An introductory tour of Chinese characters by WorldAccent translation project manager, Sally Ly
Chinese characters are also known as Han characters, named after the Han Dynasty when it evolved. Today, the Han script is the dominant script of the Chinese language, and still resonates in other traditional East Asian scripts such as the Japanese Kanji and the Korean Hanja.
The traditional method of reading a page of Chinese text would be from the top to bottom of a line and right to left of a page. Nowadays, this is only found in ancient literature and novels, textbooks or exam papers in Traditional script, as the majority of Chinese texts have adopted the Western style of writing and reading text from left to right.
Chinese characters are what linguists call “logograms”: each character suggests a particular word, concept or meaning. This is different to, say, English where each character is a “phonogram”, suggesting a particular sound which only then combine to make words with meanings.
Han characters are comprised of “radicals”, all of which carry a unique meaning. Some radicals can be read as an individual character, but generally, radicals need to be combined together to create a single Han character.
Let’s look at an example. The
言 “Yan” radical can be a Han character in its own right and is associated with the meaning for “words” or “speech”. It can also be combined into a more complex character. It is often positioned on the left hand side. For instance the character
語 is comprised of
言 + 五 + 口 and is pronounced as “yu” to suggest the concept of “language”.
Studying radicals is useful as they often give you clues to the meaning and pronunciation of a character. You will also need to study radicals to be able to lookup characters in a Chinese dictionary, using their radical category and number of strokes.
Some Han characters have just one meaning. However the majority have multiple associated meanings, allowing them to be combined with others to form a range of meanings.
信 alone means “postal letter”. When combined with
心 “heart”, to make
信心, it means “confidence”. Alternatively if we combine it with
任 – associated with “responsibility” – it makes
信任 which means “trust”. As you can see, Han characters can be quite ambiguous in meaning, and so it is important not to assume one character is equivalent to one singular meaning but various associated meanings.
Traditional and Simplified Chinese script
Han characters originate from the Traditional Chinese script, also known as “fan ti zi” or “zheng ti zi”. It is now mainly used in Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong for Cantonese Chinese and Taiwanese Mandarin.
Simplified Chinese script (“jian ti zi”) has fewer strokes than Traditional characters, with replaced or reduced radicals. It was introduced by the People’s Republic of China in hopes of simplifying Chinese characters while eradicating those with the same pronunciation and meaning but different character forms. Simplified Chinese is now the dominant script. It is found in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia for Mandarin Chinese.
A heated debate over the relative merits of Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters has raged for many years between Chinese scholars, politicians, commentators and ordinary speakers. Proponents on both sides claim advantages in aesthetics, practicality, vocabulary understanding, literacy and broader culture.
This is not the place to continue that debate, but non-Chinese speakers should be aware of it. It is always crucial to obtain the correct form of Chinese in translation. And if you want your website or publication to be accessible to all Chinese speakers, you should consider translating into both Simplified and Traditional Chinese.
I hope you’ve found this introduction interesting. Until next time…