Why do Chinese characters look so complicated? 蝴

I think Chinese characters are beautiful and elegant. In fact, historically, the script itself has often been used as art. You’ve probably seen some of these displayed  in museums and on walls of businesses and homes. They are often boldly written on long, vertical scrolls.

Chinese characters may look difficult at first, however, that’s only until you understand them. Personally I’m not an expert but with a bit of background anyone can learn about and appreciate them more fully.

Traditional Chinese script, which consists of what we call Chinese characters, can appear complicated but it’s not.  Because traditional Chinese writing wasn’t phonetically based, it didn’t have an alphabet. Each character represented one cocept, one word (but not necessarily the sound of that word).

With an alphabet, the parts or letters are grouped and regrouped to make new words based on their sound, for example, road and street.  Most English speakers don’t really distinguish between the meaning of a road and a street and use them interchangeably with no problem in understanding.  However, clearly the reader will use whichever word the writer chooses to write down. If reading out loud, we wouldn’t replace the word road with the word street if we found it in a book. These words are built on a grouping of vowels and consonants which are sound based and that determines their pronunciation.

Characters are different in that most are made up of two parts, one which gives some indication of meaning—a semantic element–and one which gives some indication of pronunciation—the phonetic element.  The part which indicates meaning is called a radical and often appears on the left of the character, although it can be found either above or below it, as well.

In the last couple of blogs, did you notice anything special about the characters for spider (zhī zhū, zhi zhu 蜘 蛛) and scorpion (xiēzi, xie zi 子)?  On the left side of three of the characters they all share the same radical: chong . Chong (which apparently can also be pronounced huii) gives some indication of their meaning. If you look up the radical in a Chinese dictionary, you’ll find 3 main categories of words:

1) a large class of insects, butterflies, spiders (which we also often group together), but also

2) worms and snakes, and some

3) water animals such as bivalves, crabs, and shrimp.

See how this radical nicely fits these three words together?  Interestingly, two other animals sometimes included in the 5 poisons are the worm and snake—and there they are sharing the same radical! Since they share the same radical, what are the posssible implications?

Knowing the radical doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to work out the meaning behind a new word, but, in most cases, the radical gives you a point of reference, a place to start. So, you can see how even complicated appearing characters can be broken down into building blocks, and those building blocks begin to tell you its meaning and perhaps even indicate some history behind the character (more on this in future blogs).

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