Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Chinese: A Super Cool Written Language

My favorite thing about living here in Taiwan is, by far, studying Chinese.

For me, studying Chinese is endlessly enjoyable and the fact that everything I learn is immediately applicable in my everyday life makes it that much more rewarding and exciting.

Every day my understanding of world around me expands just a little bit, as does my ability to interact with it - all thanks to my study of Chinese. This gives me both a great sense of achievement as well as encouragement to continue.

Although to many learning Chinese characters is the most difficult thing about the Chinese language, it is probably the thing I enjoy learning the most.

A lot of Chinese characters have evolved from pictures of what they represent and, to me, these are the most fun and interesting to learn. I think they're so cool that I'd like to devote the rest of the blog post to sharing some of them with you.

Let's start out with some simple pictographs, like the one for sun. The character is :

This character () is a very common Chinese radical (or root character - think of the Chinese equivalent to Latin roots - simple characters used as a foundation to help convey meaning as you build more complex characters).

You can see the radical combined with the Chinese pictograph for tree to make the character which is the Chinese character for "east". Why is the character for east? Well it is because it is actually a pictograph of the sun rising through the trees... and where does the sun rise from?? The East!!

Another simple and elegant pictograph is the one for mountain. The Chinese character is , and it was derived in this way:
Pretty straight forward, huh?

One of my absolute favorite pictographs is the one for automobile or car. The character is , and it is literally a drawing of an ariel view of a cart with two wheels:

I love it! (as an aside, this is an example of a place where I think simplified Chinese needlessly perverts a fantastic character. The simplified character for car is . This character looks nothing like a car and doesn't look any simpler to me than ...)

The character for rain 雨, isn't too far off from it's original picture either:

This character is incorporated in the Chinese character for for electricity , (can you see it there on the top!?) When you're trying to decipher the meaning behind this character for electricity, think Benjamin Franklin and his famous kite experiment:

A rain cloud and a lightening bolt - the character is a perfect description of electricity!

Two more very straight forward pictographs are the one for door - the character is
And one of the characters used for mouth ()

Often times, Chinese will use a combination of pictures to convey an idea. My favorite one that I have come across thus far is the character for ask: .
This character combines door: and mouth: to make .

Think about it.... asking a question is like opening a door with words (which come out of your mouth!) I think it's fantastic logic and abstract thinking, and I absolutely love this character!

Another example of a character that is a combination pictograph / meaning is the one for man . It combines the pictographic character for field:

With the character for strength () create the character for man:
The power or strength of the field: man

The characters for women, on the other hand, are more pictographic; the first one - used to indicate the female sex - is of a woman sitting with her harms crossed:
And the second one, which is the character for mother, is a pictograph of a mother's most intrinsic and nurturing physical attribute:
This character is also incorporated in the Chinese character for ocean: - showing that it's not only westerners that attribute the female gender to the open sea.

Another really cool character is . This character means watch or look or read (it is used for things like watch a movie, read a book, take a look, I see...)

This character is made up of two simpler characters put together, the character for eye and the character for hand :
Pretty awesome, isn't it!? - to see, look, or watch - is literally a picture of someone raising their hand to shield their eyes from the sun as they look out over the horizon... it's just fantastic!

And finally, one of my all time favorite characters, comes from the verb 'to rest' or 'to take a break' 休息

The first character in this word is a fantastic pictogram comprising of two Chinese radicals; the character for man (on the left) and the character for tree (on the right). This character is literally a picture of a man resting by a tree:
What an awesome representation of what it means to take a break and rest! I feel relaxed just thinking about sitting under a tree.

To the average foreigner, looking at Chinese words is completely alien and even overwhelming, but the more I learn about it, the more logical, interesting, and elegant it becomes for me. It really is a fascinating and beautiful written language.

All of the pictures I used here came from this fantastic book:
With the exception of the explanation of the character 東 which came from this book:


  1. Interesting post, but it's worth noting only about two percent of characters are 象形字 (pictographs). The majority of characters (~80%) are 形聲字 (meaning radical plus phonetic).

    In the beginning Chinese characters seem to have no order, but after a little while you can begin to understand there is some logic in them. Still I find the process of learning to read Chinese to be joyless and frustrating. I hope you can maintain your enthusiasm.

  2. As a Taiwanese, I found your description of learning Chinese very interesting! I also have been using a similar way to introduce Chinese characters to my friends here in the US. Hope that you can have a great time in Taiwan.