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Chinese Characters Explained (1) Ones That Look Like Things

There are a lot of misconceptions about Chinese characters.

One thing that I hear very often is that Chinese characters are “just like pictures of things.”

The popularity of the Chineasy series of books has done a lot to spread this idea – a lot of people are starting to think that Chinese characters are just like drawings.

And that’s not really a good thing, because it isn’t exactly true.

Yes, it is true that some Chinese characters are based on ‘pictures of things’, but estimates say that only around 4 percent of characters are ‘pictograms, ‘or 象形字 xiàng xíng zì in Chinese.

So what this means is that the vast majority of Chinese characters do not come from direct pictures of things at all, but are instead made up of different components.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s come back to the ‘picture characters for this post.

It is estimated that there are around 600 such characters.

You might not even recognise some of them, because they have changed so much over thousands of years that some of them don’t look that much like what they were originally supposed to look like. The earliest Chinese characters were carved on animal bones, and were quite different from the Chinese characters we know and use today. They were only standardised later.

To make things simple, I’ve divided the ‘pictogram’ Chinese characters into 4 main types: people and parts of the body, animals, the natural world and objects.

Let’s look at these 4 types of ‘picture characters’ in turn, and I’ll give you some of the most common examples of each.

You might already know that some of the original versions of Chinese characters have been simplified in mainland China. Where a character is a simplified character, I’ve put the original (traditional) form next to it in brackets ().

To see the full images and explanation, check out the video at the top of this post.

  1. People and parts of the body 

    女 nǚ – ‘woman’ originally came from a picture of a woman.子 zǐ – ‘child’ originally came from a picture of a young child.人 rén – ‘person’ originally came from a picture of a person standing up

    耳 ěr – ‘ear’ comes from a picture of an ear. The modern Chinese word for ear is ‘耳朵’ ěrduo

    目 mù – ‘eye’ comes from a picture of an eye. Over time, the original character got turned on its side and became the character that we see today. This is an older word for eye, the modern Chinese word for eye is actually very different:眼睛 yǎnjing, although these two characters have the ‘eye’ component on the left.手 shǒu – ‘hand’ originally came from a picture of a person’s hand

    口 kǒu – ‘mouth, opening’ is a pictographic representation of a mouth or opening.

  2. Animals 

    马 (馬) mǎ – ‘horse’ originally came from a picture of a horse.鱼 (魚) yú – ‘fish’ originally came from a picture of a fish.龟 (龜) guī – ‘tortoise’ originally came from a picture of a tortoise. In modern Chinese you normally see the words 乌龟 ‘tortoise’ and 海龟 ‘turtle’.

    鸟 (鳥) niǎo – ‘bird’ originally came from a picture of a bird.

    羊 yáng – ‘sheep’ originally came from a picture of a sheep’s head.鼠 shǔ – ‘mouse, rat’ originally came from a picture of a mouse.

    虎 hǔ – ‘tiger’ originally came from a picture of a tiger

    龙 (龍) lóng – dragon is supposed to be a picture of a dragon!

  3. The natural world 

    山 shān – ‘mountain’ was originally a representation of three mountains next to each other, with the tallest mountain in the middle.水 shuǐ – ‘water’ originally came from a picture of running water.木 mù – ‘tree’ is a picture of a tree. I don’t need to explain this one, do I? The character that is used most commonly to mean tree in modern Chinese is 树, which contains this component on the left-hand side.

    日 rì – ‘sun, day’ comes from a picture of the sun.

    月 yuè – ‘moon’ comes from a picture of the moon.雨 yǔ – ‘rain’ comes from a picture of raindrops falling from the sky. The horizontal line at the top of the character represents the sky and the raindrops are below.

  4. Objects

    册 (冊) cè – ‘volume of a book’ originally came from a picture of bamboo writing strips tied together in the middle.舟 zhōu – ‘boat’ originally came from a picture of a boat. This image got turned on its side in the modern character. This is an old-fashioned word for boat. In modern Chinese, 船 is normally used instead.竹 zhú – bamboo is a picture of two shoots of bamboo growing in the wild. This is also a component in many characters.

    巾 jīn – ‘piece of cloth’ is a picture of a piece of cloth hanging up.土 tǔ – ‘earth, land’ is a picture of a clod of earth or of a shoot growing out of the ground.

    刀 dāo – ‘knife’ is a picture of a knife or a knife blade.

    勺 sháo – ‘spoon’ is from a picture of a spoon or ladle.

    弓 gōng – ‘bow’ is from a picture of a bow.

    门 (門) mén – ‘door, gate’ is a picture of a doorway.

    毛 máo – ‘hair’ was originally a picture of a hair.

    田 tián – ‘field’ is a pictographic representation of a field. In ancient Chinese fields were divided into equal square plots, which is what you see in this character.

    甲 jiǎ – ‘helmet, armour, nail’ is a picture of a piece of armour.

    肉 ròu – ‘flesh, meat’ is a visual representation of a piece of meat, with lines visible on the flesh.

    丝 (絲) sī – silk. The traditional character in the brackets was originally a picture of two twisted strands of silk.

Some of these may not look much like the objects or animals they are supposed to represent, but I hope that this post will help you to understand some of these pictograms and where they come from and dig deeper into Chinese culture!

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