HomeAcademic ResourcesThe Enthralling Dance of Strokes: Unveiling the Mystery of Chinese Character Writing

The Enthralling Dance of Strokes: Unveiling the Mystery of Chinese Character Writing

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Kiran Bibi 

Chinese characters are logograms. This means that, instead of being written using the letters of an alphabet, logograms consist of characters or “pictures” that represent a word. These characters, with their intricate strokes and profound meanings, stand as pillars of history, each one a miniature universe teeming with stories and secrets. Their journey through time is an epic saga, a testament to the human spirit’s ingenuity and artistic expression. This comprehensive and conclusive article delves into the fascinating world of Hanzi writing, exploring its various categories, evolution, and enduring legacy.

From Simple Strokes to Evolved Forms: 

The fundamental building blocks of Hanzi are strokes, simple lines that breathe life into the canvas. Some characters are closed characters, like (kǒu, mouth) or (mù, eye), which are self-contained within their strokes, forming neat and compact shapes. Open characters, on the other hand, exhibit varying degrees of “openness.” Some, like (chuān, river), feature gaps or breaks in their stroke patterns, offering a glimpse into their internal structures. These characters suggest movement, expansion, or outward connections. Others, like (mù, tree) or (rén, person), extend upwards or outwards with open strokes, conveying notions of growth, development, or reaching toward the unknown. Yet, the true magic lies in how these humble strokes form a vast lexicon.

Chinese characters can be classified into the following categories:

  1. Compound Characters (huìyìzì): Chinese characters hop between strokes – vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and curved. Each stroke, even a single one like “” (one), holds meaning. Characters grow more complex, joining hands; for example, let’s examine the character “明国” (míng guó), meaning “bright country. The characters (rì, sun) and (yuè, moon) join hands like celestial twins. Their union births the radiant (míng, bright), a testament to the power of collaboration. This principle reigns supreme in Hanzi, where characters often merge, each component contributing a piece of meaning to the whole. The character “” (guó) is formed by combining the radical “” (yù), meaning “jade,” with the phonetic component “” (tǔ), meaning “earth.” The radical “” (yù) represents jade and symbolizes royalty and wealth. The phonetic component “” (tǔ) represents earth or soil. Together, they create “” (guó), originally referring to a walled city-state or kingdom. Over time, its meaning expanded to represent a country or nation. The combination of “” (yù) and “” (tǔ) conveys the concept of a country, showcasing how characters evolve through the combination of radicals and phonetic components.
  2. Pictograms (xiàngxíngzì) Echoes of Ancient Imagery: The earliest ancestors of Hanzi were pictograms, characters directly resembling the objects they represented. For instance, the character “日” (rì), meaning “sun,” was originally drawn as a circle with a dot in the middle to depict the sun. Modern forms have evolved, but the essence of these visual metaphors remains. 日 (rì) evokes the warmth of the sun, while 水 (shuǐ) suggests tranquil streams with flowing strokes. Similarly, the character “木” (mù), meaning “tree,” was originally a drawing of a tree with its branches and roots.

    The evolution of the character "日" (rì) from the originated round-shaped pictograph
    Figure 1: The evolution of the character “日” (rì) from the originated round-shaped pictograph
  3. Phono-semantic characters (xíngshēngzì): xíngshēng means ‘form sound.’ Over 80% of Chinese characters fall into this category, thus, the vast majority of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compound characters. These characters can be understood by looking at their pronunciation and meaning. In general, the sound component of a character appears on the right, meaning on the left. However, characters can be phonetic also, in this case, phonetic on top, meaning on bottom. Components can be inside or outside. Radicals give meaning, learn them because the more radicals you know, the easier to know the meaning of the character. Radicals aid pronunciation guesses by identifying phonetic components.
  4. Simple ideograms (zhǐshìzì): zhǐshì can be translated as ‘pointing to matters.’ These characters are ideographic. They express an abstract idea in an iconic form, and are often regarded as “self-explanatory characters.” The characters 上 (shàng; up) and 下 (xià; down) are good examples of the self-explanatory nature of characters of this type. The straight horizontal line represents the ground. One character conveys “up” with the horizontal line as the base and the vertical part pointing up. The “down” character is a flipped version with the vertical part pointing down.

    Character representation of Phono-semantic and simple ideograms
    Figure 2: Character representation of Phono-semantic and simple ideograms
  5. Loan characters (jiǎjièzì): jiǎjièzì are characters ‘borrowed’ to create homophonous or near-homophonous morphemes. Some characters lost their original meaning, giving rise to new characters. For instance, 乎 (hū) originally meant ‘to call out,’ but it also became a grammatical particle expressing a question. To preserve the original meaning, a new character 呼 (hū) was created by borrowing the sound of 乎 and adding a mouth radical. Another example is 必 (bì; must), originally meaning ‘weapon handle.’ Due to its similar pronunciation to ‘must,’ 必 started representing the word ‘must.’ To distinguish the two, a new character 柲 (bì) was later created for the meaning ‘weapon handle.

Having explored the diverse landscape of Chinese characters, we now set foot on the path of mastering their elegant dance, the art of writing.

Chinese Calligraphy:

Calligraphy, the ancient art of the line, holds profound symbolic power. Chinese calligraphy, spanning over 3,000 years, exemplifies the essence of this art form. Appreciating its unique charm does not require knowledge of reading or writing Chinese characters. Chinese characters are fundamentally ideographic, symbolizing ideas rather than transcribing pronunciation. The succeeding five main script types are widely used in China today.

In the time of the mighty Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.E), the Seal Script emerged, a symbol of authority and permanence. Its carefully arranged characters, resembling elegant squares, conveyed a sense of order and prestige. it was also chosen for titles of artworks like “The Night Revels of Han Xizai,” a 10th-century masterpiece depicting a lavish party.

As the Eastern Han dynasty graced the land (25–220 C.E.), the Clerical Script took center stage. With a squatter silhouette and graceful strokes, it brought a newfound rhythm to the written word. Government clerks found solace in its flowing lines, and commemorative texts on stone steles bore testament to its enduring beauty.

But it was the Cursive Script that truly captured the essence of artistic expression. Known for its unparalleled freedom, this script became a dance of ink on paper. Since the 4th century, master calligraphers, including the enigmatic Chan monks, embraced its unrestrained nature, infusing their work with a touch of spiritual inspiration.

In the Song dynasty (960–1279 C.E.), a new chapter unfolded with the Running Script. Merging the legibility of the standard script with the fluidity of the cursive, it became a playground for the greatest calligraphers of the time. Stroke after stroke, they weaved their stories on scrolls, honoring the past while leaving their own mark on the pages of history.

Finally, the Standard Script arrived, a beacon of clarity and balance. Flourishing during the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E), it became the script of choice for scholars and scribes alike. Its upright form and central axis embodied moral virtue and wisdom, gracing the pages of countless books and spreading knowledge far and wide.

The 5 major calligraphic scripts that developed in China.
Figure 3: The 5 major calligraphic scripts that developed in China.

It should now be quite evident that Chinese characters are more than just a set of random pictures or symbols. Having this background knowledge will assist you on your learning journey and will deepen your understanding of the rich history of the Chinese language.

 

*The author is a Ph.D. Scholar specializing in Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages at Beijing Language and Culture University, Beijing, China.  

**The opinions in this article are the author’s own and may not represent the views of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization does not endorse or assume responsibility for the content.

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