by Lily Chao
Q: Chinese characters seem the most difficult part for foreign friends to learn the Chinese language. In my opinion, the main reason for that may be Chinese characters look very different from their quarter parts in the Roman languages: each character represents not only the pronunciation, but a certain meaning. Many a complaint comes from that Chinese characters are so unlike each other that you have to learn them one by one, and there are so many to memory, and that when encountering a new character, the previous knowledge of other characters helps little, you can neither pronounce it directly nor guess what it means. Actually, there really are some connections between Chinese characters, all composed in a defined way. You are unable to discover that probably because the numbers of the characters you know are too limited, or you didn't learn them in the Chinese perspective.
A: Chinese characters are the writing system to record the Chinese language. With a history as long as 8,000 years at least, it's perhaps the oldest surviving writing system in the world. An old Chinese legend said that Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie, a historian official under the legendary emperor, Huangdi in 2600 BC. Obviously, the fable cannot possibly be true, for the creation of a great writing system made of so many characters are such a huge project, too huge to be one single person's accomplishment. But perhaps Cangjie really made some contributions in the existing Chinese writing system: instead of the inventor, he might be a collector and collator of scattered Chinese characters in ancient China. Thanks to many a contributor like Cangjie and the common people using and spreading characters, a complete well-developed writing system had finally come to birth. The indisputably evidence is Chinese character inscriptions found on turtle shells dating back to the Shang dynasty (1766-1123 BC), formally called Oracle bone script. Of the 4,600 known Oracle bone logographs, about 1,000 can be identified with later Chinese characters, and the other unidentifiable ones are mostly the names of people, places or clans.
In view of formation, written Chinese is a script of ideograms. Xu Shen, in the Eastern Han Dynasty (121 AD), was a distinguished scholar who had attained unparalleled fame for his etymological dictionary entitled Shuo Wen Jie Zi, whose literal meaning is "explaining written language and parsing words". In Shuo wen, Chinese characters are classified into six categories, namely pictogram, ideograph, logical aggregates, pictophonetic compounds, borrowing and associate transformation. However, the last twos are often omitted, for the characters of these categories have been created before but somehow borrowed to represent another meaning, or detached into separate words. Generally, Chinese characters fall into four categories in view of their origin.
Pictograms (Xiang4 xing2 zi4)
Ideograph (Zhi3 shi4 zi4)
Logical aggregates (Hui4 yi4 zi1)
Pictophonetic compounds (Xing2 sheng1 zi4)
However, over the centuries evolution, the Chinese language has undertaken such a great change, that most pictophonetic compounds don't pronounce as its phonetic elements any longer, and the semantic components appear even not relevant to its current meaning. Only when knowing the origin and evolution of the character, you can understand its formation. For example, the phonetic-compound for cargo or goods takes the character for shell as the semantic element, and that's because shells used to be a medium of exchange in ancient China, like the currency.
As published on www.easechinese.com
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Status: 18. Januar 2008