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Chinese character classification

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Chinese character classification

All Chinese characters are logograms, but several different types can be identified, based on the manner in which they are formed or derived. There are a handful which derive from pictographs (象形 pinyin: xiàngxíng) and a number which are ideographic (指事 zhǐshì) in origin, including compound ideographs (會意 huìyì), but the vast majority originated as phono-semantic compounds (形聲 xíngshēng). The other categories in the traditional system of classification are rebus or phonetic loan characters (假借 jiǎjiè) and "derivative cognates" (轉注 zhuǎn zhù). Modern scholars have proposed various revised systems, rejecting some of the traditional categories.

In older literature, Chinese characters in general may be referred to as ideograms, due to the misconception that characters represented ideas directly, whereas in fact they do so only through association with the spoken word.[1]

Traditional classification

Traditional Chinese lexicography divided characters into six categories (六書 liùshū "Six Writings"). This classification is known from Xu Shen's second century dictionary Shuowen Jiezi, but did not originate there. The phrase 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 glossed the term with a list of six types without examples.[2] Slightly different lists of six types are given in the Book of Han of the first century CE, and by Zheng Zhong quoted by Zheng Xuan in his first-century commentary on the Rites of Zhou. Xu Shen illustrated each of Liu's six types with a pair of characters in the postface to the Shuowen Jiezi.[3]

The traditional classification is still taught but is no longer the focus of modern lexicographic practice. Some categories are not clearly defined, nor are they mutually exclusive: the first four refer to structural composition, while the last two refer to usage. For this reason, some modern scholars view them as six principles of character formation rather than six types of characters.

The earliest significant, extant corpus of Chinese characters is found on turtle shells and the bones of livestock, chiefly the scapula of oxen, for use in pyromancy, a form of divination. These ancient characters are called oracle bone script. Roughly a quarter of these characters are pictograms while the rest are either phono-semantic compounds or compound ideograms. Despite millennia of change in shape, usage and meaning, a few of these characters remain recognizable to the modern reader of Chinese.

At present, more than 90% of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds, constructed out of elements intended to provide clues to both the meaning and the pronunciation. However, as both the meanings and pronunciations of the characters have changed over time, these components are no longer reliable guides to either meaning or pronunciation. The failure to recognize the historical and etymological role of these components often leads to misclassification and folk etymology. A study of the earliest sources (the oracle bones script and the Zhou-dynasty bronze script) is often necessary for an understanding of the true composition and etymology of any particular character. Reconstructing Middle and Old Chinese phonology from the clues present in characters is part of Chinese historical linguistics. In Chinese, it is called Yinyunxue (音韻學 "Studies of sounds and rimes").

Pictograms

Roughly 600 Chinese characters are pictograms (象形 xiàng xíng, "form imitation") — stylised drawings of the objects they represent. These are generally among the oldest characters. A few, indicated below with their earliest forms, date back to oracle bones from the twelfth century BCE.

These pictograms became progressively more stylized and lost their pictographic flavor, especially as they made the transition from the oracle bone script to the Seal Script of the Eastern Zhou, but also to a lesser extent in the transition to the clerical script of the Han Dynasty. The table below summarises the evolution of a few Chinese pictographic characters. Where no modern simplified form is provided, it is identical to the traditional character.

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