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Chinese Language and Script
The Chinese Script

Script and Language
The Number of Characters
Origin and Types of Chinese Characters
Brush Strokes and Writing Rules
Writing Styles
Punctuation and Orthography
Character Looking-up in a Dictionary
Chinese characters (hanzi 漢字) are symbols of a logographic script developed for the Chinese language. The oldest traces of Chinese characters are to be found in oracle bone inscriptions from the late Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), but precursors of characters have been detected on objects of the Erligang culture 二里岡.
Chinese characters represent syllables, and because ancient Chinese was a highly monosyllabic language, in most cases also words. Chinese characters are no pictures (pictograms), as often believed, but symbols for words. The Chinese script is a logographic script, each character representing a word (logogram) or an "idea" (ideogram). While part of the Chinese characters is purely ideographic (representing an idea or a concept), 80 per cent of characters also include a phonetic part. The composition of Chinese characters follows strict rules and is very logical. There is a limited amount of about 2,000 components that can be used to create new characters. The script is thus highly standardized and much easier to learn than commonly believed. With a basic treasure of characters (and character parts), all others can instantly be analyzed.

ba "three" (signific 三 "three", phonetic ba 巴)
chữ "character" (signific 字 "character", phonetic trữ 宁)
lớn "great" (signific 大 "great", phonetic lận 吝)
Three examples of Vietnamese chữ nôm characters
Unlike alphabetic scripts, the logographic character of the Chinese script makes it nearly impossible to use it for other languages. Koreans and Japanese, whose languages are agglutinating (constructing words of many syllables), used Chinese characters to write in Chinese (the hanmun resp. kanbun 漢文 texts). Yet because the Chinese language is isolating (not using grammatical suffixes at the end of words, to express, for instance, tempus, modus, or singular/plural), but as soon as non-Chinese started writing in their native language instead of in Chinese, appropriate alphabets had to be developed (hangeul 한글, resp. kana かな/カナ/仮名). The same is true for the Khitans, Jurchens and Tanguts that had adopted the Chinese script as a model for their own script (see Khitan script, Jurchen script and Tangut script). The only exception is the use of the Chinese script for Vietnamese, a likewise isolating and highly monosyllabic language. Yet as a language with a different grammar (for example, adjunct after the core noun instead of before it, like in Chinese) and a different lexicon, even Vietnamese scholars invented new characters (chữ nôm) to write in Vietnamese language. Exactly this procedure shows that the largest part of the Chinese characters is perceived as representing a certain sound, and not only a semantic "idea". Even for Chinese topolects like Cantonese or Taiwanese, new characters were invented to represent a lot of particles phonetically different from standard Chinese, like 佮 kah, kap "and" in Taiwanese (Southern Min), or the possessive particle ge 嘅 in Cantonese.
It is not correct to say that one character has only one pronunciation or exactly one sound. There are lots of characters with different pronuncations that also indicate different meanings. The largest part of polyphonic characters (duoyinzi 多音字) only change the tone pitch, but there are also a lot of characters having several very different pronunciations, like
  • xíng and háng, like xíngzǒu 行走 "to walk", lǚxíng 旅行 "to travel", yínháng 銀行 "bank", hángyè 行業 "trade, industry",
  • shuō, yuè and shuì, like shuōhuà 説話 "to speak, to gossip", shuōfa 説法 "wording, formulation", tīngshuō 聽説 "to be told, to hear of", yuè 說 "happy" (same as 悅), yóushuì 遊説 "to go around drumming up support, to lobby" (shuì meaning "to pursuade"),
  • and Jiǎ, like shānggǔ 商賈 "merchant", gǔhuò 賈禍 "to invite (literally: to buy) misfortune", Jiǎ 賈 (a family name).
  • sǎn and sàn, like sànbù 步 "to take a walk", sànkāi 散開 "to disperse", sǎnluàn 散亂 "in chaos, disorganised", sǎngōng 散工 "part-time job, seasonal labourer" (sàn having an active meaning, sǎn describing a status),
  • yuè and , like yīnyuè 音樂 "music", yuèqì 樂器 "musical instrument", kuàilè 快樂 "happy", lèqù 樂趣 "delight, pleasure",
  • zhòng and chóng, like zhòngyào 重要 "important", qīngzhòng 輕重 "weight", chóngxīn 重新 "again, start afresh", Chóngqìng 重慶 (the city of Chongqing, Chungking).
Example for a character with four different pronunciations: 說 1) shuō, 2) shuì, 3) yuè, and 4) (very rare) tuō. The word 說2士 is annotated with the cipher 2, indicating that it is pronounced shuìshì, not shuōshì, as regularly expected (note also the word 說4tuōtáo). From Hanyu da cidian 漢語大辭典.
This is not a phenomenon of modern Chinese but can be observed, for instance, in ancient commentaries to Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) texts, for instance, Ao, yin wu lao fan 媼,音烏老反 "媼 is pronounced NG-AO" (commentary of Wen Ying 文穎 in Hanshu 漢書 1, for this traditional method of indicating sound, see the fanqie system 反切). In lexica, the more-often used pronunciation is listed first. The character 說, for instance, is virtually always read shuō in modern Chinese (with the meaning of "to speak; to explain"), while the pronunciations yuè (as a loan character for 悅 "happy") and shuì (with the meaning of "to persuade") are used very rarely, shuì the least often, and therefore standing in the third position in lexica, and not alphabetically in the first position. If separated phonetically, the respective words appear in two places in a dictionary, if not separated phonetically (like in a dictionary whose entries are arranged graphically), the respective words have to be marked as to which pronunciation is correct.
While most characters or written words are quite unambigous even if standing alone and not bound into a context, this is not the case for spoken words. The phonetic treasure of Mandarin Chinese is relatively small compared to other languages, and many words therefore can have severeal meanings if not written or if the context is missing. These words are called homophones (tongyinci 同音詞), like
    chéngshì 程式 "pattern, formula" and chéngshì 城市 "town, city",
    xíngshì 刑事 "criminal, penal" and xíngshì 形勢 "terrain; circumstances",
    huìhuà 繪畫 "painting" and huìhuà 會話 "conversation",
    núlì 努力 "to make efforts" (also read nǔlì) and núlì 奴隸 "slave",
    zhùmíng 著名 "famous" and zhùmíng 注明 "to label, to give indication",
    zhèngwù 證物 "to exhibit a legal evidence" and zhèngwù 正誤 "to correct mistakes", and many more.
Even terms of the same word group can easily be confounded, like
    sànbù 散步 "to take a walk" and sànbù 散佈 "to spread, to disseminate"
    huìyì 會議 "conference" and huìyì 會意 "understanding, knowing"
    shíyóu 石油 "petrol" and shíyóu 食油 "cooking oil", or
    shāngrén 商人 "merchant" and shāng rén 傷人 "to injure sb."
Yet the semantic context is so helpful that each word is certainly understood in spoken language. The argument that abolishing the Chinese script would lead to chaos in conversation is simply nonsense — otherwise Chinese people would not be able to converse with each other. Yet a higher level of language use makes it necessary to use more complicated words which require certain character (semantic) combinations and certain specialized characters that do not belong to the everyday lexicon. Chinese academicians often write down the terms they are using or describe the characters of the word they make use of. Even the characters of personal names are often described or written with the finger on the palm of a hand to make clear which character is meant (e.g. the family name Zhāng 章, and not Zhāng 張). For this reason, a specialized vocabulary was developed for the description of characters. Radicals and graphic elements are given terms to make description easier, like:
    caozi tou 草字頭 "grass on the top" (艹),
    sandian shui 三點水 "three-dot water" (氵), or
    tishou pang 提手旁 "lift-hand part" (扌).
In daily use characters are often explained in a popular yet scholarly wrong way. The family name Zhāng 章, for example (homophoneous to the much more common family name Zhāng 張), is described as lì zǎo Zhāng 立早章 "立 plus 早 makes 章". The character is thereby wrongly divided into the parts 立 "stand" and 早 "early". The correct etymological analysis would be 音 "music" and 十 "decade", namely 章 "stanza".
Chinese experts used and use to analyze characters by three different methods, either by shape (for instance, 公 "common, public", as "to back 八 against the private ㄙ"), or by sound (men 門 "door", means wen 聞 "to perceive" [what is outside?], or hu 戶 "door" means hu 護 "to protect"; a method that was very popular during the Han period), or by meaning, like jingshi 京師 "capital", means "the grand [prince]" 京 "guiding" 師 [the masses].
One function of dictionaries is to inform the reader which character is the correct one (for example, all following words containing the syllable shì are written with a different character:
There are still many words that can be written with different characters, and even highly educated persons often do not know which character is the correct (goutong 勾通 or 溝通 "to link up, to communicate, communication", the character 勾 meaning the "hook" of a chain, the character 溝 a "canal", both making sense for the meaning "communication").
Although the phonetic range of Chinese is not very broad (everythings sounds like "ching, chang, chong") the possible combinations of two characters to a new word are countless, like:
    shìchǎng 場 "market",
    shìjǐng 井 "town",
    shìjià 價 "market price",
    shì 虎 "tigers on the market – rumours and slanders",
    shìmín 民 "townspeople",
    shìhuì 惠 "dispense favours in order to win popularity",
    shìnèi 內 "inside the town – local",
    shì 區 "district, downtown",
    shìzhèng 政 "municipal administration",
    chéngshì "city",
    nàoshì "busy streets",
    shì "metropolis",
    ménshì "retail sales",
    shì "night market",
    shì "country fair", or
    hēishì "black market",
all including the word shi 市 "market, to marketize".

Through the ages, new Chinese characters were constantly invented, so that character dictionaries (zidian 字典) trying to record all ever-used characters reach a number as high as 100,000. In fact, 90 per cent of these are either outdated or writing variants, so that average dictionaries contain not more than about 10,000 characters. Even of these, two thirds are rarely used. An amount of 3,000 characters suffices to read and understand 99 per cent of all characters modern texts (not words, but characters!), with 2,000 characters, 97 per cent can be understood, and even 1,000 characters are enough to understand 88 per cent of an average text. The growing lexicon of characters is reflected in the characters recorded in dictionaries:
dictionary compiler year characters (main + alternative)
倉頡篇 Cangjiepian (Qin) 李斯 Li Si 3,300
訓纂篇 Xunzuanpian (Han) 揚雄 Yang Xiong 1-5 CE 5,340 + 2,040
續訓篇 Xuxunpian (Han) 班固 Ban Gu 60-70 CE 6,180 + 840
說文解字 Shuowen jiezi (Han) 許慎 Xu Shen 100 CE 9,350 + 3,173
聲類 Shenglei (Wei) 李登 Li Deng 227-239 11,520 + 2,167
字林 Zilin (Jin) 呂忱 Lü Chen 4th cent. 12,824 + 1,304
字統 Zitong (Later Wei) 楊承慶 Yang Chengqing ? 13,734 + 910
廣雅 Guangya (Wei) 張揖 Zhang Yi 3rd cent. 18,150 + 4,416
玉篇 Yupian (Liang) 顧野王 Gu Yewang 543 22,726 + 4,576
唐韻 Tangyun (Tang) 孫愐 Sun Mian 751 26,194 + 3,468
韻海鏡源 Yunhai jingyuan (Tang) 顏真卿 Yan Zhenqing 753 26,911 + 717
類篇 Leipian (Song) 王洙 Wang Zhu, 胡宿 Hu Su, 司馬光 Sima Guang 1066 31,319 + 4,408
字彙 Zihui (Ming) 梅膺祚 Mei Yingzuo 1615 33,179 + 1,860
正字通 Zhengzitong (Qing) 張自烈 Zhang Zilie 1675 33,440 + 261
康熙字典 Kangxi zidian (Qing) 陳廷敬 Chen Tingjing et al. 1716 42,174 + 8,734
中華大字典 Zhonghua da zidian (Rep) 歐陽溥存 Ouyang Pucun, 徐元誥 Xu Yuangao, 汪長祿 Wang Changlu et al. 1915 44,908 + 2,734
漢語大字典 Hanyu da zidian (PRC) 漢語大字典編輯委員會 Hanyu da zidian bianji weiyuanhui 1986-1990 54,678
中華字海 Zhonghua zihai (ROC) 冷玉龍 Leng Yulong, 韋一心 Wei Yixin et al. 1994 85,568
異體字字典 Yitizi zidian (ROC) 李圃 Li Pu et al. 20042 106,230

Sign carved into an earthen vessel from the Dawenkou culture 大汶口. The symbol is variously interpreted as the precursor of the charcters 旦, 昊, 杲, 曍, or 皥. From Wang Jihuai 王吉懷 (2000), "Zai lun Dawenkou de taoke 再論大汶口的陶刻, in: Dongnan wenhua 東南文化 2000/7, pp. 6-14.
Rubbing of an inscription of a li 鬲 type bronze vessel with a clan insignium, reading 父已 "Father Yi of the NN [clan]". From Zhongguo shehui kexue yuan kaoguxue yanjiusuo 中國社會科學院考古學研究所 (ed. 1984). Yin-Zhou jinwen jicheng 殷周金文集成, Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju, vol. 3, No. 481.
The invention of Chinese characters is traditionally attributed to Cang Jie 倉頡, a minister of the mythical Yellow Emperor 黃帝. He created Chinese characters as an imitation of the footprints of birds. The book Daodejing 道德經 that is attributed to the philosopher Laozi 老子 says that in oldest times people used knotted cords (jiesheng 結繩) as a system of remembering (quite similar to the quipu cords used by the Incas). The Eight Trigrams (bagua 八卦, see Yijing 易經) invented by the mythical ruler Fu Xi 伏羲 are also sometimes seen as a kind of primitive script. Unfortunately there is no stage known between the age when characters were used to signify clan names or personal names, and the time when the script appeared in a full stage on the oracle bones (jiaguwen 甲骨文) and bronze vessels (jinwen 金文) of the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). The texts of the oracle bone inscriptions are highly technical and therefore represent only a narrow lexicon. About 2,000 characters are known from the oracle inscriptions, but the meaning of a lot them is indefinable. Part of the problem is that characters at that time were not yet standardized. The script was still in a state of experiment, althought it is very clear that new characters were systematically developed. Some clan insignia or primitive symbols are also to be found as carvings in pottery, or as stone inscriptions (shike 石刻).

The creation of new characters
Chinese characters have a long history and therefore also change over time. Some characters were newly invented, while others became obsolete. Some changed their meaning, while others changed their appearance. Outdated characters were called guzi 古字 "ancient characters", while new creations were given the name jinzi 今字 "modern characters" or houqizi 後起字 "later creations". Ancient characters were often used to write several different words, because the thesaurus of characters was still quite modest. Later on new characters were created for the use of different words or equally pronounced words with a different meaning. 莫, for instance was the proper character for the word "dawn", but it was also used as a negative pronoun "nobody". Later on, a new character was created for the word "dawn", namely 暮, while the original form 莫 was exclusively used as a negation. 賈 was the proper character for "to trade, to marketize", but was also used for the word "price". Later on a new character was created for the word "price", namely 價. 衰 was the proper character for "weak, soft, exhausted", but was also used for the words "mourning clothes" and "rain coat". Later on two new characters were created, namely 縗 (or {衣+襄}) for "mourning clothes" and 簑 (or 蓑) for "rain coat", to write the two other meanings.
The process of change from ancient to new characters had three different ways.
1) The ancient character was used for a different word, while a new character was created for the proper word:

莫 "dawn" becomes 暮 莫 is used for "nobody"
益 "abundant, to overflow" becomes 溢 益 is used for "profit"
其 "basket" becomes 箕 其 is used for "his, her; this"
匪 "chest" becomes 篚 匪 is used for "bandit, criminal"
然 "firewood" becomes 燃 然 is used for "to be like"
禽 "to catch" becomes 擒 禽 is used for "bird"
舍 "to discard" becomes 捨 舍 is used for "hut"
止 "foot" becomes 趾 止 is used for "to stop, to impede"
要 "waist" becomes 腰 要 is used for "to want; important"

2) A new character was created for the different meaning, while the proper character continued being used for the actual meaning:

賈 "merchant, to trade" derivate 價 "price"
景 "sunrays, view" derivate 影 "shadow"
弟 "younger brother" derivate 悌 "to do one's duty as a younger brother"
解 "to free, to loose" derivate 懈 "inattentive, idle"
責 "duty" derivate 債 "debt"
竟 "end; finally" derivate 境 "territory"
取 "to take" derivate 娶 "to take a wife, to marry"
坐 "to sit" derivate 座 "seat"
中 "middle" derivate 仲 "the middle of three"
監 "mirror, to observe, to supervise" derivate 鑑 "mirror"
道 "way" derivate 導 "to lead, to guide"
赴 "to go to" derivate 訃 "to attend a funeral"
知 "to know" derivate 智 "wisdom"
見 "to see" derivate 現 "to appear"

3) The old character was used as a loan character for many different words, for which later new characters were created.

辟 "sovereign; to punish; specious" for 避 "to evade, to avoid"
僻 "mean, low, rustic"
闢 "to split open"
譬 "to compare"
嬖 "a favourite"

Similar pairs of slightly altered characters are:

戚 "to pity, to distress" and 感 "to affect, to touch"
采 "to pluck" and 採 "to gather, to collect"
或 "doubtful; someone” and 惑 "to doubt, to mislead"
栗 "durable, dignified; chestnut" and 傈 "ancestral tablet"
阧 "suddenly" and 陡 "sloping, steep"
謝 "to decline; to thank" and 榭 "kiosk [a place to withdraw?]", or
尉 "to still, to quiet", 熨 "to iron" and 慰 "to comfort, to console"
披 "to open, to unroll, to spread out" and 被 "to cover"
說 "to speak, to explain" and 悦 "to be glad"
斂 "to arrange, to control" and 殮 "to dress a corpse for burial"

Totally different characters were used for one word in:

罷 and 疲 "tired, exhausted"
蚤 and 早 "early"
凷 and 塊 "piece"
灋 and 法 "standard, law"
壄 and 野 "outside the city wall"
{(今/酉)+欠} and 飲 "to drink"

In some cases two different steps of creation can be observed, like:

歬 "to progress" (boat 舟 and pace 止)
{止/(舟+刂)= 前} "forward, before, earlier", also used for "cutting"
new character for "to cut": 剪

The six types of characters liushu 六書
The term liushu 六書 "six types of characters" is first mentioned in the Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮, as a general word for "the six (arts of) reading and writing". During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) children started learning to write at the age of 8 sui. Liu Xin 劉歆, in his treatise Qilüe 七略, enumerates the six types of characters as xiangxing 象形 "illustrating a shape", xiangshi 象事 "illustrating an affair", xiangyi 象意 "illustrating an idea", xiangsheng 象聲 "illustrating a sound", zhuanzhu 轉注 "mutual comment" and jiajie 假借 "wrongly borrowing". The first four are actually not necessarily types of characters but rather elements in characters. The last two are types of character use, the zhuanzhu type as exchangeable characters with similar or equal meaning, the jiajie type loan characters for words with identical pronunciation. In the respective ancient literature, no examples are provided for these six types, so that the exact meaning of them is not really clear.
Zheng Zhong 鄭眾, author of a commentary to the Zhouli 周禮 (Zhouguan jiegu 周官解詁), changed this listing to xiangxing 象形 "illustrating a shape", huiyi 會意 "combined meaning", chushi 處事 "dealing with an affair", xiesheng 諧聲 "harmonized sounds", zhuanzhu 轉注 "mutual comment" and jiajie 假借 "wrongly borrowing". This new list was not a new concept of Liu Xin's older list, but only a renaming.
The most famous concept of the six types of characters has been established by the late Han period scholar Xu Shen 許慎 in the preface to his dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字. He uses the following pattern of character types: xiangxing 象形 "illustration of a shape", zhishi 指事 "pointing at a matter", huiyi 會意 "combined meaning", xingsheng 形聲 "shape and sound", zhuanzhu 轉注 "mutually commenting", and jiajie 假借 "wrong borrowing".
  • xiangxing 象形 "illustration of a shape" is an ideograph of objects, either simple (chun xiangxing 純象形) or complex (heti xiangxing 合體象形 "compound", or bianti xiangxing 變體象形 "changed"), like objects in nature (the left character is the seal script shape, the right its modern standard script counterpart)
      日 "sun",
      月 "moon",
      山 "mountain",
      水 "water",
      木 "tree",
      气 "vapour, breath",
      雨 "rain",
      云 "cloud",
      穴 "cave, hole",
    different animals and plants like
      馬 "horse",
      羊 "sheep",
      鳥 "bird",
      烏 "crow" (a bird whose eyes cannot be seen),
      巢 "nest" (compound).
      竹 "bamboo",
      米 "grain",
    or parts of the body like
      手 "hand",
      眉 "eyebrow" (compound),
      气 "breath",
      首 or 頁 "head",
      目 "eye",
      自 "nose" (soon loan word for "oneself"),
      耳 "ear",
      口 "mouth",
      面 "face",
      毛 "hair (not on the head)",
      肉 "flesh, meat",
      牙 "teeth",
      角 "horn (of an animal); hornlike object",
      囟 "fontanel" (of the skull")
    or various objects and tools of man's environment like
      田 "field",
      耒 "egg (agricultural implement)",
      臼 "mortar",
      井 "well",
      糸 "thread, fathom",
      黹 "embroidery"
      韋, 革 and 皮 (different types of skin and leather),
      車 "cart",
      舟 "boat"
      弓 "bow"
      矢 "arrow"
      戈, 矛 and 殳 (lance, spear, halberd, et al.),
      豆, 鼎, 豊, 豐, 斝 and 鬲 (different types of vessels),
      缶, 壺, 酉, 皿 (different types of jugs and jars)
      瓦 "tile, brick",
      門 "gate",
      戶 "house",
      爿 "bed",
      几 "desk",
      衣 "cloth, robe",
      网 "net",
      玉 "jade" (three joint pieces),
      卩 "seal, chop", or
      文 "pattern, script".
    This group also includes symbols of figurative meaning, like
      交 "exchange" (a picture of crossed legs),
      出 "going out" (originally a foot coming out of a compound),
      步 "to go" (two steps),
      降 "to go down" (two steps down a hill?, compound),
      立 "to stand, to erect" (a man above a horizontal line, as the earth),
      至 "to arrive" (an arrow hitting the target),
      "to hear" (an ear and a mouth; is probably of the huiyi type; compound),
      折 "to cut" (a hand holding an axe; is probably of the huiyi type; compound),
      尸 "to lie down in an unnatural way" (a corpse, as a variant of the character of a person 人, changed),
      吏 "scribe" (a hand holding a document),
      天 "Heaven" (large 大 man 人 with indicated head),
      示 "heavenly bless" (coming down from Heaven),
      見 "to see" (rays emanating from the eye 目),
      言 "to speak" (waves coming out of the mouth 口)
      王 "king" (the one 丨 combining the trinity 三 of Heaven, Earth and man; actually the pictogram of an axe as the symbol of power ),
      "to obtain" (a hand and a shell, expressing value; the component 彳 "proceed" of 得 was added later; compound), or
      牧 "to shepherd" (a whip and a cow; is probably of the huiyi type; compound).
      飛 "to fly" (image of wings),
      至 "to arrive" (image of a bird?),
      止 "to stop" (image of a foot"),
      之 "to go to" (image of a foot),
      行 "to walk" (image of crossroads),
      高 "high" (image of a palace tower),
      長 "long" (image of hairs),
      哭 "to cry, to weep" (image of tears flowing out the the eyes),
      力 "force" (image of a plow),
      大 "large" (image of a large person stretching out his arms),
      立 "to stand" (image of a standing person),
      豐 "abundant" (image of a vessel containing pieces of jade).

  • zhishi 指事 "pointing at a matter" is the visualization of an idea, either simple (chun zhishi 純指事) or complex (heti zhishi 合體指事 "compound", or bianti zhishi 變體指事 "changed"), like
      上 "above" (the plain 一),
      下 "below",
      本 "root" (of a tree 木),
      末 "branch",
      刃 "blade" (of a knife 刀),
      夕 "evening" (part of moon 月),
      立 "to stand" (a person 大 standing above the ground 一),
      甘 "sweet" (something 一 in the mouth 口),
      帀 "circumference" (a turned ㄓ, i.e. 之 "to proceed"),
      乏 "deficient" (opposite of the turned character 正 "correct"),
      匕 "change", a turned 人 "man",
      司 "court official, minister, administrator" (a turned 后 "lord", later "queen"),
      母 "mother" (wife 女 with large breasts),
      父 "father" (a hand holding a stick),
      ㄊ "to discard" (a child 子 head down),
      夫 "husband" (man 大 with hairpin 一).
    Characters of this category are either basic characters altered by an additional stroke, or charactes turned around or mirrored.

  • huiyi 會意 "combined meaning" is a combination of two or more characters to a new one, like
      武 "war" from 戈 "halberd" and 止 "foot",
      信 "trust" from 人 "man" and 言 "speech" (Xu Shen's analysis of 信 [ɕin] xin is wrong. Later scholars have found out that it is actually a combination of 言 "to say" and the phonetic 千 [tɕʰiɛn] qian.),
      喪 "funeral" from 哭 "weeping" and 亡 "gone, dead",
      旦 "dawn" from 日 "sun" and the horizon,
      公 "public" from 八 "to separate" and ㄙ "private", or
      杳 "obscure, mysterious" from 日 "sun(rays)" disappearing behind 木 "the shrubs",
      折 "to cut" from a form of hand 手 and an axe 斤 (斧),
      囚 "prisoner", from 人 "a person" in 囗 "a fencing",
      牢 "prison" (a cow 牛 in a corral),
      矦 "lord" (a man shooting an arrow 矢 against a wall 厂),
      男 "man" ("field" 田 and "plough" 力 [today "force"]),
      尾 "tail" ("body" 尸 and "hair" 毛),
      畺 "borderline" (fields 田 with demarcation lines 一),
      黍 "lacquer" ("plant" 禾 [today: grain plant] from which a liquid 水 emerges),
      鼓 "drum" (a "vessel" 壹 is "beaten" 支),
      安 "peace" (a woman 女 under the roof 宀),
      家 "family" (a pig 豕 under a roof 宀)
      好 "good; to love" (girl 女 and boy 子),
      里 "village" (fields 田 and earth 土),
      爨 "to cook" (two hands 臼 holding a pot 同, below two hands 大 that add firewood 木 to the fire 火),
      黃 "yellow" (fields 田 are emanating 光 their colour),
      赤 "red" (large 大 and fire 火),
      黑 "black" (flames 炎 and chimney 囱),
      鬥 "to fight" (two men with a weapon in the hand face each other),
      食 "to eat" (to assemble 亼 fragrant food 皀),
      取 "to take" (hand 又 and ear 耳),
      葬 "burial" (corpse 死 in grass 茻), or
      畫 "to paint" (brush 聿 painting something 田).
    Some huiyi type characters also include a phonetic element, like
      hua "to change" ("person" 人 and turned person hua 匕), or
      zheng "to govern" (zheng 正 "rectify" with a "whip" 攴,攵).
    Huiyi type characters are often easy to remember and are therefore very popular, not only in practice, but also to demonstrate how Chinese characters are produced. Very common huiyi type characters are
      休 "to repose" (a person 亻 and a tree 木),
      岩 "rock" (a mountain 山 and a stone 石),
      泪 "tears" (water 氵 and eye 目),
      尖 "sharp" (the small part 小 of something large 大),
      歪 "not upright" (not 不 correct 正),
      尘 "dust" (small 小 earth" 土),
      夯 "to pound" (with great 大 force 力),
      班 "compartment, class" (cutting 刂 jade 玨 into several parts),
      即 "immediate" (from a person 卩 to the right approaching food 食 to the left),
      既 "to finish" (a person having ended the meal, today barely recognizable),
      祝 "to invoke" (a person 儿 calling 口 spirits 示), or the complex character
      暴 "scorching heat" (from sun 日, emanating 出, two hands 収 and rice 米; today abbreviated).
    A lot of huiyi characters are muliplications of characters or of their variant, like:
      从 "to follow" from two 人 "persons",
      众 "the mulitude, masses of people", from three persons,
      竝, 並 or 并 "to stand side by side; and, also" (two persons "standing" 立 side by side),
      北 "north" (two persons back to back", meaning the cardinal direction in the back of a senior person, original character of 背 "back")
      比 "to compare" (two persons side by side),
      林 "forest" (two trees 木),
      森 "thicket" (three trees 木),
      昌 "brilliant" (two suns 日),
      晶 "crystal" (three suns),
      炎 or 焱 "bright" (two or three fires 火),
      拜 "to greet, to venerate" (two hands 手),
      絲 "silk" (two threads 糸),
      轟 "to rush" (three carts 車), or
      姦 "evil, wicked, intrigant" (two women 女).
    In some cases, the combination of two characters expresses a new meaning, while in others, the combination expresses a specific part or nature of one of the two parts (like grass 艹 in a field 田 as 苗 "sprouts", small 小 earth 土 in 尘 "dust", or stones 石 of a mountain 山 in 岩 "rock"). There are some combinations of two characters that do not create a new meaning. Such characters are often used in personal names for reasons of esthetics. In a narrow sense, these cannot be counted as huiyi characters, like:
      shēn 屾, a variant of shān 山 "mountain", or
      zhǔi 沝, a variant of shǔi 水 "water" (also: 孖, 孨, 弜, 惢, 淼, 羴, 鑫, 雔, 雥, 驫, 鱻, 麤, or 龘).
    The different reading of these words has only been created in order to distinguish the characters.
    Huiyi characters have basically no phonetic element, but there are also some examples of xingsheng "shape-sound" characters in which the phonetic part is also used as a bearer of a meaning (see next type).

  • xingsheng 形聲 "shape and sound" is a combination of a signifying part (radical) and a phonetic part, like
      江 [keoŋ] "river, Yangtze" from the signific 氵 (水) "water" and the phonetic 工 [koŋ], or
      河 [ɣa] from the signific "water" and the phonetic 可 [k'a].
    This is an advanced type of character that came up relatively late in the history of the invention of characters. It is, nevertheless, that type of character that is used most: 80 or even 90 per cent of characters belong to the xingsheng type. Some characters newly created according to this pattern were even to replace older, more pictographic types, like
      鳳 [bĭωəm] "phoenix" (from 鳥 "bird" and 凡 [bĭωəm]), or
      In the follwing list of oracle bone characters it can be seen that the fifth character already bears the phonetic 凡 (for its shape, see the upper part of character No. 8), before it became a regular part of the character (from No. 10). The characters are arranged chronologically. No. 17 is the standard seal script character for "phoenix". In this shape, the phonetic part has become very large and even includes the signific part "bird". From Xu Zhongshu 徐中舒 (ed. 1990), Jiaguwen zidian 甲骨文字典, Chengdu: Sichuan cishu chubanshe, pp. 394-395, 427-428.
      雞 [kie] "hen" (from 隹 "small bird" and 奚 [ɣie]).
      In the follwing list of oracle bone characters it can be seen that the second character already bears the phonetic 奚. No. 10 is the standard seal script character for "hen, cock". The original form of the cock (No. 1) is step by step contracted to that of a "sparrow".
    The change of phonetics in the last 2,000 years has reduced the feeling of users that characters have indeed a phonetic aspect. The modern reading of characters does often not have the slightest homophony with the phonetic parts once used to express the sounding. Even in Archaic Chinese the phonetics have not exactly the same pronunciation, but only a quite similar one. The creators of new characters did furthermore not necessarily use homophones (word of equal sounding) for the phonetic part of the new character, but often only "homoiophones" (words sounding similar). The phonetic part of characters was therefore already during the Han period only an approximate indication of the pronunciations, and by no means a scientific transcription. Some outstanding examples of non-similarity or very distant similarity of sounds are (both modern and archaic readings are provided):
      di 滌 (old [dĭəuk], putative phonetic tiao 條 [diəu]),
      sa 灑 (old [ʃĭə], putative phonetic li 麗 [lĭə]),
      reng 仍 (old [ɳĭəŋ], putative phonetic nai 乃 [nə]),
      te 特 (old [dək], putative phonetic si 寺 [zĭə]),
      diao 雕 (old [tiəu], putative phonetic zhou 周 [ţiəu]), or
      ning 凝 (old [ŋĭəŋ], putative phonetic yi 疑 [ŋĭə])
    Not a few xingsheng type characters are consisting of phonetic elements that also contribute a meaning to the character. These characters are thus a combination of the huiyi and xingsheng types, like
      xin 薪 "firewood", from the signific 艸 "grass" and the phonetic xin 新, yet 新 "new" has the original meaning of "cutting wood" (from the phonetic xin {辛/木(亲)} and the signific 斤 "axe"),
      yue {穴/抉} "to penetrate; hole", from the signific 穴 "hole" and the phonetic jue 抉, which also means "to dig"
      jing 警 "to warn, to admonish", from the signific 言 "to speak" and the phonetic jing 敬, which also means "to respect, to honour"
      wang 忘 "to forget", from the signific 心 "heart" and the phonetic wang 亡, which also means "to fade, to go"
    In characters of the xingsheng type, both signific and phonetic might be abbreviated, like:
      喬 from 夭 and abbreviated 高,
      耊 from abbreviated 老 and 至,
      弒 from abbreviated 殺 and 式,
      軍 from 車 and abbreviated 包,
      爯 from 爪 and abbreviated 冓,
      頫 from abbreviated 逃, and 頁,
      弗 from two vertical diverging strokes and abbreviated 韋 (all with abridged significs or radicals, shengxing 省形), or
      融 from 鬲 and abbreviated 蟲,
      產 from 生 and abbreviated 彥,
      夜 from 夕 and abbreviated 亦,
      炭 from 火 and abbreviated 岸,
      炊 from 火 and abbreviated 吹,
      奔 from 夭 and abbreviated 賁,
      疫 from 疒 and abbreviated 役,
      麇 from 鹿 and abbreviated 囷, or
      琁 from 玉 and abbreviated 旋 (all with abridged phonetic, shengsheng 省聲).
    There are also different possibilities to render a certain sound with the help of different phonetics, or the meaning by different significs. More information can be found below, in the paragraph about character variants.

  • zhuanzhu 轉注 "mutually commenting" are characters of similar meaning and similar pronunciation, like
      kao 考 "old" and lao 老 "aged",
      biao 標 "tip of a branch" and miao 杪 "end of a stalk",
      zi 嗞 "to sigh" and jie {言+差} "alas!" or
      hui {火+尾} "blaze" and hui 燬 "to burn down".
    Some scholars explain this type as a kind of tautology like
      "葍 is {艹/富}" and "{艹/富} is 葍", or
      "蓨 is 苗" and "苗 is 蓨".
    An even narrower definition is that both characters are to have the same radical or signific part as a basic condition for their mutual exchange. Yet there are also examples of zhuanzhu characters with the same phonetic and different signific parts, like
      pa 爬 "to scratch, to scrape" and ba 耙 "drag, harrow", or
      fu 赴 "to go to" and fu 訃 "to attend a funeral".

  • jiajie 假借 "wrong borrowing" are characters that are borrowed for a word of the same pronunciation and for which no character exists. Xu Shen gives the examples
      ling 令 "order" from ming 令 "command" (later written 命; perhaps a zhuanzhu type character?), and
      zhang 長 "headperson", from chang 長 "long hair".
    Yet modern scholars say that these two examples are only extensions of the original meaning, and not loan characters. Better examples are
      我 "me" (actually a weapon, similar to 武),
      汝 "you" (actually the name of a river),
      其 "his, her, this" (original meaning "basket"),
      來 "to come" (actually grain, like 麥),
      莫 "nobody, or not" (original meaning "dawn of the sun behind the thicket"),
      求 "to search" (original meaning "felt, skin", early form of 裘),
      所 "place, spot; a particle for relative clauses" (actually the sound of cutting wood), or
      夢 "dream" (original meaning "not clear, obscure"; the ancient character for "dream" became obsolete as early as the Warring States period).
    Loan characters (jiezi 借字) also occur if the writer forgot or did not know the proper character. Some original characters (benzi 本字) have later often become obsolete (like 垔 as the original character of 堙 or 陻). In ancient writings a character often stood for very different things, like 齊 "equal, all" for 齋 "pious, chaste; to fast, to purify", 劑 "medicine, dose", 臍 "navel", 躋 "to rise, to ascend", 韲 "powdered, seasoning" and 薺 "water chestnut; caltrop; shepher's burse". The last few characters have only been created during the Han period or even later, they are new inventions.
      率 "command" was originally a net for catching birds.
      不 "not" was a flower calyx, yet Xu Shen interpretes it as "a bird not coming down".
      猶 "seemingly, yet" was originally a kind of monkey.
    Similar examples can be shown in almost all grammatical particles or pronouns, like
      乃 "breast" for "therefore",
      其 "basket" for "his, her, this",
      斯 "to fell trees" for "this",
      而 "beard" for "and; but",
      何 "to lift, to carry" for "what, which", early form of 荷),
      之 "to go" for a genetive particle and object pronoun, or
      也 "uterus" for an equalizing particle.
    If a character was borrowed for another meaning, it was common that a new character was created for the original meaning of the word, like
      乃 "breast", used for "therefore", new character for "breast, milk": 奶,
      且 "ancestral altar", used for "and, being about to", new character for ancestor: 祖,
      其 "basket", used for "his, her, this", new character for basket: 箕,
      莫 "morning" used for "nobody, not", new character for "morning": 暮,
      暴 "warm", used for "cruel", new character for "warm": 曝,
      須 "beard" used for "must", new character for "beard": 鬚,
      韋 "encircle" used for "to change", new character for "encircle": 圍,
      然 "fuel" used for "being like, to be so", new character for "fuel": 燃,
      監 "mirror" used for "supervise", new character for "mirror": 鑑,
      何 "to lift, to carry" used for "what, which", new character for "lifting, baggage": 荷,
      求 "felt, skin" used for "to search", new character for "pelt": 裘,
      益 "to flow out, to brim over" used for "to increase", new character for "flow out": 溢,
      原 "source, well" used for "original, beginning", new character for "well": 源.
    The addition of a phonetic (radical) to create a new character out of a loan character, is called "increased character" (leizengzi 累增字). In such characters, the new addition of a radical is superfluous because the basic meaning of the character was indicated by a signific part, like:
      ran 然 "to burn" (radical: 灬 "fire"), used as loan character for ran "to be like". New character for "fuel, firewood" is written 燃, with a secondary radial "fire 火"
      yuan 爰 "to hold, to support" (radical: two hands, 爫 and 又), used as loan character for yuan "thereupon, accordingly". New character for "to support" is 援, with the secondary radical "hand 扌"
      feng 奉 "to hold in both hands" (radical: 手 "hand" [lower part, today barely visible]), loan character for "to submit to a superior; to receive with respect". New character for "to hold in both hands" is 捧, with a secondary radical "hand 扌"
    Jiajie characters were already used in an early stage, which shows that the Chinese script had clearly a phonetic character and was not only used as a symbol script (ideographic). The oldest examples of loan characters appear in bronze inscriptions, where the conjunction and auxiliary verb 且 stands (from the modern point of view) for 祖, 才 for 在, or 乍 for 作. A verse in the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" goes Zhi si shi mi ta 之死矢靡它, where 矢 is used for the character 誓. In later times, loan characters were more subtile, like in Xunzi's 荀子 sentence mu zhi zhong sheng, ruan yi wei lun 木直中繩,輮以為輪, where 輮 is used for 煣. Some books regularly replace characters (a method called tongjia 通假 oder tongjie 通借 "general borrowing") with loan characters, like zao 早 "early" rendered as sao 蚤 "flea", xin 信 "to trust" for shen 伸 "to reach out", or guan 貫 "string", for guan/huan 宦/官 "official, minister". Even today, there are a lot of loan characters, like lüyou 旅游 (游 with "water", actually "to swim") instead of 旅遊 (遊 "to travel"). For the process of simplifying characters in order to increase literacy, a lot of loan characters are used, for example, gu 谷 "valley" for gu 榖 "grain", or ji 几 "table" for ji 幾 "some, any". Loan characters can often have negative results for the understanding of a text, like in the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects", where it is said gui Kongzi tun 歸孔子豚. gui 歸 (literally "to return; to render sth. to where it belongs") is in this case used for kui 饋 "to feed". Yet such characters and words are also often used to play with words, because in most cases the pronunciation of both characters is similar or even identical. Loan characters were very popular during the Warring States and Han periods, when the Chinese script was still in a state of development and standardization. Later on, when the script had become more regular concerning the use and shape of characters, the replacement of one character by another was often misleading. Commentaries to ancient books therefore often deal with the meaning, pronuncation and use of particular characters. Some commentators might also interprete texts in a misleading way, like the Tang period scholar Yang Jing 楊驚 from who did not realize that Xunzi's sentence qiang zi qu zhu 强自取柱, did not speak of a zhu 柱 "the pillar (of things)", but of zhu 祝 "to cut off".

  • A very special kind of loan character, and in some cases loan words, are taboo names (bihuizi 避諱字) that are used in personal names in order to avoid a certain name, mainly part of an emperor's name, or the name of one's ancestor. The origin of taboo names is probably during the Qin period 秦 (221-206 BCE), when the name for the first month was changed from zhengyue 正月 to duanyue 端月 because Ying Zheng 嬴政 was the personal name of the king of Qin and First Emperor 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE). The personal name of the founder of the Han dynasty was Liu Bang 劉邦 (Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 206-195 BCE). In order to avoid his personal name, the word bang "land, territory" 邦 was systematically changed to guo 國, actually the designation for a walled city. Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE of the Han dynasty had the personal name Liu Qi 劉啟, for which reasons the word qi 啟 "beginning" was regularly replaced by kai 開 "to open". Similarly, chang 常 "regular, standard" was chosen for heng 恆 "permanent, eternal", because it was the personal name of Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE). This regulation had even an impact on the beginning of the book Daodejing 道德經, which is since quoted as dao ke dao, fei chang dao 道可道,非常道, instead of dao ke dao, fei heng dao 道可道,非恆道, as attested in earlier sources. Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557) was called Xiao Yan 蕭衍, therefore the scholar Wang Yan 王衍 was called by his courtesy name Wang Yifu 王夷甫, in order to avoid the dynastic name. Li Shimin 李世民, the personal name of Emperor Taizu 唐太宗 (r. 626-649) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) made it necessary to write the character 世 without the right stroke , or 代 "age" instead of 世 "generation", and 人 "man" instead of 民 "people" (or without the last stroke: ). The name of Li Yuan 李淵, father of the dynastic founder, required a change of the character 淵 "depth" to 泉 "source", or 深 "deep". Similarly, the name of Zhao Jing 趙敬, father of Zhao Kuangyin 趙匡胤 (Emperor Taizu 宋太祖, r. 960-975), the founder of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279), made it nessecary to replace 敬 "to rever" by 恭 "to venerate" or 嚴 "to take serious, and to replace jing 鏡 "mirror" by another word for mirror, namely jian 鑑. Another example for the change of book titles is the replacement of Taixuanjing 太玄經 by Taiyuanjing 太元經 in order to avoid the personal name of the Kangxi Emperor 康熙 (r. 1661-1722) which was Xuanye 玄燁.

The most important premodern studies on the six types of characters are the treatise Liushu lüe 六書略 which is part of Zheng Qiao's 鄭樵 administrative history Tongzhi 通志 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279), and the Liushugu 六書故 by the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) scholar Dai Tong 戴侗.
Except these writing styles, there are also lots of ornamental and magical scripts, like the "jade chopstick script" (yujin zhuan 玉筋篆), the "lucky mushroom script" (zhiying zhuan 芝英篆), the "bell and tripod seal script" (zhongding zhuan 鍾鼎篆), the "dropping dew seal script" (chuilu zhuan 垂露篆), and so on. See an example of hundred different ornamental script styles of the character shou 壽 "longevity" XXX.

Simplification and standardization
With a new writing surface, the bronze inscriptions of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) with their long texts simplified the ideographs, reduced strokes and standardized the characters. From the mid-Zhou period on, bamboo slips became a widespread writing material. The characters differed from region to region. Most conservative was the script in the state of Qin 秦, which is accordingly called the large (or complicated) seal script (dazhuan 大篆 or zhouwen 籀文), in contrast to the small seal script of the other states (xiaozhuan 小篆). The state of Chu 楚 in the south had a special ductus of the script known from silk inscriptions. With the unification of the empire in 221 BCE, the script was standardized. The imperial government of the Qin adopted the small seal script as the national standard. The standardization led to the common structure of Chinese characters as it is known today. It was prescribed which parts of characters – and in which function – were positioned where. Before that, right and left part of characters had often been ad libitum. Extremely complex characters as seen in some older bronze inscriptions were also given up.
The growing bureucratic nature of the late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) made it necessary to develop a ductus for the Chinese script that could quickly be written. Besides the standardization of characters to make communication faster and easier, a kind of chancery script (lishu 隸書) was developed. This script took over all documents of daily life, while the old complicated script was only used for seals (hence the name "seal script") and inscriptions that were to last for a long time, like weights and measures, inscriptions in stelae, and so on. The chancery script abbreviated complex parts, like 辵 to 辶 "to go" , or 阜 to 阝 "hill, populated place", and the complex characters 晉, 秦, 曹 or 春, and standardized the movement of the writing tool, the brush. In the seal script, curved lines in all directions are very common, but the chancery script only known relatively straight movements of the brush. The chancery script abbreviated the shape of radicals and elements in characters, like the shape of 心 as 忄 if standing to the left, the shape of 火 as 灬 if standing below, the shape of 艸 as 艹 if standing at the top, and so on. Many other characters were thoroughly abbreviated, like 秊 to 年, 奉, 兵, 也, and so on. Yet some complex characters were not abbreviated, like 鳥, 齊, or 龜 and survive until today. The abbreviation of characters helps saving the engergy of the wrist when writing long texts. An easy-to-write script contributed to the distribution of texts, not only of official documents, but also of philosophical writings and private letters. With the growing lexicon to write, a huge amount of characters had to be invented before and during the early imperial period. The early chancery script was modeled to the standard model script (kaishu 楷書) during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). The Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) was the time when scholars started investigating the origin of Chinese characters, and the first dictionaries were written, of which the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 is the most famous. Chinese scholars speak of early experiments with the script in the field of arts, resulting in the long and famous tradition of calligraphy (shufa 書法 the "art of writing"). For an even faster writing, the writing styles xingshu 行書 "running script" and caoshu 草書 "grass script" were invented. The Jin period 晉 (265-420) can be seen as the age when the Chinese script matured in all its aspects.
Standardization meant that there are "correct" or "orthodox" characters (zhengti zi 正體字) and "wrong" or "alternative" characters (biezi 別字), and "vulgar" forms (suti zi 俗體字). In Taiwan, the traditional "complex" characters (fanti zi 繁體字) are sometimes called "orthodox" characters, while the abbreviated or "simplified" (jianti zi 簡體字) fixed as the standard characters in 1957 and afterwards, were "heterodox. Elderly people sometimes still use some simplified characters issued in 1978, like 旦 (actually dan "morning") for dan 蛋 "egg", or 歺 (actually a radical meaning "evil" or "sad") for 餐 "meal". The term zhengti zi was first used in the Tang period dictionary Ganlu zishu 干祿字書 by Yan Yuansun 顔元孫, and in Wang Renxu's 王仁昫 Kanmiu buque qieyun 刊謬補缺切韻. Some example for incorrect popular writing forms are:
    床 instead of 牀
    {丷/口} instead of 召
    {單,口→厸} instead of 單
    囬 instead of 回
    {矢+見} instead of 規
    栢 instead of 柏
Standard and non-standard writings sometimes have also to do with typesetting and fonts. Modern typesettings use to be more compact. The following lists shows some often-seen examples of typographic variants (the more modern standing to the right):
Vulgar forms of Chinese characters have often been used as a model for the simplified characters used by the People's Republic, for instance,
    尽 for 盡 (adopted as modern simplified character)
    俻 for 備 (modern simplified character 备)
    荅 for 答
    覔 for 覓
    変 for 變 (adopted as modern simplified character)
    敌 for 敵 (adopted as modern simplified character)
    頋 for 顧 (modern simplified character 顾)
    献 for 獻 (adopted as modern simplified character)
    灯 for 燈 (adopted as modern simplified character)
    坟 for 墳 (adopted as modern simplified character)
    迁 for 遷 (adopted as modern simplified character)
    馿 for 驢 (adopted as modern simplified character 驴)
Two examples from the variant character dictionary Beibiezi 碑別字, the right showing three variants to the character 東, the left two variants to the character 中. Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉 clearly indicated his sources: the back side of Han Chi's 韓勑 stele from the Han period, a Wei period stele from Chongyang Monastery 崇陽寺 in Zhongyue 中岳, a statue of Jiang Zuan 姜纂 from the Northern Qi, an inscription of Xia Cheng's 夏承 stele and that of Tang Gongfang 唐公房, both from the Han period.
Yet older forms of vulgar variants are already to be found in stone tablet inscriptions from the Northern and Southern dynasties period, as found in Luo Zhenyu's 羅振玉 glossary Beibiezi 碑別字 (see example).
The increasing amount of characters is not only due to the creation of new characters. The number of characters only slightly increases between the Han and the Sui period. A large amount of characters are simply alternative writings (yitizi 異體字), popular or vulgar variants (suzi 俗字 or sutizi 俗體字) or non-standard variants (qizi 奇字). Character variants often originated in different periods of time and were created in different regions. They are mutually exchangeable without altering the meaning of the word. Some old examples of character variants are 禮 and 礼 "ritual", 迹 and 蹟 "trace", 祺 and 禥 "fortunate", 达 and 逹 "to succeed, to advance", 貦 and 玩 "to amuse oneself", 羶 and 羴 "frowzy, rank odour", or 難 and {堇+鳥} (a kind of bird, loan character for "difficult; problems"). The ancient dictionary Shuowen jiezi calls character variants chongwen 重文 "duplex characters", and includes 1,163 of such variants, out out of 9,353 characters in total. This shows the abundance of such double characters even in ancient times. For a lot of characters there was never a standard form established, so that for many words, two different characters can be used, either with a different radical or signifying part, like
  • 鷄 or 雞 for ji "hen",
  • 譎 or 憰 for jue "to cheat; strange",
  • 逴 or 趠 for chuo "distant; to surpass",
  • 呧 or 詆 for di "to slander",
  • 溪, 谿 or 豀 for xi "creek, valley",
  • 偪 or 逼 for bi "to force, to press on; narrow",
  • 脣 or 唇 for chun "lips",
  • 鯁 or 骾 for geng "fishbone; upright",
  • 考 or 攷 for kao "to ask, to examine, to study",
  • 杯 or 盃 for bei "cup",
  • 迹 or 跡 for ji "trace, footprint",
  • 敕 or 勅 for chi "to command",
  • 驅 or 敺 for qu "to expel, to urge",
  • 睹 or 覩 for du "to observe",
or with a different phonetic part, like
  • 枹 or 桴 for fu "drum stick",
  • 詾 or 訩 for xiong (sound of rushing water),
  • 胑 or 肢 for zhi "limbs",
  • 觵 or 觥 for gong (an ancient wine vessel),
  • 悑 or 怖 for bu "to be afraid of",
  • {手+留} or 抽 for chou "to take away, to draw",
  • 澂 or 澄 for cheng "limpid, clear",
  • 磨 or {石+靡} for mo "to grind; millstone", or
  • 鯾 or 鯿 for bian "bream" (a kind of fish),
  • {木+尻} or 栲 for kao "evergreen chinquapin"
  • 捶 or 搥 for chui ""to beat, to hammer",
  • 褲 or 袴 for ku "trousers",
  • 韻 or 韵 for yun "rhyme",
  • 蹄 or 蹏 for ti "hoove"
  • 礙 or 碍 for ai "to impede"
  • 昵 or 暱 for ni "familiar, intimate"
  • 餽 or 饋 for kui "to offer food; provisions",
or with a partially or wholly different shape, like
  • 迹 or 蹟 for ji "trace, footprint",
  • 伞 or 繖 for san "umbrella, parasol"
  • 邨 or 村 for cun "village",
  • 剩 or 賸 for sheng "residuals, remains", or
  • 杯, 桮 or 盃 for bei "beaker, cup".
  • The sentence particle 也 is written {医+殳} in some ancient texts.
  • 儿 is a variant of 人,
  • 无 is a variant of 無, today again used as a simplified character,
  • 礼 is a variant of 禮, today again used as a simplified character,
  • 雱 as a variant of 旁, with the same phonetic yet other signific elements,
  • 凷 is an old glyph of 塊,
  • 灋 is probably the original form of 法 as an abbreviated variant,
  • 壄 is a variant of 野,
  • {(今/酉)+欠} is a phonetic-bearing (今) old variant of 飲,
  • 煞 is a variant of 殺,
  • 吊 is a variant of 弔,
  • 庻 is a vulgar variant of 庶,
  • 吴 is a vulgar variant of 吳,
  • 犁 is a vulgar (but actually logic, with 利 as a phonetic) variant of 犂,
  • 箇, 個 and 个 are variants of the same word "individual, personal, each, one",
  • 泛, 汎 and 氾 are three characters for the same word
  • 荼 and 茶 are actually the same plant yet perceived as two different words,
  • 泪 is a variant of 淚, today again used as a simplified character,
  • 床 is a variant 牀, today preferred as the standard character in the PRC.
  • The demonstrative pronouns 之, 是, 此, 斯, 茲, and 這 are all loan characters for the same word "this, here".
  • 戶, 户 and 戸 is actually the same character in three different "fonts".
A lot of double characters are indeed interchangeable (tongyong zi 通用字) even if their pronunciation is very different, like
    neng 能 and nai 耐 "to be able to",
    hu 乎 and yu 於 (in Ancient Chinese a homophone, a preposition and question mark),
    cai 才 "talent" and cai 材 "material",
    cai 才 and fang 方 "only then",
    ji 輯 and ji 集 "to compile",
    qin 擒 and qin 禽 "to catch",
    zhi 直 and zhi 值 "direct; worth", or
    gou 勾 "hook, corner" and ju 句 "sentence" (a homophone in Ancient Chinese).
Some characters were written with a redundant signific or radical that could easily be left out, like
  • 從 "to follow" instead of simply 从,
  • 派 "to send out" instead of simply {派-水},
  • 淵 "pool, profound" instead of simply {淵-水},
  • 捋 "to rub, to strip, to smooth out" instead of simply 寽,
  • 敝 "shabby, worn out" instead of simply {敝-攴},
  • 漆 "lacquer" (lacquer 黍 with additional water 水),
  • 筆 "brush" (a hand holding a brush 聿 with additional radical "bamboo" 竹),
  • 鬻 "congee" instead of simply 煮, or
  • 鼅 "spider" (with signific "frog"!) instead of simply 蜘 (signific "insect, vermin").
Some superfluous characters were only created in order to assimilate characters in words, like
  • 橋樑 "bridge" - 梁 means "bridge", 樑 is superfluous,
  • 笤箒 "broom" - 帚 means "broom", 箒 is superfluous,
  • 海浬 "nautic mile" - instead of a simple 海里, because 里 means "mile", or
  • 水菓 "fruits" - 果 is "fruit", the character 菓 is superfluous.
In different contexts, objects were written with another character, leading to discrimination characters (fenbie zi 分別字), of which some have later adopted a different pronunciation:
  • wǎn "drawing vehicle", new character 挽 for "to draw, to pull"
  • bǎn "wooden plate", later "printing", new character 板 for "wooden plate"
  • chēng "to tell, to denominate", discriminating character chèng 秤 "to weigh"
  • shòu "to receive", distinctive character 授 "to transmit, to give"
  • zhī "to know", distinct from zhì 智 "wisdom"
  • qiāng "lance, spear", separated from 鎗 for "metal polearm" or "musket"
There are whole character families (zizu 字族) that are a mixture of a signific-phonetic characters (xingsheng zi) and signific-signific characters (huiyi), like
  • 工 功 攻 "to make efforts"
  • 空 腔 椌 {禾+空} {土+空} {艹/空} {虫+空} {谷+空}, "hollow"
  • 非 扉 排 騑 輩 輫 {舟+非} "arrangement, separation"
  • 緋 翡 痱 "reddish"
  • 尨 厖 哤 牻 駹 "motley, piebald, multi-coloured"
  • {辰/會} 澮 禬 繪 燴 "to come together"
  • 喬 驕 {角+喬} 橋 蹻 鐈 嶠 轎 趫 {广/喬} "protruding"
  • 句 鉤 枸 跔 痀 翑 "crooked"
  • 包 跑 鮑 飽 胞 孢 炮 蚫 苞 泡 袍 刨 皰 庖 袌 雹 "packed"
In a more complex way, one can establish whole "genealogic trees" of characters (wenzi ziru 文字孳儒). XXX example 戈
Many characters can be interpreted as two words of the same origin (tongyuan zi 同源字), probably in different dialects:
    guang廣 "broad" and kuang 曠 "broad light",
    jian 堅 "solid" and jin 緊 "dense",
    kong 空 "hole" and kong 孔 "cavity",
    kuan 寬 "wide" and kuo 闊 "ample, or
    gai 改 "to change" and geng 更 "to alter.
Some characters have two variants if one element is written in another position, like
  • 崑崙 or 崐崘 (name of a mountain),
  • 略 or 畧 "short; strategy",
  • 峰 or 峯 "summit”,
  • 慚 or 慙 "ashamed",
  • 够 or 够 "sufficient",
  • 鵝 or 鵞 "swan, goose",
  • 期 or 朞 "time" or
  • 群 or 羣 "herd, flock".
Apart from these examples, the Chinese lexicon includes a lot of specialized words that are only used in a very narrow field, like geographic names as
  • Ba 灞,
  • Fei 淝,
  • Gan 灨 or the word
  • 崁 in Chikan Hall 赤崁樓,
botanical and zoological terms, as
  • 鷇 "nestling" or
  • 麒麟 "unicorn",
and many other special terms with characters like
  • 沐 "washing the hair",
  • 沬 "washing the face",
  • 浴 "washing the body",
  • 澡 "washing the hands",
  • 洗 "washing the feet",
  • 臲鼿 "jumpy, jittery, worried",
  • 衚衕 (for 胡同) "hutong, dwelling quarter in Beijing",
  • 鞦韆 (for 秋千) "swing", or
  • , a talismanic variant for 岩 "cliff" (and the character with the highest number of brush strokes, namely 51).
The abundance of character variants was reduced in the character reforms in the PRC during the 1950. In December 1955 the table Di yi pi yitizi zhengli biao 第一批异体字整理表 was issued that fixed the correct form of 810 character variants and claimed the elimination of 1,053 variants.

Appearance and components of characters
Modern grid pattern paper for drafting texts (left; written in rows from left to right) and example of a manuscript edition, Qingguoshi 清國史 (right, written in columns from right to left).
Unlike other logographic scripts like Egyptian hieroglyphs or cuneiform scripts, the Chinese script consists of characters that all have the same size. This has to do with the fact that one character stands for one syllable and one word. Chinese texts can be thought of as written in a grid of square fields (fangkuai 方塊) that have to be filled to all edges. A simple character like 人 occupies the same space as a complicate one like 囊. Components of characters are accordingly reduced in size:

In prints of minor quality, complex characters are therefore often not readable. Simple characters (wen 文, modern term dutizi 獨體字) are quite rare, at least seen from the whole thesaurus of characters, while compound characters (zi 字, modern term hetizi 合體字) make out 90 per cent of all characters. Most of the latter consist of two parts, either left and right or top and bottom. One of the two parts is mostly a phonetic part (sheng 聲, the phonetic, modern term shengfu 聲符), indicating roughly the pronunciation, and the other part indicates the field of meaning (xing 形, the signific, modern term yifu 意符). This type of character, to which most characters belong, is called xingsheng zi 形聲字.
Characters can be divided into thirteen types according to their graphic composition (with examples):

The position of significs is relatively fixed, for example, 亻彳口氵火木扌犭礻足 are mostly standing to the left, 刀卩阝攴見頁戈鳥 to the right, and 宀穴艹竹雨 to the top of phonetics. This has become a standard with the creation of the chancery script, just like the sequence of the brush strokes, that always go from left to right, from top to bottom, and from outside to inside (except the closing brush stroke).
The signific part of a character is called its radical (bushou 部首). The term bushou came up during the Later Han dynasty. The oldest surviving character dictionary, the Shuowen jiezi, classifies all Chinese characters it records into 540 radicals. Only during the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) the number of radicals was reduced and was fixed at 214. This number is traditionally connected with the Kangxi zidian 康熙字典 dicationary (as the so-called Kangxi radicals 康熙部首), altough it was first used in the dictionary Zihui 字彙 in the late Ming period. Character simplification in the People's Republic and attempts by various scholars to make character lookup easier has resulted in different systems of radicals. Characters that do not follow the principle of combining a phonetic with a signific element, like the huiyi or zhishi characters, are arbitrarily subsumed under one radical, for example 好 "good, to like" under 女 "wife", not 子 "child"; 去 "to erase, to do away" under 厶 and not under 土, and 不 "not" under 一, not under 木. In the last two cases, the radicals are purely graphical and have nothing to do with the meaning of the characters. Many dictionaries have a special index for characters whose radicals are not easy to pick out (nanchazi 難查字). Such radicals are sometimes called "obscure radicals".
What has also changed significantly in the last 2,000 years is the monosyllabic character of the language. Most nouns and verbs in modern Chinese are disyllabic, and it is therefore not any longer justified to say that one character represents one word. One has therefore to discern between character dictionaries (zidian 字典) and word dictionaries (cidian 辭典 or 詞典).

Brush strokes (bihua 筆畫) are units of which Chinese characters are composed. They correspond to the movement of the brush during the writing process. The shape of brush strokes has been standardized for the normal script kaishu and is imitated in book printing, especially the Song period style Songti 宋體 and its modern variant, the Fangsongti 仿宋體. The number of brush strokes in a character is used for indexing, either with or without the signific part (the radical) of the character.
The brush strokes only appeared with the invention of the chancery script lishu 隸書 with its square or angled appearance. The earlier used seal script zhuanshu 篆書 has a more soft appearance and mand round edges, which is not easy to write with a brush. This change of the appearance of characters and the writing method resulted in a more abstract form of characters, in which the original shapes are often not any more recognizable. Chinese characters so became ever more ideographic than pictographic.
Many dictionaries index characters in a two-layer system, first according to the radical (radicals themselves also arranged according to the number of brush strokes), and then according to the number of residual strokes. Instead of using the radical, a lot of dictionaries and lexica make exclusively use of the number and shape of brush strokes to index characters. There are several different types of brushstrokes, depending on length, shape and brush movement. Traditional calligraphers developed several models with different complexities. The most important types of brush stokes are:
Basic strokes Extended strokes
dian dot
heng horizontal line 横撇 hengpie horizontal stroke with a downward hook
横折彎鉤 hengzhe wangou horizontal stroke with a long bent hook
横折折撇 hengzhe zhepie horizontal stroke with a double broken slant
横折折彎鉤 hengzhe zhe wangou horizontal stroke with a double broken hook
横折挑 hengzhe tiao horizontal stroke with a slant hook
shu vertical line 竪折 shuzhe vertical stroke with a horizontal hook upwards
竪折撇 shuzhe pie vertical stroke with a double broken slant
竪折折鉤 shuzhe zhegou vertical stroke with a double broken hook
pie slant to the left 撇折 piezhe left slant with a sharp bend towards the right
撇點 piedian left slant with a dot towards the lower right
na slant to the right
tiao dot strechted to the upper right
zhe right edge downwards
gou vertical hook to the left
With the invention of the brush, the modern style of calligraphy developed with up to 16 different stroke patterns and several rules how to write a character and its elemens. Every character can be separated into a certain number of strokes, the simpliest character being a single horizontal stroke 一 "one", one of the most complex characters, written with 48 brush strokes, is 龘, consisting of three dragons 龍. The stroke number is very important looking for a character in a dictionary. Most modern search indices are oriented in first place according to the radical, and then to the number of the residual strokes.

The six basic brush strokes are, according to the Ming period encyclopedia Sancai tuhui 三才圖會:
horizontal (heng 橫)
vertical (shu 竪 or zhi 直)
dot (dian 點)
丿slant to the left without hook or slant to the right with hook, with many derivatives (pie 撇)
hook (gou 勾)
slant to the right bottom (ne 抐 or na 捺)

They can be enlarged to eight different strokes, exemplarified in the character yong 永:

Source: Sancai tuhui 三才圖會, Renshi 人事 3
dian 點 "dot"
or ce
heng 橫 "horizontal"
or le
shu 竪 "vertical"
or nu
tiao 挑 "lift-up"
or ti
zuoshang 左上 "towards upper left"
or ce
zuoxia 左下 "towards lower left"
or lüe
youshang 右上 "towards upper right"
or zhuo
youxia 右下 "towards lower right"
or zhe

Today, there are five different types of strokes, exemplarified in the character zha 札:
heng 橫 "horizontal"
zhi 直 "vertical"
丿 pie 撇 "bend to the lower left"
dian 點 "dot"
na 捺 "bend to the lower right" or "hook"

The sequence of brush strokes (bishun 筆順) is also subject to strict rules and important for indexing characters, at least concering the first few strokes. The basic rules of stroke order are:
from left to right
from top to bottom
vertical strokes in the middle are written first if the middle stroke is longer
left and right enclosures are written last
from outside to inside
first fill the box, then close it
lower enclosures are written last
first horizontal, then vertical
vertical strokes in the middle are written last if passing other strokes
hooks beginning vertically are written last if touching or passing other strokes
first from right to left (pie 撇), then from left to right (na 捺)
in x-crossed parts first the left slant, then the right
protruding horizontal crossing strokes are written last
dots in the upper left corner are written first
dots in the upper right corner or inside are written last
in calligraphy, these rules are often not adhered to

Xu Shen, author of the dictionary Shuowen jiezi, speaks of eight different writing styles (bati 八體) used during the Qin Period: the large seal script (dazhuan 大篆), small seal script (xiaozhuan 小篆), the carving script (kefu 刻符 used for inscriptions on seals and tallies, the insects script (chongshu 蟲書) or birds-and-worms scirpt (niaochongshu 鳥蟲書), the imprint copy script (moyin 摹印) used for inscriptions on the surface of seals showing how the seal imprint will look like), the appointment script (shushu 署書) used for inscriptions as document titles and on boards, the lances script (shushu 殳書) used for inscriptions on weapons, and the chancery script (lishu 隸書). The problem with this categorization is that it is a mixed list of writings styles and of uses of inscriptions. A different concept has, for example been used by the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) calligrapher Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 in his work on the Thousand-characters classic, written in six styles, the Liuti qianziwen 六體千字文. The Qianziwen is presented in the styles of old script (guwen 古文), seal script (zhuan 篆), chancery script (lishu 隸書), isolating grass script (zhangcao 章草), standard script (zhenshu 真書), and "modern" grass script (jincao 今草).
There are a lot of different writing styles which can be reduced to a handful of main styles, namely the large seal script (zhoushu 籀書 or dazhuan 大篆), the small seal script (xiaozhuan 小篆), the chancery script (lishu 隸書), the standard script (kaishu 楷書), and the grass script (caoshu 草書). Features and development of these scripts, and also of other styles, will be dealt with in the following paragraphs.
Some old-style characters from the bamboo slips of the state of Chu 楚 found in Xinyang 信陽, Hunan. From Zhu Dexi 朱德熙, Qiu Xigui 裘錫圭 (1973), "Xinyang Chu jian kaoshi (wu pian) 信陽楚簡考釋(五篇)", in: Kaogu xuebao 考古學報 1973/1, pp. 121-129.
Part of the so-called "alliance tablets" discovered in Houma, Shanxi, written in old characters used in the state of Jin 晉. From Zhang Han 張頷 (1966), "Houma Dongzhou yizhi faxian Jinguo zhushu wenzi 侯馬東周遺址發現晉國朱書文字", in: Wenwu 文物 1966/2, pp. 1-3.
"Bird-and-worms characters" inscription on a halberd from the dukedom of Song, from Zhongguo shehui kexue yuan kaoguxue yanjiusuo 中國社會科學院考古學研究所 (ed. 1984), Yin-Zhou jinwen jicheng 殷周金文集成, Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju, No. 11132.
Example of large seal script from the "Stone drum" (shigu 石鼓) inscriptions, from Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1982), Kaoguxue zhuankan 考古學專刊 1/11: Shiguwen yanjiu / Zuchuwen kaoshi 石鼓文研究、詛楚文考釋, ed. by Zhongguo shehui kexuan yuan Kaogu yanjiu suo 中國社會科學院考古研究所. Beijing: Kexue chubanshe.
Example of large seal script from the "cursing of Chu" (zu Chu 詛楚) inscriptions, from Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1982), Kaoguxue zhuankan 考古學專刊 1/11: Shiguwen yanjiu / Zuchuwen kaoshi 石鼓文研究、詛楚文考釋, ed. by Zhongguo shehui kexuan yuan Kaogu yanjiu suo 中國社會科學院考古研究所. Beijing: Kexue chubanshe.
Example of a silk manuscript from Chu (Chu boshu 楚帛書) inscriptions, from Rao Zongyi 饒宗頤, Zeng Xiantong 曾憲通 (eds. 1993), Chudi chutu wenxian san zhong yanjiu 楚地出土文獻三種研究, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.
Example of large seal script from a volume measure drafted by Shang Yang 商鞅, from Tang Lan 唐蘭 (1935), "Shang Yang liang yu Shang Yang liangchi" 商鞅量與商鞅量尺, in: Guoli Beijing daxue guoxue jikan 國立北京大學國學季刊, 1935/5.4, pp. 679-686. Repr. in: Zhongguo gudai duliangheng lunwen ji 中國古代度量衡論文集, ed. by Henan jiliangju 河南計量局, Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1990, pp. 56-63.
Example from bamboo slips from the Western Territories written in kaishu style, from Lao Gan 勞幹 (1985), Zhongyang yanjiu yuan Lishu yuyan yanjiusuo dankan 中央研究院歷史語言研究所單刊 1/27: Han-Jin xichui mujian xinkao 漢晉西陲木簡新考, 1985/12. Taibei.

The term guwen 古文 "ancient script" is a designation for all writing styles that predated the common use of the chancery and the standard scripts with the foundation of the empire. In a narrow sense, the term means characters that were used in some of the Confucian Classics and that were outdated variants of those used from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) on. These Classics are said to have been written in seal script style before the foundation of the Qin empire 秦 in 221 BCE and are thus commonly called the ancient-character classics (guwen jing 古文經, also translated as "old text classics"). The new character texts (jinwen jing 今文經, "new text classics") were written in the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) and were written in chancery script style.
The Later Han period 後漢 (25-220) dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 includes more than 500 so-called "ancient script" characters that were used in the ancient-character classics. The term "ancient script" characters is exclusively used for those used in the Confucian Classics excavated from the walls of the Confucius mansion where they had allagedly been hidden from the bloodhounds of the book-destroyer Li Si 李斯, counsellor to the First Emperor 秦始皇 (r. 246-210 BCE). All other old-type characters are called "large seal script characters", even if they are not necessarily more complex than those of the standard small seal script. The characters for "one" 一 and "two" 二, for example, are written 弌 and 弍 in the ancient script, but "throwing away" 棄 and "ritual" 禮 are written much simpler, namely 弃 and 礼. The guwen characters can be seen as a local variant of the region of Lu 魯 and Zou 鄒. In the last decades a lot of documents have been excavated that also show that local variants survived far into the Han period, like the silk inscriptions of Changsha (Changsha zengshu 長沙繒書), tallies from Houma (Houma mengshu 侯馬盟書) and Wenxian 溫縣盟書, the bamboo slip inscriptions from Xinyang 江陵信陽長沙簡策, and the bronzes of the state of Zhongshan 中山 excavated in Pingsha 平山縣 and the weapons of the state of Han 韓 found in Xinzheng 新鄭縣. A much later document important for the study of the ancient script are the stone inscriptions of the Classics from the Zhengshi reign 正始 (240-248) which are written in three different styles (santi shijing 三體石經), namely ancient script, seal script and chancery script. Some rare studies on the guwen characters have been made by the Tang period scholar Lu Deming 陸德明 (Jingdian shiwen 經典釋文) and the Song period scholars Guo Zhongshu 郭忠恕 (Hanjian 汗簡) and Xia Song 夏竦 (Guwen sisheng yun 古文四聲韻).

The so-called birds-and-worms script (niaochongshu 鳥蟲書) is a special type of seal script in use from the 6th to the 2nd century BCE. It is also called niaoshu 鳥書 "birds script", chongshu 蟲書 "worms script" or yushu 魚書 "fish script". It is actually only a decorative calligraphic style which is not very appropriate for everyday use because of it is not very easy to read. All characters are given the shape of birds, fish, worms and insects. It is counted among the eight types of script used in the Qin empire. The niaochong script is used for inscriptions in weapons, bells or other metal objects. The most famous examples are the halberd of Ziyu, [servant to the] king of Wu 吳王子于戈, the halberd of Sunyu, [i.e. Sima Ziyu 司馬子魚, servant to the] King of Chu 楚王孫漁戈, the halberd of Luan, [servant to] the king of Song 宋公欒戈 (see example), and many other objects mainly from the southern state of Yue 越, Chu 楚, Wu, Song 宋 and Cai 蔡. Yet its use was apparantly not only confined to the southern region. During the reign of Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-22 CE), it was revived for a short time. Emperor Ling of the Later Han period 漢靈帝 (r. 167-188) appointed scholars to investigate the niaochong script. Calligraphers of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) were again interested in the birds-and-worms script and occasionally made use of it.

The zhouwen 籀文 or dazhuan 大篆 "large seal script", is an ancient writing style mainly used for and preserved in bronze vessel inscriptions. The term "large" seal script means that some characters were more complicated than in the later commonly used small seal script. The size of the characters was therefore also not equal. Complicated characters were larger, simple characters smaller. In the small seal script, all characters were written in equal size, regardless of the complexity. The dictionary Shuowen jiezi from the Later Han period used an earlier character book, the Shizhoupian 史籀篇, to identify seal script characters which had been simplified in the course of time, and comes to a sum of more than 200 characters that are of the large seal script type. The invention of the Large Seal script was traditionally attributed to a person with the name of Shi Zhou 史籀, who lived during the reign of King Xuan 周宣王 (r. 827-782 BCE) of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), but it rather seems that the term shizhou simply means "scribe". The development of the ancient seal script to the later smaller seal script begins in exactly the time of King Xuan. With the unification of the script in the whole empire in 221 BCE, the large seal script was quasi officially declared outdated, and the small seal script (see below), as fixed by the counsellor Li Si, became the standard seal script.
The characters of the modern script adopted a quadratic shape and a standardized form of all elements. Examples for this development are the inscriptions of the dish Guo Ji Zi Bo Pan 虢季子白盤, and the tripod Zong Fu Ding 宗婦鼎. This tendency continued in the following centuries, yet it differed from region to region. Interestingly enough, it was exactly the state of Qin where the old style survived the longest, as can be seen in the inscriptions of the bell Qin Gong Bo 秦公鎛, the tureen Qin Gong Gui 秦公簋, the bell Qin Gong Zhong 秦公鍾, the "stone drums" Shiguwen 石鼓文 (see example), the Zu chu wen 詛楚文 (see example), or the weight Shang Yang liang 商鞅量 (see example).
The term "Seal script" is the designation for a writing style that had been common during the whole Zhou period but that lost its importance as a script style in daily life from the late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) on. From that time on it was only used for important inscriptions, like seals, tallies, coins, weights and measuring tools, boards, and so on. The name is thus a retrospective term that came up during the Han period. The oldest script of this type is called the large seal script (dazhuan 大篆), the simplification of it the small seal script (xiaozhuan 小篆). The small seal script is the standard seal script even in modern calligraphy and seal carving, while the large seal script is mainly to be found in bronze inscription of the Western Zhou period. The small seal script is a product of character simplification that had taken place in the state of Qin 秦. When Qin founded the empire in 221 BCE, its seal script, as well as the chancery script, the precursor of the modern script, were taken over as the national standard. Already at that time, the seal script was outdated and not any more used in daily life. Examples of the Qin small seal script are preserved in the stone inscriptions of Mt. Taishan 泰山, Langye 琅邪, Mt. Yishan 嶧山 and Guiji 會稽, as well as in many weights and measuring tools unearthed from all places of China. Han period small seal script is preserved in the dictionary Shuowen jiezi, compiled in the 2nd cent. CE. This dictionary is very important because the small seal script is a very useful tool to analyse the composition and original meaning of the characters, as well as the phonetic elements in the Chinese script. Later styles, like the lishu or kaishu, have abbreviated parts of characters so that the original appearance has become lost. For Han period scholars a listing of small seal script characters was important because some versions of certain Confucian Classics had been transmitted in "ancient script" (guwen 古文), i. e. a kind of seal script. The Shuowen jiezi furthermore included more than 200 large seal script characters and more than 500 "ancient script" variants. Another important source for the small seal script are the so-called Stone Classics (shijing 石經) from 243, an inscription of Confucian Classics into stone tablets, with the whole text being written in three different writing styles, namely seal script, ancient script (or large seal script) and chancery script. The invention of the Small Seal Script is attributed to the counsellor Li Si who is said to have ordered the compilation of the character glossaries Cangjiepian 倉頡篇, Yuanlipian 爰歷篇 and Boxuepian 博學篇, which are all lost today, except a few fragments.

The chancery script or lishu 隸書 is the standard script to be used for everyday communication to be written with the brush. It is commonly divided into the Qin period lishu (or "old chancery script", guli 古隸), Han period lishu and the bafen style. It was the direct precursor of the standard kaishu style from which the modern writing style developed. This "modern chancery script" (jinli 今隸) is also called Kaiyuan the Kaiyuan script (kaiyuan wenzi 開元文字) because they were again standardized during the Kaiyuan reign 開元 (713-741) of the Tang period 唐 (618-907).
It is commonly assumed that the kingdom of Qin, in which a relatively archaic writing style was used, was the first to systematically simplify characters for the sake of easier writing for bureaucratic needs. The old script was later on called dazhuan 大篆 "large seal script", the new script was called xiaozhuan 小篆 "small seal script". The simplification of characters is attributed to Cheng Miao 程邈, an official of king Zheng, the eventual First Emperor, yet is is not known if the result of his simplifiction was the small seal script or already the chancery script. Archeological evidence has brought to light that the chancery script was already in use before the reign of the First Emperor. Weapons and pottery from the state of Qin are inscribed with simplified characters that are the precursors of the chancery script. The texts written on the bamboo slips found in Shuihudi 睡虎地 are written in a mature chancery script. While the chancery script was used in buraucracy and communication, the small seal script was used for inscriptions with a ceremonial and legislative relevance, like the inscriptions on weights and measures. The chancery script was quite similar to the writing styles of the other feudal states of the Warring States period and could therefore easily be used as a national standard script with the unification of the empire in 221 BCE. The chancery script is, compared to the seal script, much more edgy and square, and all characters are roughly written of equal size. This tendency became even more prevalent during the Former Han period. The bafen style is characterized by thick brush strokes, characters that are wider than high, and by the typical "squat feet" that gave the style its name.
The bafen 八分 style is a special ductus of the lishu from which later the kaishu style emerged. The bafen style is easily to identify by the typical squareness of the characters that caused contemporary scholars to speak of 蠶頭 "silkworm heads" or 燕尾 "swallow tails", or bafen 八分 (literally "eight-division"), referring to the "squat ends" of the brush strokes of these typical characters. It became standard during the Later Han period and can be admired in its most famous example, the Xiping stone inscriptions of seven Confucian Classics. The change of the slim and vertically written ancient writings styles to the more horizontal and square type of the bafen was seen as a crucial development in the writing style, even by contemporarians. The quadratical appearance of Chinese characters (fangkuai 方塊) is indeed a heritage of this change. Tang period scholars had apparently forgotten that the script had not always been squarish and could not explain statements from the Han period that the bafen was a change of the "old" (narrow) script and tried to explain the name bafen by the size of characters (eight millimetres) or other methods. The bafen is often called a first stage of the kaishu style. Wang Cizhong 王次仲 is often named as the inventor of the real kaishu.

The caoshu 草書 "grass script" is a writing style that developed during the Han period. During the Tang period, three styles were discerned, the zhangcao 章草 "isolating or distinct grass script", 今草 "modern grass script" and 狂草 "mad grass script". Typical examples of the zhangcao are Huang Xiang's 皇象 Jijiuzhang 急就章 (a calligraphy of Shi You's 史游 Jijiupian 急就篇), for the jincao Wan Xizhi's Chuyue 初月 and Deshi 得示 as well as Sun Guoting's 孫過庭 Shupu 書譜, and for the kuangcao Zhang Xu's 張旭 Dutong 肚痛, Huaisu's 懷素 Zixutie 自敘帖 or Huang Shangu's 黃山谷 Li Bai yi jiu you shi 李白憶舊游詩. The creation of cursive styles is as old as the Chinese script itself, and some famous persons like Qu Yuan 屈原 (late Warring states period) and Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (Former Han period) are credited with the creation of a standard draft script (gaoshu 藁書). Liu Mu 劉睦, Prince Jing of Beihai 北海敬王, and Du Du 杜度, counsellor to the prince of Qi 齊, are said to have invented the proper caoshu´ script during the Later Han period. Yet archeological findings prove that there were already many abbreviations of brush strokes in use during the late Former Han period. The caoshu was already a proper writing style at the beginning of the Later Han period. The late Han period dictionary even says that the caoshu was already in use at the beginning of the Former Han period.
A famous master of the caoshu script was the late Han calligrapher Zhang Zhi 張芝. He was followed by Zhong Yao 鍾繇 somewhat later. The caoshu was so prevalent at the end of the Han period that Cai Yong and Zhao Yi 趙壹 fulminated against the use of it and defended the standard script. The name zhangcao 章草 "distinct or isolating grass script" is probably derived from the use not yet to connect one character with the other, but, as in the standard script zhangshu 章書, each character was separately written. That the term zhangcao 章草 is derived from the name of Emperor Zhang 漢章帝 (r. 75-88) as the patron of the script or from the name of the essay Jijiuzhang> 急就章 is quite improbable. The "modern grass script" jincao , used during the Southern Dynasties and the Tang periods, might have originated together with the development of the kaishu style. This style, promted by Cui Yuan 崔瑗, Wang Xizhi 王羲之 and Wang Qia 王洽, already connects each character with the following so that whole phrases are written in one single period. The "mad grass script" is a product of calligraphers and can rarely be used in daily life because the characters are abbreviated to such an extent that they are hardly to identify.

The kaishu 楷書 "model script", also called zhenshu 真書 "perfect script" or zhengshu 正書 "correct script", is the standard script of the Later Han period from which the modern printing fonts are derived. It has been developed out of the bafen 八分 ductus of the chancery script lishu 隸書. Wang Cizhong 王次仲 is sometimes called the inventor of the kaishu style, while it was perfected by Zhong Yao 鍾繇. The oldest traces of the kaishu script has been found in archival documents detected in Chinese colonies in the West (see example). A Kaishu style script is also to be found in inscriptions on pottery from that period. Yet the stone stelae erected in 178 CE which were inscribed with the texts of the Confucian Classics (the Xiping stone classics 熹平石經) still use the bafen style. This shows that the kaishu style has been developed by daily use, while the lishu was still the official and more ceremonial writing style. From the Wei period on the kaishu style was also used for official documents, like the stele Gu Lang bei 谷朗碑 from 272 and the Hengyang taishou Ge Zuo bei 衡陽太守葛祚碑 from the Jin period. During the Southern Dynasties period the name kaishu was used for the bafen syle of the Later Han period, and the name zhenshu was used for the style used in documents and for textbooks of elementary learning. The style that had developed to the common standard style (what we today call kaishu) was then officially called zhengshu "correct style". Tang period scholars saw the kaishu as a kind of derivate of the lishu style and therefore called the famous Jin period calligraphers like Wang Xizhi, Wang Xiangzhi, Zhong Yao and Zhang Zhi 張芝 “masters of the lishu". Tang period calligraphers like Zhiyong 智永 (Zhenshu qianziwen 真書千字文) or Ouyang Xun 歐陽詢 (Liquanming 醴泉銘) refined the zhengshu (kaishu) and were therefore later often called the creators of the kaishu.

The xingshu 行書 "running script" is a writing style between the cursive caoshu 草書 and the regular script kaishu 楷書. It is characterized by a fusion of separate brush strokes and minor changes of shape and sequence of brush strokes. It is easier to read than caoshu and is therefore very widespread in daily use. The xingshu is in use since the middle of the Later Han period. Its "invention" is traditionally attributed to the Later Han period master Liu Desheng 劉德升. His disciples Zhong Yao and Hu Zhao 胡昭 were famous calligraphers at the court of the Western Jin dynasty. The xingshu style was most commonly used for documents as well as letters and essays during the Jin period. The most famous xingshu style work of calligraphy is Wang Xizhi's 王羲之 Lantingxu 蘭亭序. Zhong Yao was famous for his mastering the xingshu, bafen 八分 and zhenshu 真書. The xingshu was mostly used for private communication, and the most famous and artful examples of xingshu calligraphy are private letters. A special ductus of the xingshu is the zhenxing 真行 style, a mixture of the zhenshu (kaishu) and the xingshu.

Chinese is traditionally written in columns from right to left, according to the natural material of bamboo strips. Still today, plates or rolls on the left and right sides of entrances or of altars, and also the title on the back of a book are written in single columns. Horizontal plates are traditionally written from right to left, like in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the overseas Chinese communities. In the People's Republic, the Western style of writing in rows from left to right has generally been adopted.

"Wishing good luck and prosperity"
(New Year's Roll, from top to bottom)






Left: Beginning of the "Great Learning"
(in columns from right to left).
Commentaries to the main text are often written
in smaller characters and in two columns within one.
"What the Great Learning teaches (commentary:
'Great Learning' means, the way to study by adult
, is to illustrate illustrious virtue;
to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest
excellence. The point where to rest being known,
the object of pursuit is then determined, a..."
Shiu Fat Machinery and Tools Co., Ltd.
(Hong Kong, from right to left)
"Long live the People's Republic of China"
(from left to right)

Example from the Republican period book Zhongguo zhexue shi dagang 中國哲學史大綱 by Hu Shi 胡適, published in 1917 (in Minguo congshu 民國叢書, series 1, vol. 2). Waved lines are used to stress book titles (Mozi 墨子), straight lines for personal names (Mo Di 墨翟), and cirlces 。。。 to "underline" important phrases.
Traditional texts do not know any punctuation. This fact even poses a problem to modern Chinese readers of old writings. Punctuation has only been introduced in the early 20th century. Western names and surnames (Bālākè Hóusàiyīn Oūbāmǎ 巴拉克•侯賽因•歐巴馬 "Barack Hussein Obama") are divided by a • mid-level dot. There are two types of commas, one of them the one、 two、 and three listing comma. 「Quotation marks quoting 『what someone has said』」 are different from those known in the West, but the 〝Western types〞are also sometimes used. 《Book titles》 are often written in in double or 〈single parentheses〉, and there are also some special brackets for 〔remarks〕 and 【entries in lexica】. Punctuation marks of all types (。?!:;,.…) are broader than Latin letters in order to fit with the space of Chinese characters. The repetition sign 々 is quite rare in prints. In very old inscriptions (oracle bone and bronze vessels) the repetition of a word was signified by a small character "two" ニ. For texts written in columns, special marks are provided (︽︾︻︼﹁﹂). In older texts, important words are marked by dots to the right to signify the author stressing this passage. Some modern editions of ancient texts, especially those of the Zhonghua shuju press 中華書局, underline personal and place names, as well as the titles of books. In Taiwan, the texts of many books are accompanied with the Zhuyin transcription written in small letters to the right of the characters.

漢語查字法 There are different methods to arrange Chinese characters in a dictionary, namely the phonetical method, the graphic method, and the semantic method.

The phonetic method
Phonetic methods make it necessary to establish a phonetic transcription of characters. In modern dictionaries, modern transcription systems are used, in the People's Republic and in Western dictionaries mainly the Hanyu pinyin transcription 漢語拼音, in older Western dictionaries the Wade-Giles transcription, and in older and in Taiwanese Chinese dictionaries the Zhuyin alphabet 注音字母 or the Gwoyeu Romatzyh transcription system 國語羅馬字. In traditional Chinese dictionaries there was a system of rhyme groups with a fixed arrangement according to which characters had to be looked up.
The transcriptions using the Latin alphabet as well as Chinese symbols, like the Zhuyin alphabet and its precursors of the qieyin method 切音, are explained in separate articles (see links). Information about the rhyme groups can be found in the articles to the particular dictionaries, see Qieyun 切韻, Tangyun 唐韻, Guangyun 廣韻 and Jiyun 集韻. The last great dictionary using this system was the Peiwen yunfu 佩文韻府 from the Kangxi reign, but there is also a dictionary called Citong 辭通 from the Republican period using an arrangement of characters in rhyme groups. For the modern use, these dictionaries are to use only with difficult. Modern editions of the Peiwen yunfu therefore include a graphic index. The reasons for the difficulty are that firstly the modern phonetic system is very different from that of Middle Chinese or early modern Chinese, and secondly that the user has to be familiar with the headlines of the rhyme groups, which consist of exemplarious characters, like 東 for the level tone words with the endings [-uŋ] or [-ĭuŋ]. This rhyme group includes 34 groups of homophones that are headed by the words 東, 同, 中, 蟲, 終, 忡, 崇, 嵩, 戎, and so on. The homophones group of 蟲 [ɖʰĭuŋ] includes the characters or words 蟲, 沖, 种, 盅, 爞, {艹/中} and 翀.
The phonetic system was not only used for ancient dictionaries or indexes, like that of the biographic collection Guochao qixian leizheng 國朝耆獻類徵 (the index to which was created in XXX), but is occasionally used in dictionaries from the Republican period. A reminiscence of this method is to be found in the modern Reverse Chinese-English Dictionary.

Example of the phonetic index from the Guochao qixian leizheng 國朝耆獻類徵. The example shows personal names ending with the word nian 年. The word nian belongs to the rhyme group xian 先. The names of the persons are Heng Nian 恆年, Xu Yingnian 許應年, Henian 鶴年 (not a Chinese), Shen Danian 申大年, Wang Younian 王有年, etc. (from right to left). The small characters below the names indicate the chapter and the number of the scroll. Click to enlarge. Example from the dictionary Citong 辭通 from 1934. The upper picture is the beginning of the index, showing that it is arranged according to the traditional Guangyun rhymes (with the homophonic rhyme group 東, including the words 東, 同, 銅, 桐, etc. from right to left). The lower picure shows the first word in the dictionary (dong 東). It can be seen that the Citong is not only a rhyme dictionary containing very few words, but that it also arranged in reverse order, the keyword standing in the second position. Click to enlarge. Example from the Reverse Chinese-English Dictionary from. Click to enlarge.
Example of a Wade-Giles index in the dictionary Da cidian 大辭典, Taibei: Sanmin shuju, 1985. Below the level of syllables, the characters are arranged according to traditional radicals (in the group chêng4, 亻口巾忄扌攵止灬爪...). Click to enlarge. Example of a Zhuyin index in the same dictionary, showing approximately the same phonetic groups (zhēng and zhèng). Click to enlarge. Example of a Pinyin index from the Hanyu da cidian 漢語大詞典. Here, too, the homophonic wors are arranged according to radicals. XXX unclear. Click to enlarge.

Characters with several different pronunciations (duoyinzi 多音字) pose problems if the dictionary is arranged phonetically. In modern dictionaries, such characters are listed twice, in both places of alphabetical order, and an according instruction is given in the alphabetical index as well as directly under the characters. Older Western dictionaries list the character under the more frequently used pronunciation, which is in many cases not the contemporary standard. This is also often the case if the dictionary is arranged graphically: The common pronunciation is presented firstly, and only then less common or frequent sounding(s).
A graphical arrangement of characters is traditionally made by the use of radicals. Virtually all character dictionaries, even those in which the characters are arranged phonetically, have one or several graphical indices because the pronuncation of a rare character can not be known, or someone might have forgotten the pronunciation or might not know the transliteration system used (like the Zhuyin alphabet). Many Chinese, especially those from the south, do not use the Hanyu pinyin system correctly and are therefore in need of other tools for looking-up a character or a word.
Dictionaries with characters arranged according to the Hanyu pinyin system have to consider that the letter ü is put after the letter u (as a graphic variant), and the syllable [nuan] nuan therefore follows the syllable [ny] , inspite of the fact that the sound of [y] is very different from that of [u]. Within one syllable, the words are still arranged phonetically according to the tone pitches. Below the level of tone pitches, characters being graphically "relatives" (using the same phontic element) are often standing side by side, like
  • 李,
  • 吏,
  • 戾唳捩,
  • 里俚哩娌梩浬狸理裏鯉,
  • 利俐唎梨犁猁痢莉蜊黎藜黧,
  • 嫠氂犛釐,
  • 豊澧禮醴鱧,
  • 沴,
  • 例,
  • 詈罹,
  • 履,
  • 蠡劙,
  • 离漓璃篱醨離籬蘺,
  • 隸,
  • 厲勵癘礪糲蠣,
  • 涖,
  • 荔,
  • 麗儷邐酈驪鸝. (Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, including words of all tone pitches except those with the entering tone).
Inside the groups of phonetic relatives (in the example below: 麗), the characters are arranged according the the stroke number of radicals, in raising order:
  • 麗 (0),
  • 儷 (2),
  • 邐 (7, radical 辵),
  • 酈 (7, radical 邑),
  • 驪 (10),
  • 鸝 (11).
Modern dictionaries prefer the number of "brush" strokes as criterion for arrangement, like
  • 礼 (5),
  • 李, 里 (7),
  • 俚 (9),
  • 逦, 哩,浬, 悝, 娌 (10),
  • 理 (11),
  • 锂 (12),
  • 鲤 (15),
  • 澧 (16),
  • 醴 (20),
  • 鳢, 蠡 (21). (Xiandai hanyu cidian 現代漢語詞典, 5th ed.)
If not only characters are to be arranged, but words, there is the complex question of either strict alphabetical arrangement or arranging the words according to the first syllable or even the character of the first syllable. In the first case words beginning with the same character can be dispersed through the register so that it seems that a word looked for is not included in the index. On the other side, a strict alphabetic order regardless which characters are used or where the end of the syllable is seems to be less complex.
  • jiālóng 家隆
  • jiālòng 夾衖
  • jiǎlóng 假龍
  • jiàlóng 駕龍
  • jiǎlóu 假樓
  • jiǎlóuluó 迦樓羅
  • jiālù 夾路
  • jiālù 家鹿
  • jiālù 家祿
  • jiālù 嘉露
  • jian…
  • jiao…
  • jiāshēng 家生
  • jiāshēng 家聲
  • jiāshēng 嘉生
  • jiāshēng 嘉牲
  • jiāshēng 嘉聲
  • jiāshēng 挾生
  • jiāshèng 佳勝
  • jiāshèng 家乘
  • jiāshèng 嘉勝 (Victor H. Mair (2003). An Alphabetical Index to the Hanyu Da Cidian. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.)
The graphic method
The radical system as such was invented at the end of the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), but Chinese scholars were long before aware that there was a limited amount of classifiers according to which all characters could be grouped in semantic fields. Not all radicals are quite useful, and in many characters they play only a classifying part in a graphical sense, without referring to the semantic of the characters. Xu Shen 許慎, compiler of the dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字, has established a system of 540 radicals. This system has, with some minor changes, survived until the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) when it was replaced by a system of 214 radicals, which was perpetuated in the character dictionary Kangxi zidian 康熙字典.
Most radicals indicate a semantic field:
  • 心 "heart, feeling" for
    • 必 "necessary",
    • 忍 "to endure",
    • 志 "will",
    • 忘 "to forget",
    • 忙 "in haste",
    • 念 "to think of",
    • 怕 "to fear",
    • 性 "character",
    • 情 "feelings, love",
    • 恥 "to feel ashamed",
    • 愛 "to love"
  • 手 "hand, action" for
    • 打 "to beat",
    • 批 "to judge, to criticize",
    • 折 "to cut",
    • 承 "to receive",
    • 拜 "to beg",
    • 拳 "to hold high",
    • 掌 "to control",
    • 摯 "to hold"
  • 金 "metal" for
    • 釜 "kettle",
    • 銀 "silver, money",
    • 銅 "copper",
    • 釘 "nail",
    • 銳 "sharp",
    • 鋒 "blade, tip of a knife",
    • 鑒 "mirror"
Others are often purely graphical, like 一 "one", 乙 (a bent stroke), 二 "two", or 亠 "head, above". Most radicals are still used as a word by themselves, but others are obsolete since long and have the only function of radical. Radicals not used as words (if they ever had been word at all!) are 冂 "wilderness", 匚 "box", 卩 "seal", 厂 "cliff", 夊 "to walk", 宀 "roof", 尢 "curved leg", 广 "house", 彐 "pig head", 爿 "bed", 疒 "sick", and many more. A few of them have been reintroduced as simplified characters, but with totally different meanings, like 厂 as abbrevation for 厰 "workshop" or 广 as abbreviation for 廣 "broad, wide". Some radicals change their appearing in the regular script depending on their position in the character, like:
  • 心 "heart" (below) or 忄 (left)
  • 手 "hand" (below) or 扌 (left)
  • 水 "water" (below) or 氵 (left)
  • 火 "fire" (left) or 灬 (below)
  • 犬 "dog" (below) or 犭 (left)
  • 衣 "clothing" (below) or 衤 (left)
New radicals in the Cihai 辭海, 1977 ed.
Modern dictionaries in Taiwan still use this system, yet with the simplification of characters in the People's Republic, a change in the radical system was undergone (see picture). There is, nonetheless, still no authoritative radical system for the simplified characters, and each dictionary has its own approach. Radicals are since more used as graphical elements and less as semantic indicators. Some systems make it possible to look up for a character under different possible radicals, like the latest editions of the Xiandai hanyu cidian 現代漢語詞典. Most modern dictionaries from the People's Republic also discern between the different shapes of a radical, so that the words related to "water" have to be looked after either under the radical 水 or under the radical 氵.
In dictionaries using a radical system (however it looks like) the characters, being a word or the first syllable of a word, are arranged according the number of the brush strokes left over AFTER subtracting the number of the brush strokes of the radical. This is important because a radical can have a different amount of strokes depending on its position inside the character (水 at the top has four strokes, at the left, as 氵, only three). In most dictionaries the characters with the same number of strokes are arranged according to the five shapes of the brush strokes of the remaining part of the character.
Such graphical arrangements are also used in indices of all types of dictionaries and handbooks, even if the index as such is arranged phonetically and not according to radicals. Virtually all Chinese indices use the brush-stroke method to sort characters, even if it is not explicitly said so. This method sorts characters according to the shape of the first and the second brush stroke of the characters, in many indices only according to the first. There are five different brush stroke shapes (bixing 筆形) as a criterion:
  • horizontal 一,
  • vertical 丨,
  • bend to the left 丿,
  • dot 丶,
  • and hook 乙.
Indices using the first two strokes arrange the characters sort the heading in the sequence一一, 一丨, 一丿, 一丶, 一乙, 丨一, 丨丨, 丨丿, 丨丶, 丨乙, and so on.
Some dictionaries make themselves totally free from traditional characters and provide a method that is purely graphical, like the Zhongwen zipu 中文字譜. Lin Yutang and Liu Daren have developed their own graphical systems which are only used in their dictionaries.
The largest common modern dictionaries arranged according to the radical system are the Hanyu da cidian 漢語大辭典, a word dictionary, and the Hanyu da zidian 漢語大字典, a character dictionary.
A very practical method which is not easy to learn is the Four-Corners-Indexing method 四角號碼. This method gives each character a four-digit number according the the shape of the “brush” strokes on the four (virtual) corners of the character. To become proficient in this method, some training is necessary, yet the presence of four-corner-indices in many dictionaries and handbooks shows that it can be used as a quick method to have easily access to characters and words. Similar systems have been created by Lin Yutang and Liu Daren, and the editors of the Harvard-Yenching index series. The Cangjie system of character input for text processing is also working with a method of graphical analysis free from the traditional radicals and semantic elements.

The semantic method
The semantic arrangement of characters goes back to the tradition of gloss book dictionaries that assemble words of similar meanings. From simple lists like in the Han period gloss books Erya 爾雅 and Shiming 釋名 and the Guangya 廣雅 from the Wei period, these kinds of books developed two branches: Firstly, dictionaries specialized on disyllabic words, like the Pianya 駢雅, Bieya 別雅, Biya 比雅 and Dieya 疊雅, and secondly, a branch that grew into the direction of encyclopedias (leishu 類書). To look up for a word in an encyclopedia is an even more complicated matter than in a rhyme dictionary. Modern editions of encyclopedias therefore have all indices. The last traditional encyclopedia is the Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成 from the Kangxi reign. The entries in modern encyclopedias like the thematic volumes of the Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書 are arranged phonetically, but there are also indices in each volume, as well as a general index volume.
One example from the Confucian Classic Erya shall demonstrate how the gloss books looked like:
  • 典、彝、法、則、刑、範、矩、庸、恆、律、戛、職、秩,常也。
    "Being a statute", "regulating", "levelling", "being standard", "punishing", "modelling", "serving as carpenter's square", "being common", "regular", "musically tempered", "straight like a lance", "employed", "ordered", all this means "what is the rule".
  • 柯、憲、刑 、範、辟、律、矩、則,法也。
    "Straight like a trunk", "being a law", "punishing", "modelling", "governing", "musically tempered", "serving as carpenter's square", "being standard", all this means "making a common level".

Sources: Cao Xianzhuo 曹先擢 (1988), "Gujinzi 古今字", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), p. 97. ● Chen Fu 陳紱 (1993), "Benzi 本字", "Chongwen 重文", "Gujinzi 古今字", "Huiyi 會意", "Jiajie 假借", "Jiezi 借字", "Leizengzi 累增字", "Tongjia 通假", "Yitizi 異體字", "Zhuanzhu 轉注", in Zhongguo xiaoxue jiaoxue baike quanshu zong bianji weiyuanhui Yuwen juan bianji weiyuanhui 中國小學教學百科全書總編輯委員會語文卷編輯委員會 (ed.), Zhongguo xiaoxue jiaoxue baike quanshu 中國小學教學百科全書, Yuwen 語文 (Shenyang: Shenyang chubanshe), pp. 151-154. ● Zhang Zhenglang 張政烺 (1988), "Bafen 八分", "Caoshu 草書", "Guwen 古文", "Lishu 隸書", "Niaochongshu 鳥蟲書", "Xingshu 行書", "Zhenshu 真書", "Zhouwen 籒文", "Zhuanshu 篆書", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), pp. 10, 31-32, 257-258, 303-304, 430, 515-516, 538, 542-543. ● Zhou Zumo 周祖謨 (1988), "Hanzi 漢字", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), pp. 195-199. ● Zhu Xiaojian 朱小健 (1993), "Bihua 筆畫", "Bishun 筆順", in Zhongguo xiaoxue jiaoxue baike quanshu zong bianji weiyuanhui Yuwen juan bianji weiyuanhui 中國小學教學百科全書總編輯委員會語文卷編輯委員會 (ed.), Zhongguo xiaoxue jiaoxue baike quanshu 中國小學教學百科全書, Yuwen 語文 (Shenyang: Shenyang chubanshe), p. 156.

March 23, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail