Chinese character classification

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Chinese characters are generally logograms, but can be further categorised based on the manner of their creation or derivation. Some characters may be analysed structurally as compounds created from smaller components, while some are not decomposable in this way. A small number of characters originate as pictographs and ideograms, but the vast majority are what are called phono-semantic compounds, which involve an element of pronunciation in their meaning.

The traditional six-fold classification scheme was originally popularised in the 2nd century CE, and remained the dominant lens for analysis for almost two millennia, but with the benefit of a greater body of historical evidence, recent scholarship has variously challenged and discarded those categories. In older literature, Chinese characters may be referred to generally as "ideographs", inheriting a historical misconception of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but some people[who?] assert that they do so only through association with the spoken word.[1]

Traditional classification [edit]

The Shuowen Jiezi, a Chinese dictionary compiled c. 100 CE by Xu Shen, divided characters into six categories (六書; liùshū) according to what he thought was the original method of their creation. The Shuowen Jiezi ultimately popularised the six category model, which would form the foundation of traditional Chinese lexicography for the next two millennia. Xu was not the first to use the term: it first appeared in the Rites of Zhou, though it may not have originally referred to methods of creating characters. When Liu Xin (d. 23 CE) edited the Rites he used the term 'six categories' alongside a list of six character types, but he did not provide examples.[2] Slightly different versions of the sixfold model are given in the Book of Han (1st century CE) and by Zheng Zhong, as quoted in Zheng Xuan's 1st-century commentary of the Rites of Zhou. In the postface to the Shuowen Jiezi, Xu illustrated each character type with a pair of examples.[3]

While the traditional classification is still taught, it is no longer the focus of modern lexicography. Xu's categories are neither rigorously defined nor mutually exclusive: four refer to the structural composition of characters, while the other two refer to usage. Modern scholars tend to view Xu's categories as principles of character formation, rather than a proper classification.

The earliest extant corpus of Chinese characters are in the form of oracle bone script, attested from c. 1250 BCE at the site of Yin, the last capital of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BCE – c. 1045 BCE). They primarily take the form of short inscriptions on the turtle shells and the shoulder blades of oxen, which were used in an official form of divination known as scapulamancy. Oracle bone script is the direct ancestor of modern written Chinese, and is already a mature writing system in its earliest attestation. Roughly one-quarter of oracle bone script characters are pictographs, with rest either being phono-semantic compounds or compound ideographs. Despite millennia of change in shape, usage, and meaning, a few of these characters remain recognisable to the modern reader of Chinese.

Over 90% of the characters used in modern written vernacular Chinese are phono-semantic compounds. However, as both meaning and pronunciation in the language have shifted over time, many of these components no longer serve their original purpose. A lack of knowledge as to the specific histories of these components often leads to folk and false etymologies. Knowledge of the earliest forms of characters, including Shang-era oracle bone script and the Zhou-era bronze scripts, is often necessary for reconstructing their historical etymologies. Reconstructing the phonology of Middle and Old Chinese from clues present in characters is a field of historical linguistics. In Chinese, historical Chinese phonology is called yīnyùnxué (音韻學).

Pictographs [edit]

Approximately 600 characters are pictographs (象形; xiàngxíng; 'form imitation') – stylised drawings of the objects they represent. These are generally among the oldest characters. A few date back to oracle bone forms from the 12th century BCE, indicated below.

Over time, these pictographs became progressively more stylised, with many losing their direct representational qualities—especially as the script evolved to the seal script form used during the Eastern Zhou, and then to Han-era clerical script. The table below demonstrates the evolution of several pictographs.

Oracle bone Seal Clerical Semi-cursive Cursive Regular Pinyin Gloss
Traditional Simplified
yuè 'Moon'
shān 'mountain'
shuǐ 'water'
'rice plant'
rén 'person'
niú 'cow'
yáng 'goat'
niǎo 'bird'
guī 'turtle'
lóng 'dragon'
fèng 'phoenix'

Indicatives [edit]

Indicatives (指事; zhǐshì; 'indication') depict an abstract idea with an iconic form, including iconic modification of pictographs. In the examples below, the numerals representing small numbers are represented a corresponding number of strokes, directions are represented by a graphical indication above or below a line. Parts of a tree are communicated by indicating the corresponding part of the pictogram meaning 'tree'.

Pinyin èr sān shàng xià běn
Gloss 'one' 'two' 'three' 'up' 'below' 'root'[a] 'apex'[b]

Compound ideographs [edit]

Compound ideographs (會意; huì yì; 'joined meaning'), also called associative compounds, logical aggregates, or syssemantographs, are compounds of two or more pictographic or ideographic characters to suggest the meaning of the word to be represented. Xu Shen gave two examples:[3]

  • ; 'military', formed from ; 'dagger-axe' and ; 'foot'
  • ; 'truthful', formed from ; 'person' (later reduced to ) and ; 'speech'

Other characters commonly explained as compound ideographs include:

  • ; lín; 'forest', composed of two trees[4]
  • ; sēn; 'full of trees', composed of three trees[5]
  • ; xiū; 'shade', 'rest', depicting a man by a tree[6]
  • ; cǎi; 'harvest', depicting a hand on a bush (later written )[7]
  • ; kàn; 'read', depicting a hand above an eye[8]
  • ; ; 'sunset', depicting the sun disappearing into the grass, originally written as ; 'thick grass' enclosing —later written .[9]

Many characters formerly classed as compound ideographs are now believed to have been mistakenly identified. For example, Xu's example representing the word xìn < *snjins 'truthful', is usually considered a phono-semantic compound, with ; rén < *njin as phonetic and 'SPEECH' as a signific.[2][10] In many cases, reduction of a character has obscured its original phono-semantic nature. For example, the character ; 'bright' is often presented as a compound of ; 'sun' and ; 'moon'. However this form is probably a simplification of an attested alternative form , which can be viewed as a phono-semantic compound.[11]

Peter Boodberg and William Boltz have argued that no ancient characters were compound ideographs. Boltz accounts for the remaining cases by suggesting that some characters could represent multiple unrelated words with different pronunciations, as in Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the compound characters are actually phono-semantic compounds based on an alternative reading that has since been lost. For example, the character ; ān < *ʔan 'peace' is often cited as a compound of 'ROOF' with ; 'woman'. Boltz speculates that the character could represent both the word < *nrjaʔ 'woman' and the word ān < *ʔan 'settled', and that the 'ROOF' signific was later added to disambiguate the latter usage. In support of this second reading, he points to other characters with the same component that had similar pronunciations in Old Chinese: ; yàn < *ʔrans 'tranquil', ; nuán < *nruan 'to quarrel' and ; jiān < *kran 'licentious'.[12] Other scholars reject these arguments for alternative readings and consider other explanations of the data more likely, for example viewing as a reduced form of , which can be analysed as a phono-semantic compound with as phonetic. They consider the characters and to be implausible phonetic compounds, both because the proposed phonetic and semantic elements are identical and because the widely differing initial consonants *ʔ- and *n- would not normally be accepted in a phonetic compound.[13] Notably, Christopher Button has shown how more sophisticated palaeographical and phonological analyses can account for the examples of Boodberg and Boltz without relying on polyphony.[14]

While compound ideographs are a limited source of Chinese characters, they form many kokuji created in Japan to represent native words. Examples include:

  • hatara(ku) 'to work', formed from 'person' and 'move'
  • tōge 'mountain pass', formed from 'mountain', 'up' and 'down'

As Japanese creations, such characters had no Chinese or Sino-Japanese readings, but a few have been assigned invented Sino-Japanese readings. For example, the common character has been given the reading , taken from , and even borrowed into modern written Chinese with the reading dòng.[15]

Loangraphs [edit]

Loangraphs (假借; jiǎjiè; 'borrowing') are characters used to write one morpheme that are "borrowed" for use with another that has an identical or near-identical pronunciation. For example, the character (lái) was originally a pictogram of a wheat plant, with the meaning *m-rˁək 'wheat'. As this was pronounced similar to the Old Chinese word *mə.rˁək 'to come', was loaned to write this verb. Eventually, 'to come', became established as the default reading, and a new character (mài) was devised for 'wheat'. When a character is used as a rebus this way, it is called a 假借字 (jiǎjièzì; 'loaned–borrowed character'), translatable as 'phonetic loan character' or 'rebus character'.

As with Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform, early Chinese characters were used as rebuses to express abstract meanings that were not easily depicted. Thus, many characters represented more than one word. In some cases the extended use would take over completely, and a new character would be created for the original meaning, usually by modifying the original character with a determinative. For instance, (yòu) originally meant 'right hand', but was borrowed to write the abstract adverb yòu ('again'). Modern usage is exclusively the latter sense, while (yòu), which adds the 'MOUTH' radical, represents the sense meaning 'right'. This process of graphical disambiguation is a common source of phono-semantic compound characters.

Examples of jiajie
Character Rebus Original New character
'four' 'nostrils'
'flat', 'thin' 'leaf'
běi 'north' bèi 'back (of the body)'
yào 'to want' yāo 'waist'
shǎo 'few' shā 'sand' and
yǒng 'forever' yǒng 'swim'

While the word jiajie dates from the Han dynasty, the related term tongjia (通假; tōngjiǎ; 'interchangeable borrowing') is first attested during the Ming dynasty. The two terms are commonly used as synonyms, but there is a distinction between jiajiezi being a phonetic loan character for a word that did not originally have a character, such as using ; 'a bag tied at both ends' for dōng 'east', and tongjia being an interchangeable character used for an existing homophonous character, such as using (zǎo; 'flea') for (zǎo; 'early').

According to Bernhard Karlgren, "One of the most dangerous stumbling-blocks in the interpretation of pre-Han texts is the frequent occurrence of loan characters."[16]

Phono-semantic compounds[edit]

Phono-semantic compounds (形声; 形聲; xíngshēng; 'form and sound' or 谐声; 諧聲; xiéshēng; 'sound agreement') represent over 90% of the modern Chinese lexicon. They are created as compounds of at least two components:

  • a phonetic component via the rebus principle, with approximately the correct pronunciation.
  • a semantic component, also called a determinative or "signific", one of a limited number of characters that supplies an element of meaning. In most cases this is also the radical under which a character is listed in a dictionary.

As in ancient Egyptian writing, such compounds eliminated the ambiguity caused by phonetic loans. This process can be repeated, with a phono-semantic compound character itself being used as a phonetic in a further compound, which can result in quite complex characters, such as ( = + , = + ). Often, the semantic component is on the left, but there are other possible positions.


As an example, a verb 'to wash oneself' is pronounced , which happens be homophonous with 'tree', which was written with the pictograph . The verb could have simply been written , but to disambiguate it was compounded with the character for 'water', which gives some idea of the word's meaning. The result was eventually written as (; 'to wash one's hair'). Similarly, the 'WATER' determinative was combined with (lín; 'woods') to produce the water-related homophone (lín; 'to pour').

Determinative Rebus Compound
; 'water' ; ; ; 'to wash oneself'
; 'water' ; lín ; lín; 'to pour'

However, the phonetic is not always as meaningless as this example would suggest. Rebuses were sometimes chosen that were compatible semantically as well as phonetically. It was also often the case that the determinative merely constrained the meaning of a word which already had several. ; cài; 'vegetable' is a case in point. The determinative 'GRASS' for plants was combined with ; cǎi; 'harvest'. However, ; cǎi does not merely provide the pronunciation. In Classical texts, it was also used to mean 'vegetable'. That is, underwent a semantic extension from 'harvest' to 'vegetable', and the addition of 'GRASS' merely specified that the latter meaning was to be understood.

Determinative Rebus Compound
; 'plant' ; cǎi; 'harvest', 'vegetable' ; cài; 'vegetable'

Some additional examples:

Determinative Rebus Compound
; 'hand' ; bái ; pāi; 'to hit'
; 'to dig into' ; jiǔ ; jiū; 'to investigate'
; 'Sun' ; yāng ; yìng; 'reflection'

Sound change[edit]

Originally characters sharing the same phonetic had similar readings, though they have now diverged substantially. Linguists rely heavily on this fact to reconstruct the sounds of Old Chinese. Contemporary foreign pronunciations of characters are also used to reconstruct historical Chinese pronunciation, chiefly that of Middle Chinese.

When people try to read an unfamiliar compound, they will typically assume that it is constructed on phono-semantic principles and follow the rule of thumb to "read the side, if there is a side", and take one component to be the phonetic, which often results in errors. Since the sound changes that had taken place over the two to three thousand years since the Old Chinese period have been extensive, in some instances, the phono-semantic natures of some compound characters have been obliterated, with the phonetic component providing no useful phonetic information at all in the modern language. For instance, (; /y³⁵/; 'exceed'), (shū; /ʂu⁵⁵/; 'lose', 'donate'), (tōu; /tʰoʊ̯⁵⁵/; 'steal', 'get by') share the phonetic (; /y³⁵/; 'agree') but their pronunciations bear no resemblance to each other in Standard Chinese or any other variety. In Old Chinese, the phonetic has the reconstructed pronunciation *lo, while the phono-semantic compounds listed above have been reconstructed as *lo *l̥o and *l̥ˤo respectively.[17] Nonetheless, all characters containing are pronounced in Standard Chinese as various tonal variants of yu, shu, tou, and the closely related you and zhu.


Since the phonetic elements of many characters no longer accurately represent their pronunciations, when the Chinese government simplified character forms, they often substituted phonetics that were simpler to write, but also more accurate to the modern Standard Chinese pronunciation.[citation needed] This has sometimes resulted in forms which are less phonetic than the original ones in varieties of Chinese other than Standard Chinese. For the example below, many determinatives have also been simplified, usually by standardising existing cursive forms.

Determinative Rebus Compound
Traditional 'GOLD' 'GOLD' ; tóng ; zhōng; 'bell'
Simplified 'GOLD' 'GOLD' ; zhōng ; zhōng

Derivative cognates[edit]

Derivative cognates (转注; 轉注; zhuǎn zhù; 'reciprocal meaning') are the smallest category, and also the least understood.[18] They are often omitted from modern systems. Xu gave the example of kǎo 'to verify' with lǎo 'old', which had similar Old Chinese pronunciations of *khuʔ and *C-ruʔ respectively.[19] These may have had the same etymological root meaning 'elderly person', but became lexicalized into two separate words. The term does not appear in the body of the dictionary, and may have been included in the postface out of deference to Liu Xin.[20]

Modern classifications[edit]

The six categories were been the standard scheme for Chinese characters since antiquity. Generations of scholars used modifications of it, but without challenging its underlying logic. Tang Lan (唐蘭; 1902–1979) was the first to dismiss the schema, offering his own three principles (三書; sānshū), namely form (象形), meaning (象意; xiàngyì) and sound (形聲; xíngshēng). This classification was later critiqued by Chen Mengjia (1911–1966) and Qiu Xigui, who each offered their own "three principles" theories.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A tree () with the base highlighted by an extra stroke.
  2. ^ A tree () with the top highlighted by an extra stroke.



  1. ^ Hansen 1993.
  2. ^ a b Sampson & Chen 2013, p. 261.
  3. ^ a b Wilkinson 2013, p. 35.
  4. ^ Qiu 2000, pp. 54, 198.
  5. ^ Qiu 2000, p. 198.
  6. ^ Qiu 2000, pp. 209–211.
  7. ^ Qiu 2000, pp. 188, 226, 255.
  8. ^ 《說文》: 睎也。从手下目。 《說文解字注》:宋玉所謂揚袂障日而望所思也。此會意
  9. ^ 《說文》: 日且冥也。从日在茻中。 Duan claims that this character is also phono-semantic with mǎng as the phonetic: 《說文解字注》:从日在茻中。會意。茻亦聲。
  10. ^ Qiu 2000, p. 155.
  11. ^ Sampson & Chen 2013, p. 264.
  12. ^ Boltz 1994, pp. 106–110.
  13. ^ Sampson & Chen 2013, pp. 266–267.
  14. ^ Button 2010.
  15. ^ Seeley 1991, p. 203.
  16. ^ Karlgren 1968, p. 1.
  17. ^ Baxter & Sagart 2014.
  18. ^ Norman 1988, p. 69.
  19. ^ Baxter 1992, pp. 771, 772.
  20. ^ Sampson & Chen 2013, pp. 260–261.
  21. ^ Qiu 2000, ch. 6.3.

Works cited[edit]

  • Baxter, William H. (1992), A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, ISBN 978-3-11-012324-1
  • Baxter, William H.; Sagart, Laurent (2014). Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-994537-5.
  • Boltz, William G. (1994), The origin and early development of the Chinese writing system, New Haven: American Oriental Society, ISBN 978-0-940490-78-9
  • Button, Christopher (2010), Phonetic Ambiguity in the Chinese Script: A Palaeographical and Phonological Analysis, Munich: Lincom Europa, ISBN 978-3-89586-632-6
  • DeFrancis, John (1984), The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-1068-9
  • —— (1989), Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-1207-2
  • Hansen, Chad (1993), "Chinese Ideographs and Western Ideas", The Journal of Asian Studies, 52 (2): 373–399, doi:10.2307/2059652, JSTOR 2059652, S2CID 162431686
  • Karlgren, Bernhard (1968), Loan Characters in Pre-Han Texts, Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities
  • Norman, Jerry (1988), Chinese, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-29653-3
  • Qiu, Xigui (2000), Chinese writing, trans. by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman, Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, ISBN 978-1-55729-071-7 (English translation of Wénzìxué gàiyào 文字學概要, Shangwu, 1988.)
  • Sampson, Geoffrey; Chen, Zhiqun (2013), "The reality of compound ideographs", Journal of Chinese Linguistics, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 255–272, JSTOR 23754815 (preprint)
  • Seeley, Christopher (1991), A History of Writing in Japan, Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-09081-1
  • Wang Hongyuan (王宏源) (1993), The Origins of Chinese characters, Beijing: Sinolingua, ISBN 978-7-80052-243-7
  • Wilkinson, Endymion (2013), Chinese History: A New Manual, Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, ISBN 978-0-674-06715-8
  • Woon Wee Lee (雲惟利) (1987), 漢字的原始和演變 [Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution] (in Chinese), Macau: University of Macau

Further reading[edit]