands of characters required for literacy, I think Traditional is the way to go because it’s easier.


Traditional characters are more complicated because they maintain many more “clues” from the historical formation of the character. There are a variety of ways that characters were formed historically, and some of these are preserved in the characters: pieces (often called radicals, although this terminology refers to only specific ones) can be indicators of meaning or of sound (although please don’t ever believe it if someone tries to tell you that there is one unified system that explains all character composition).


Studying these pieces can help you understand the characters and remember them, giving you help in ways that Simplified characters often don’t. For example, in Simplified, 广 and厂(meaning wide / numerous and factory / yard, respectively) are nearly identical and only differentiated by a single meaningless stroke. In Traditional, the characters are quite distinct, 廣 and 廠, and the differentiation is through a piece that also gives an indication of the pronunciation of the characters (the characters 黄 and 敞, respectively).


As you amass more characters, distinguishing between them and remembering them is harder, and I really think that having these features makes it easier. While the Simplified character set maintains some of these features or created new ones, far more were removed. Furthermore, simplification sometimes resulted in decreased congruency between characters, which makes things even more difficult. For example, consider the second character in word for nightmare, 梦魇 or  夢魘. In the Traditional version, the character is very similar to壓 (pressure), except the bottom radical has been changed. I think this is a pretty easy way to remember the character, because they are both pronounced similarly. The switch is also a pretty memorable bit of logic, as the radical in the character for nightmare means ghost / demon (a nightmare is something that haunts your sleep, right?). But the Simplified characters are mess by comparison. Pressure has been changed to压, but the character in night mare is 魇, so there is no longer any connection between the two. I can’t come up with any reason for why nightmare now has the  犬 (dog) above the ghost radical… other than that 犬 was originally part of the Traditional character for pressure – but someone who only knows Simplified wouldn’t know that. It seems like it’s removed a bit of logic that was previously pretty helpful. (Or maybe someone really doesn’t like dogs and has bad dreams about ghostly dogs?)


And of course, here’s a quotation from a Wikipedia page that indicates that the Simplification system wasn’t even that consistent:

For instance, traditional 讓 ràng “allow” is simplified to 让, in which the phonetic on the right side is reduced from 17 strokes to just three. (The speech radical on the left has also been simplified.) However, the same phonetic is used in its full form, even in simplified Chinese, in such characters as 壤rǎng “soil” and 齉 nàng “snuffle”; these forms remained uncontracted because they were relatively uncommon and would therefore represent a negligible stroke reduction.[34]


It seems that if you keep studying characters for a while, you are still going to end up running into the more complex forms of many components eventually.


That is all from the perspective of considering this choice practically, which is largely what I have done.


Yet to some people, the choice is of aesthetics and culture. And while there is subjectivity in the realm of aesthetics, generally most of these people seem to think that Traditional characters are more attractive. I, on the other hand, think that there is a lot to be said for simplicity. Isn’t it also impressive to be able to communicate complicated ideas with just a few pen strokes? In that sense, I often find myself nodding along to anyone who argues that the 20th century simplification of Chinese characters is just the latest in a long history of changes – almost all of which have been towards simplification. For example, check out all the complicated ways that used to be used to write car, which is now written as 車, or even more succinctly with only four strokes in Simplified as 车. As to the efforts of preserving culture, I find it a bit arbitrary to strictly declare the early 20th century manifestation of Chinese characters as the one that should be preserved for cultural reasons.




But perhaps the best summary of my current standing on the issue is illustrated by the following anecdote.


Just recently, I was reading a Malaysian newspaper printed in Simplified characters and I came across a word that I had not seen before:


I knew exactly what it was. It means “to sacrifice oneself / to lay down one’s life  / beast slaughtered for sacrifice / sacrifice”. This is the Traditional form:



As you can see, the first character has been simplified a great deal. Essentially a large mess of strokes was reduced to a simple phonic piece, 西, which indicates nicely how to pronounce the character. From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s a very good modification. I should love this new character.


I hate it.


Seeing that character disgusts me.


Characters like 犧 are the reason why I think studying Chinese characters is worth the torment. It is a very complicated character and I am not very good at writing it. But I see meaning in it.  That “large mess of strokes” contains the radicals of cow, lamb, grain, and halberd. These are all things that must be continuously sacrificed in order to for humans to live, and a tool that was used to perform this act. The second character 牲 expounds upon this tradeoff, with its juxtaposition of cow and the character 生: to be born / to give birth / life / to grow. Life requires sacrifice.


犧牲 has been on my wall for months now. (I’ve taken to writing characters all around the tile walls of my bathroom. ) Every day, I spend some amount of time looking at and contemplating 犧牲.


If I could, I would happily obliterate 牺牲 forever, and only have people use 犧牲.


But I can’t.



* However there are a few other reasons why the average person would recognize a few variations of the same character. First, there are some variations that have to do with typefaces, and some differences between the ways a character appears in print versus when it is written by hand. Second, the average person who has lived in a Chinese cultural setting for long enough probably comes to recognize a few of the ways that common characters appeared in older or historical scripts, given that they still make appearances in modern life via everything from decorative wall hangings to class curricula.

3 Replies to “On the nature of Chinese characters”

  1. Loved this post! It definitely got me thinking about parallels in the evolution of English. Do foreigners bother to think about learning American English versus European English? How cool/ridiculous would it be if all of England were still speaking Middle English and trying to communicate with the modern US? Do I like the aesthetics of “facsimile” and “artifice” more than “fax” and “art”? When complexity and variety are encoded in phonetics instead of in pictographs, do speakers naturally simplify the vernacular at a faster rate?

      1. Do foreigners think about which kind of English to study? I actually have some long rants stewing about this topic as well. ;) But for a short reply: as far as I’ve witnessed, some do, but a lot more don’t. I expect a great deal of students of English don’t spend too much time fussing about it, and just get started on learning whatever’s at hand. They may not even realize that there are differences in regional uses of English, or they may not think the differences are all that important relative to gaining the basic ability to communicate. And I agree with them in that aspect, sort of like I recommend Simplified for anyone who just wants a basic grasp of Chinese characters. Just grab onto what’s easiest and go.
        “How cool/ridiculous would it be if all of England were still speaking Middle English and trying to communicate with the modern US?” Are you sure they’re not? Sometimes those UK accents are incomprehensible…
        “When complexity and variety are encoded in phonetics instead of in pictographs, do speakers naturally simplify the vernacular at a faster rate?” o_O intriguing, very intriguing. Probably more important than the distinction between spoken/written is simply usage. Whatever is subject to the greatest usage is most likely to be abbreviated. But then again, there might be a “sweet” spot – something that is TOO commonly used might be difficult to get a wide consensus on how it should be changed.
        “It also occurred to me that the movement towards simplified characters was likely heavily influenced by Webster’s similar language “revolution” that happened at the turn of the century” Not really sure that I buy that connection, but perhaps some research into the backgrounds of the members of the CPC responsible for pushing the reform could answer this question. Certainly it’s a parallel phenomenon, but I don’t think the CPC decision was influenced or inspired by it. I think they were just looking at a largely illiterate population and trying to come up with ways to solve this (so that they could more effectively use written propaganda to control the masses, probably).

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