As the most widely spoken language today, all of us are aware of the omnipotence of the Chinese language. The wide-spread influence of Chinese characters has led to the direct influence of the writing systems of Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean, to name a few. Schools all over the world are introducing Mandarin as a secondary language from an increasingly early age, but all this brings into question: where did these characters come from?
We have an easy guide to look at the origins of some of the characters – take from them what you will – a helpful memory aid, a way to introduce character learning to your family, or a fun party trick! (Note: beijingkids does not guarantee success with the latter).
Chinese characters make up the oldest consistently used writing system in the world. They have been heavily adapted over their thousands of years of use, and their exact count is unknown, although numbers over 100,000. Chairman Mao introduced a widespread language reform in an attempt to combat illiteracy rates; this is the reason for slightly different characters being used in Mainland China compared to Taiwan and Japan.
In the following image the left character represents the traditional character for horse, while the right represents the simplified.
Each Chinese character represents a sound and a meaning, although most Chinese words are made up of two or more characters. Without getting too technical, different parts of the characters often indicate different aspects of the word, for example the meaning, or the pronunciation. This should be taken with a grain of salt however; language is a constantly evolving concept, and words from thousands of years ago don’t always mean the same thing today!
While they only make up a comparatively small percentage, characters derived from the image they represent are some of the most interesting. Let’s look at the following image. On the left we can see the original meaning and how its character representation has evolved over time, with the furthest right representing what is used today.
Here’s an elephant in the same format.
In the following we have from clockwise from the left: fire, tree, day, moon, mountain, door, mouth, and a person. It should be noted that door here is the traditional character.
Photos: courtesy of pixabay.com, goalanguage.wordpress.com, tccl.rit.albany.edu, wikipedia.org and creativesource.com.ph