Chinese Characters 101 (Part 3): The 6 Types of Chinese Character

Check out the other parts of this series here:

Part 1: What are Chinese Characters?

Part 2: Chinese Strokes, Components & Radicals

Part 4: The 12 Stroke Order Rules

types of Chinese character, Chinese Characters 101 (Part 3): The 6 Types of Chinese Character
  1. Pictographs
  2. Simple Ideographs
  3. Compound Ideographs
  4. Phonetic Semantic Compounds
  5. Transfer Characters
  6. Loan Characters

1. Pictographs 象形字 xiàngxíngzì

types of Chinese character, Chinese Characters 101 (Part 3): The 6 Types of Chinese Character

Pictographs make up only a small portion of Chinese characters (Less than 5%). They are the most ancient and the easiest to learn. 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, 95%+ of characters are not pictographs.

2. Simple Ideographs 指事字 zhǐshìzì

types of Chinese character, Chinese Characters 101 (Part 3): The 6 Types of Chinese Character

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

types of Chinese character, Chinese Characters 101 (Part 3): The 6 Types of Chinese Character

This type of ideograph takes two or more pictographs OR simple ideographs and makes a 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:

Phonetic on the left, Semantic 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

types of Chinese character, Chinese Characters 101 (Part 3): The 6 Types of Chinese Character
types of Chinese character, Chinese Characters 101 (Part 3): The 6 Types of Chinese Character

Let’s look at the following three characters that Chinese uses as components in countless other 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 汉字.

When becoming components, the shape usually changes slightly or entirely (e.g., 水 is 氵when as a left-side component).

Examples with 口:

叫 吃 响 喝 嘴 唱 味 喊 吸 吹

All of these characters are related to a “mouth.” Call, Eat, Sound, Drink, Mouth, Sing, Flavour, Shout, Inhale, Blow.

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

Examples with 水 & 氵:

氵流 清 酒 油 波 洗 瀑 浆 湖 源

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

Flow, Pure, Alcoholic Beverage, Oil, Wash, Waterfall, Thick Liquid, Lake, 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.

Examples with 虫:

蛇 蜜 蝴 蝶 茧 蚁 蚊 蜘 蛛 蚕

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

Snake, Bee, 蝴蝶-Butterfly, Cocoon, Ant, Mosquito, 蜘蛛- Spider, Silkworm

NOTE: 茧 Cocoon and 蚕 Silkworm are characters where the meaning is on the bottom. All of the other 汉字 have the semantic component on the left.

The Semantic Component Makes Chinese Awesome

The fact that an individual 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 to 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 are 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, 考 (kǎo) to verify and 老 (lǎo) old were once the same character, meaning “elderly person,” but detached into two separate words. Characters of this category are rare, so in modern 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 来 (lái)“to come,” so it was given its character from that of 莱 (lái), meaning cereal.