The 6 Types of Chinese Characters: Chinese Characters 101 (Part 1)

Before we can get into the 6 types of Chinese Characters, we wanted to give you a brief history of how Chinese Characters developed.

Chinese Characters are the oldest continuously used system of writing in existence, and they have been adapted for use in several other Asian languages over the years.

Earliest Chinese characters… 

According to historical data, the first Chinese characters can be traced back as far as six thousand years ago to an archeological site east of Xi’an, China.

甲⻣字 Jiǎgǔ zì “Oracle Bone Script” (2000-1000BC)

These date back to more than three thousand years ago, where they can be found carved into tortoiseshell or animal bones (also known as ‘oracle-bones’). This was done by some to make predictions about the future. Several of these ancient characters are still used today and even still look almost exactly the same! 

⾦字 Jīnzì “Bronze Script” (2000-300BC) 

During the Bronze Age, characters began to be carved or cast onto bronze. They are very similar to the oracle bone script above, except thicker and more structured due to the use of molds. 

篆书 Zhuànshū “Seal Script” (500BC-200BC)

This eventually became the more standardized script used throughout the entire country under emperor Qin. The characters were more elongated during this time. Unlike the previous two character types, they had fewer variants and became the basis of modern-day characters.

⾪书 Lìshū “Clerical Script” (200BC-150AD) 

Said to be invented by a man during his 10-year prison sentence as punishment for “offending” Emperor Qin Shihuang. Upon seeing this new form of writing, emperor Qin was so impressed that he rescinded the prison sentence!

This style of writing (often illegible) was invented with the ease of handwritten communication in mind. A key characteristic of this style of writing was the introduction of characters that didn’t directly represent material objects. 

楷书 Kǎishū “Regular Script”, ⾏书 xíngshū “Semi-Cursive/Running Script”, and 草书 cǎoshū “Cursive Script” (151AD-Today)

As the use of writing brushes became more widespread, the clerical script evolved into Kaishu or “Regular Script”. This was due to the clerical script being too complicated and difficult to read. Soon afterward, semi-semi-cursive and cursive scripts were developed to make writing Chinese even easier and faster. These two styles are still in use and fully legible to the average educated Chinese person.

Now you know a brief history of how the Chinese Characters developed, so now we move on to the 6 types of Chinese Characters.

The 6 Types of Chinese Characters

The 6 Types of Chinese Characters

The following are the 6 types of Chinese Characters that exist:

  1. Pictographs
  2. Simple Ideographs
  3. Compound Ideographs
  4. Phonetic Semantic Compounds
  5. Transfer Characters
  6. Loan Characters

1. Pictographs 象形字 xiàngxíngzì

6 Types of Chinese Characters - Pictographs

Pictographs make up only a small portion of Chinese characters (Less than 5%). They are the most ancient and the easiest for Chinese learners to understand. The appearance itself expresses the meaning. Most pictographs are simple nouns. The majority of Chinese learning resources cite these characters as a way of showing you just how easy Chinese characters are to learn. Please don’t fall for this trick! Remember, more than 95% of characters are not pictographs.

2. Simple Ideographs 指事字 zhǐshìzì

Simple Ideographs

Ideographs show the meaning of abstract concepts that are harder to express concretely like a pictograph. They make up an even smaller amount of characters than pictographs.

3. Compound ideographs 会意字 huìyìzì

Compound Ideographs

This type of ideograph takes two or more pictographs OR simple ideographs and makes the 3rd definition, often making the characters not only fascinating but also easy to learn.

From left to right we have the characters for “Home,” “Point/Tip” and “To Rest.” “Home” is made up of 2 pictographs meaning “roof” and “pig,” “Point/Tip” is made up of 2 simple ideographs “Small” (top) and “Big” (bottom), and “Rest” is two pictographs of “Person” and “Tree.”

Compound ideographs make up at least 10% of characters.

4. Phonetic-Semantic Compounds 形声字 xíngshēngzì

Phonetic-Semantic Compounds follow a standard principle:

One component represents the meaning.

One component represents the pronunciation.

Approximately 80% of Phonetic-Semantic Compounds have this structure:

Semantic on the left, Phonetic on the right

唱 – 油 – 蚊

The remaining 20% of these compounds are a mixed bag of the following:

Phonetic on the Left, Semantic on the Right

期 – 功 – 刚

Semantic on the top, Phonetic on the bottom

简 – 寄 – 空

Phonetic on the top, Semantic on the bottom

想 – 桌 – 袋

Semantic on the Inside, Phonetic on the Outside

问 – 闻 – 闷

Phonetic on the Inside, Semantic on the Outside

园 – 阔 – 固

A Closer Look at the Semantic Component

Semantic Component Picture 1
Semantic Component Picture 2

Let’s look at the following three characters that Chinese uses as components in countless other Chinese Characters ( 汉字):

口- Opening/Mouth (kǒu)

水- Water (shuǐ)

虫- Insect (chóng)

These three all have meaning when used alone, but can also be components squeezed to the side in more complex Chinese Characters (汉字).

When becoming components, the shape usually changes slightly or entirely (e.g., 水 is 氵when as a left-side component). All of the following characters are related to “mouth.”

Examples with 口:

叫 Call
吃 Eat
响 Sound
喝 Drink
嘴 Mouth
唱 Sing
味 Flavor
喊 Shout
吸Inhale
吹 Blow

The above Chinese Characters 汉字 all fit the “Semantic on the left, phonetic on the right”  construction.

All of the following characters are related to “water” or “liquid.”

Examples with 水 & 氵:

流 Flow
清 Pure
酒 Alcohol
油 Oil
波 Wave
洗 Wash
瀑 Waterfall
浆 Thick Liquid
湖 Lake
源 Source (of a river)

NOTE: 浆 is a character where the meaning is on the bottom. All other characters the meaning of “water/liquid” is conveyed on the left.

All of the following characters are related to “insects” or “insect-like animals.”

Examples with 虫:

蛇 Snake
蜜蜂 – Bee
蝴蝶 Butterfly
茧 Cocoon
蚁 Ant
蚊 Mosquito
蜘蛛 Spider
蚕 Silkworm

NOTE: 茧, 蜜 and 蚕 are characters where the meaning is on the bottom. All of the other Chinese Characters 汉字 have the semantic component on the left.

The Semantic Component Makes Chinese Awesome

The fact that an individual Chinese Character 汉字 can give you a visual representation of the meaning allows for quicker contextual acquisition. If you see a character you’ve never learned before, but you know the semantic component, then you’ve already taken a significant step towards learning that character right from the jump.

In English, the majority of words don’t give you any semantic clue. Some do (like “playground”), but most don’t. If you don’t know a word and aren’t a linguistics scholar, you need extra help to acquire it. You don’t even know where to put the syllable stress. Chinese is superior in this aspect.

A Closer Look at the Phonetic Component

The below examples are easy to understand. One of the components represents the pronunciation, so look for the shared component to get an idea:

力 历 沥 苈 励 呖 疬

All pronounced lì

玲 零 龄 铃  伶 呤

All pronounced líng

方 房 放 防 仿 访 坊

All pronounced as some tone of “fang.”

艮 垦 恳 裉 跟 根 很 恨 狠 痕 银 眼 限 艰

All end in either “en” or “an”

良 娘 酿 狼 浪 粮 稂 阆 莨 琅 螂 锒 踉

All end in either “-ang” or “-iang.”

NOTE: The phonetic component in a Chinese character is not necessarily a precise map of the pronunciation. Think of it more like a “clue.” The first two examples with lì & líng show you examples of precise mapping, but the final three examples show how the component is more like a clue to the pronunciation “family” you are reading.

5. Transfer Characters 转注字 zhuǎnzhùzì

There is a minuscule number of these characters. This definition from Douban does a great job of explaining it:

Characters in this category initially didn’t represent the same meaning but have bifurcated through orthographic and often semantic drift. For instance, to verify考 (kǎo) and old 老 (lǎo) were once the same character, meaning “elderly person,” but detached into two separate words. Characters of this category are rare, so in modern Chinese systems, this group is often omitted or combined with others.

6. Loan Characters 假借字 jiǎjièzì

These are characters that were “loaned” from other characters with the same sound. For example, there was no character for “to come” 来 (lái), so it was given its character from that of cereal 莱 (lái).

So now you know all about the 6 types of Chinese Characters we can go into what Characters actually are.

So What Are Characters

Chinese characters are morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest meaningful unit of a language, which we like to call “mini-meanings.”

Here’s an English Example:

Chinese Characters are morphemes

We can split “unexpected” into “un-expect-ed.” These three separate parts are morphemes, and we hope this helps illustrate that a morpheme isn’t necessarily a word. You can’t use either “un-” or “-ed” by itself, but they both influence the definition of a word. Chinese characters function in the same way. Some of them are words, some of them are not, but with rare exception, they are all morphemes. 

Morphemes example

Let’s take the Chinese word for “yesterday” 昨天. We have two characters here: 昨 + 天. Let’s imagine we can split it in English the same way: [YESTER] + [DAY].

As in English, the second character 天 means day. The first Chinese Character (汉字) Yester (昨) is not a word if taken alone, but it is sufficiently unique to influence the definition of the word.

Now, let’s invent a word in English and Chinese language at the same time:

Chinese and English Example

Even though this isn’t a real word, its meaning is easy to guess, regardless of whether you are reading “Yestermonth” in English or 昨月 in Chinese, the combination in this example is very clear.

The above example is meant to illustrate that “yester” or carries a meaning of its own, even though these morphemes are not words. We hope this gives you a sense of what Chinese characters are and how they differ from words and letters.

Chinese Characters vs. English Morphemes

English Morphemes

A linguist calls small word parts like “yester, day, un, expect, ed” morphemes.

Chinese Characters

天- A small icon that represents a person extending his arms under the sky. With a bit of imagination, it makes perfect sense. The first meaning of 天 is “sky” and by extension “day.” Thus, Chinese characters are like small abstract pictures. The definition is a bit over-simplified, but it illustrates the advantage Chinese morphemes have over English morphemes; they allow for a visual representation of meaning at the level of the “letter.” Sure, Chinese Characters (汉字) aren’t “letters,” but that’s the point. They are far more powerful.

Conjugation

The Chinese language has no conjugation. Chinese morphemes never visually blend in with their surroundings.

Examples:

“Unusable”: “Use” loses its “e” when converting to “Usable”.

“Always”: “All” loses its second “l” when converting to Always.

Instead of conjugation, Chinese words are made by composing characters like you would arrange Lego bricks. Much simpler from a learner’s perspective.

Chinese Strokes, Components, and Radicals

Chinese Strokes, Components and Radicals

Chinese Strokes

In total there are 35 different possible Chinese strokes. There are six basic Chinese strokes and 29 compound strokes. Compound Chinese strokes are combinations of basic strokes & combining strokes.

Chinese Strokes

Don’t worry about practice writing these individually. Because we start teaching you from the essential components and gradually build up from there, you should have very few problems with writing Chinese characters as long as you follow the step-by-step images provided in the description of each “Make a Movie” lesson.

Components

There are thousands of characters, but not nearly as many components. They can have two functions:

  1. Semantic: Which shows the meaning
  2. Phonetic: which indicates the sound
Semantic and Phonetic

The left-side component of the character for Oil (油) is “ 氵” which shows that this character has something to do with liquid.

The oil character (油) on the right side is the “from” character (由) which gives a clue to the pronunciation of “yóu.”

The pronunciation is not always the same as the phonetic element within it. Sometimes it is slightly different (e.g., 羊 yáng and 样 yàng), sometimes it is very different (每 měi 海 hǎi), but there is usually some pronunciation connection. You can see those connections in the above section about the 6 types of Chinese characters. 

Not learning components would be similar to studying mathematical answers without studying the core equations. As a result, when creating The Mandarin Blueprint Method, we based the order sequence for learning Chinese Characters (汉字) on the components.

A Note on “Chinese Radicals”

214 exist, many are uncommon. “Radicals” are the representations of paper dictionary categories. If you want to look something up in a paper dictionary, you need some system for finding what you are looking for, and so radicals were invented to help with this. There is only one radical assigned to every Chinese Character (汉字), and they aren’t necessarily semantic components. To a large degree, the “radical” assignment is random.

Unless you are planning to use paper dictionaries, we recommend you scrap this word from your vocabulary. Instead, refer to the elements of Chinese characters as “components.”

Part 2 of our series is all about the 12 Stroke Order Rules, which you can find by clicking the button below.

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