Chinese Symbols for Words

An Introduction to Chinese Characters with Meanings and Pictures

Chinese calligraphy shows how Chinese deeply revere their writing system Chinese calligraphy shows how Chinese deeply revere their writing system.

Chinese symbols for words are called Chinese characters. They are without doubt one of the most fascinating aspects of the Chinese culture.

At the bottom of the page you will find many links to different pages, explaining the meaning of the most important Chinese characters.

Since many are looking for beautiful images of Chinese symbols for decorations, T-shirts or tattoos, each page brings many pictures of the same character but with different styles (fonts). You are free to download and use these pictures of Chinese characters as you like.

First I would like to talk a little about how the different Chinese symbols for words were born. If you have the patience to follow me for moment, you can see how the Chinese characters are not a jumble of signs and pen strokes made at random but they follow a precise logic, often poetic and fascinating.

1 - Chinese characters that are pictures

Some Chinese characters are pictures of things. Some Chinese symbols for words
are pictures of things.

Many people think that the Chinese characters are pictographs, ie drawings, pictures of things.

A bit like the Egyptian hieroglyphs ...

Actually only a part of Chinese characters are pictographs.

Moreover, often these pictographs have evolved over the course of time, becoming an almost abstract representation of the real model.

Please see in the figure on the side three examples of this kind Chinese characters, and how they changed over time from the archaic to the modern writing.

2 - Chinese characters that are "symbols"

Some Chinese characters are symbols Some Chinese symbols for words
are, actually, "symbols".

A second kind of Chinese characters are truly "symbols", that is a more abstract representations of things.

A good example are the characters that represent the digits 1, 2 and 3. Another good example are characters that mean above and below.

I guess is pretty clear from the figure that the number 1 is represented by a horizontal line, 2 by two lines, 3 by three lines.

Similarly, the character for above is represented by a line pointing up, the one for below by a line pointing down.

3 - Sound-loans and sound-meaning compounds characters

The Chinese character for The Chinese character for "ant"
is a sound-meaning compound.

A third kind of Chinese symbols for words provide hints about their pronunciation.

One case is that of characters who "borrow" the way they are written by other characters, which could have a totally different meaning, but which are pronounced the same way.

An example is the character for the number 10,000. In ancient times the word scorpion had the same pronunciation (wan).

For this reason, the number 10.000 began to be written in the same way.

Another sound-meaning compound is the character for Another sound-meaning compound
is the character for "portrait".

A much larger category of is represented by sound-meaning compound characters.

The character is formed by merging two separate characters - one that has a pronunciation identical or very similar to it, the second one that suggests its meaning.

On the right you can find two examples.

For example, the character for the word portrait is formed merging the character for elephant (xiang), which suggests the pronunciation with the character for man (ren) that instead indicates the meaning.

So, when a Chinese reads the character, she knows that is that word that sounds as "elephant" (xiang) but belongs to the category related to human things.

4 - Meaning-meaning compounds characters.

Meaning-meaning compounds: chinese symbol for good Meaning-meaning compounds:
chinese symbol for "good".

The most fascinating kind of Chinese symbols for words is made by the union of the meaning of two or more characters.

Here we really enter in the beauty of ancient poems and we can have an idea of the customs and beliefs of the ancient Chinese.

I will give three examples of this kind of characters.

The Chinese character for "good" was formed by the union of the two characters representing the woman and a child.

Meaning-meaning compounds: chinese character for bright Meaning-meaning compounds:
chinese character for "bright".

For a Chinese, to enter in a house and see a woman holding a baby, is good, is how life is supposed to be.

The character meaning clear, bright is composed by the union of sun and moon, the two brightest celestial bodies.

Meaning-meaning compounds: chinese symbol for autumn Meaning-meaning compounds:
chinese symbol for "autumn".

The character ming is often used for personal names, which in Taiwan always are made of two characters.

Last (but the examples could be many) the character for the word autumn is formed by the two characters that represent wheat and fire.

In fact autumn is the time of the year when farmers burn the stubble ...

A very poetic image, indeed, that reminds me my homecountry as well ...

Books, books

No doubts, one of the best books to learn the meaning of Chinese characters - and how to write them - is "Reading & Writing Chinese" by William McNaughton (Tuttle Language Library).

I have always found amusing and useful the book Fun with Chinese Characters, with the charming and old fashioned comics by Tan Huay Peng (The Strait Times Collection). It comprises 3 volumes that are sold separately .

Most Requested Chinese Characters: Description and Pictures

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