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Chinese Characters Explained (2) Ones That Represent Meanings

In the first part of these new series explaining Chinese characters in detail, I talked about Chinese characters that look like things.

The second major type of Chinese characters are what I call ‘ones that represent ideas’.

These characters are not pictures of things. Instead, they represent concepts such as ‘up’ or ‘down’, ‘middle’ or so on. These characters are sometimes also called ‘ideograms’ or 指事字 zhǐ shì zì.

Here are some examples of Chinese characters that represent ideas:

上 shàng – upper, on top of. This character contains a horizontal line with two strokes on top, representing the idea of ‘upper’ or ‘on top of’. It was originally 丄, just one stroke about the horizontal line and became a little more complicated over time.

下 xià – lower, below. The opposite of the previous character. It contains a horizontal line at the top with two strokes below, representing the idea of ‘lower’ or ‘below’. It was originally 丅, with just one stroke below the horizontal line.

中 zhōng – middle, China. A 口 square with a 丨 line going through the middle of it, representing the idea of ‘middle’ or ‘centre’. This character often refers to ‘China’, because the Chinese historically viewed their country as being ‘the kingdom in the middle of the world’.

凶 xiōng – fierce,  terrible, ferocious. In this character, 凵 is a pit, and 乂 is a person falling into it hands-first.

一 yī – one – is one horizontal stroke, representing the number one.

二 èr – two – two horizontal strokes, representing the number two. The stroke on the top is shorter than the one on the bottom.

三 sān – three – three horizontal strokes, representing the number three.

屯 tún – village; to store up is a picture of 屮, a sprouting plant breaking through 一 the surface, representing the idea of ‘village’ or ‘to store up’.

牵(牽)qiān – lead along, involve, implicate. This character contains a component, 玄, xuán crossed by 冖, over 牛 (niú) ‘ox’.

逆 nì – go against; disobey was originally a picture of somebody upside down, representing the idea of ‘contrary’ or ‘doing again’.

And two extras that I didn’t mention in the video.

凹 āo – concave; sunken. This character is an object with a piece missing, representing the idea of ‘concave’, and 凸 tū – protrude, which is a picture of an object with a piece sticking out, representing the idea of ‘protrude’ or ‘sticking out.

You’ve now learned about the second type of Chinese characters. These characters only make up a small proportion of all the characters in Chinese, but they are important to know nonetheless!