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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Society, Traditions >> Chinese Written Language

Chinese Written Language

People often have the impression that Chinese characters are extremely difficult to learn. In fact, if you were to attempt to learn how to write Chinese characters, you would find that they are not nearly as difficult as you may have imagined. And they certainly qualify as forming one of the most fascinating, beautiful, logical, and scientifically constructed writing systems in the world.

Each stroke has its own special significance. If you are familiar with the principles governing the composition of Chinese characters, you will find it very easy to remember even the most complicated looking character, and never miss a stroke.

The earliest known examples of Chinese written characters in their developed form are carved into tortoise shells and ox bones. The majority of these characters are pictographs. Archaeologists and epigraphers of various countries have learned that most early writing systems went through a pictographic stage, as did the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Most writing systems, however, eventually developed a phonetic alphabet to represent the sounds of spoken language rather than visual images perceived in the physical world.

Brick inscriptions

Chinese language is the only major writing system of the world that continued its pictograph-based development without interruption, and that is still in general modern use. But not all Chinese characters are simply impressionistic sketches of concrete objects. Chinese characters incorporate meaning and sound as well as visual image into a coherent whole.

In traditional etymology, Chinese characters are classified into six different methods of character composition and use. these six categories are called the Liu Shu.

The Liu Shu categories are:(1)pictographs(hsiang hsing); (2)ideographs(chih shih); (3)compound ideographs (hui i); (4)compounds with both phonetic and meaning elements (hsing sheng); (5)characters which are assigned a new written form to better reflect a changed pronunciation (chuan chu); and (6)characters used to represent a homophone or near-homophone that are unrelated in meaning to the new word they represent (chia chieh).

One notable feature of Chinese characters is the "radical." "Radical" in English means "root," but the "radical" of a character is more like a general classification of the referent of a character than a "root." For example, the characters yu "language," shuo "talk," chiang "speak," sung "file a legal suit," i "discuss," "opinion," and lun "discuss"all share the yen radical, which means "language," and gives the reader a clue to the meaning of the character as a whole. The characters hsiu "rotten," shan "cedar," sung "pine," t'ao "peach," and lin "forest," all contain the mu "wood" or "tree" radical, indicating one of their shared key characteristics.

If you know the radical of a character, you can usually get a general idea of the meaning of the character it is a part of. Although there is a theoretical total of almost 50,000 written Chinese characters, only about 5,000 of these are frequently used; and the total number of radicals is only 214. So learning to read and write Chinese is not nearly so formidable a task as it may at first seem.

Although Chinese characters may appear to be quite complicated, they cannot be randomly simplified. Omitting or changing strokes not only obscures the origin and categorization of a character, but also robs the character of its unique characteristics. The government of the Taiwan has always placed great importance on language education, and on promoting a standard written style. Language competitions in which schoolteachers, students, and others can participate are held each year.

Taiwan is the one place in the world where you can live in an open and friendly Chinese environment while receiving high quality Chinese language instruction. As a result, an increasing number of people from all corners of the globe are coming to Taiwan's various Mandarin training centers to study the Chinese language in its original form.