Chinese culture

Chinese characters – week 8 (鼠, 牛, 虎, 兔, 龍, 蛇, 馬, 羊, 猴, 雞, 狗, and 豬).

For this week, since we’re in the closing days of the Year of the Dog with Chinese New Year just around the corner on Tuesday, I thought I’d dedicate this week’s characters to the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Their order was ordained since time immemorial following a race across a river to the Gates of Heaven.

First to cross the river is the Rat, who hitched a ride on the Ox across the river. Depending on the version of the story, this race is the cause of the enmity between cats and rats / mice. One version of the story is that the Cat asked the Rat to wake it up before the race started, which the Rat didn’t do. Another version is that both the Rat and the Cat were hitching a ride on the Ox to cross the river and the Rat shoved the Cat into the river just before they could make landfall.

The Rat hopped off the Ox just as the Ox was about to reach the shore, and raced on ahead coming in first.

The character for the Rat is 鼠 (shǔ). This character, despite the complexity of it, actually originates from a pictorial depiction of a rat, with its whiskers, feet, and tail.

Following Rat’s race ahead of the pack after jumping off the Ox, the Ox came in second. We actually looked at the character for Ox in week 1 (which you can find here). The character for Ox, 牛 (niú), derives its form from a pictorial depiction of an Ox.

The mighty Tiger comes in third, after having struggled with the strong currents of the river. The character for Tiger is 虎 (), from a pictorial depiction of a Tiger. To be honest, I think the modern form has developed rather a lot past its pictorial form, so it might be one of those characters you just have to remember by rote rather than referencing any pictorial features, although I think you can still just about make out elements of the modern character when compared to the one of the ancient forms which I chose below.

The Rabbit comes in forth after the Tiger. The Rabbit managed to cross the river by hopping on stepping stones, and eventually a log, helped across in the final stages by the Dragon who was behind the Rabbit, giving a puff to safely blow the Rabbit and the log to the bank.

The character 兔 () is another one of these animal characters which derived from a pictorial depiction.

The Dragon comes in at fifth, after helping the Rabbit. But before the Dragon got anywhere near the race, he also stopped to make rain for some villagers and other animals, and therefore was not able to come in first, despite the fact that it would have been a piece of cake for the Dragon, who was a flying creature.

The character 龍 (lóng) came from a pictorial depiction of a dragon. When I was doing my research for this, I couldn’t actually stop but chuckle at one of the ancient forms of the character, and it is this form that I chose to show you, as you can clearly see elements of the modern character from this ancient form… plus it will probably make you smile and chuckle like it did me.

Coming in sixth is the Snake. I know of two versions of the story as to how the Snake came to be sixth. One version is that the Jade Emperor, pleased with the Dragon and how beautiful he looked, offered sixth place to the Dragon’s son, but the son did not take part in the race. The Snake informed the Jade Emperor that he was the adopted son of the Dragon, and so came to be listed sixth.

Another version is that the Snake had, unknowingly to the Horse, hitched a ride around one of the Horse’s legs and hooves, and just before the finishing point, the Snake slithered in front, shocking the Horse causing the Horse to jump backwards, this the Snake comes in sixth ahead of the Horse at seventh.

The character for snake is 蛇 (shé). The character for snake was originally written as 它 (now used as a third person pronoun for inanimate objects – see week 1’s lesson here). As the language developed, 虫 (chóng), meaning “insect”, was added as a radical to indicate that the new combined word, 蛇, relates to something insect-like (biologically a snake is not an insect, but a reptile, but you get the idea).

The Horse comes in seventh, according to one version of the story, after being scared by the Snake. The character for “horse” is 馬 (). The character, I think, still looks like a horse, with the mane, sweeping tail, and the four dots depicting the legs. The ancient form looked even more like a horse.

The Goat comes in after the Horse. A version of the story has the Goat, Monkey, and Rooster arriving together on a raft, working together to navigate the currents of the river.

The character for the Goat is 羊 (yáng). This character is another one of those that have derived its modern form from a pictorial depiction of the animal from ancient times.

The Monkey comes in at ninth place following the Goat and before the Rooster. The character for Monkey is 猴 (hóu), which is formed by the dog radical 犭 to show that the character is related to the animal world, and
侯 (hóu) for the phonetic component.

The character for Rooster is 雞 (). The character is formed by combining 奚 () for the phonetic component, and 隹 (zhuī), meaning “short-tailed bird” for the meaning element of the character combination. In the ancient form of the word, you can see how the 隹 component actually looks like a bird.

The Dog comes in at eleventh place, having struggled with the currents of the river, despite being a very able swimmer. The character 狗 (gǒu) is made up of two components: the dog radical 犭 , and 句 for the phonetic element of the character. In this respects, the pronunciation of 句 which lends its sound to 狗 is gōu, rather than .

The last animal is across the river to the Gates of Heaven is the Pig, 豬 (). The character is actually made up of the word for pig already, 豕 (shǐ). 豕 is an old form of the character for pig, and in the modern character, is added with 者 (zhě) for the phonetic component of the character for 豬.

Chinese characters – week 7 (犬, 竹, 笑, 心, 您, 亡 and 忙).

I hope you’ve all had a good Christmas and New Year. Apologies for the delay in writing this, but I took a bit of an extended break for the holiday period to work on another project I started. Now that we’re back to “class”, I want to start off this week with another character that looks like 大. This character is 犬 (quǎn), which means “dog”.

The character is supposedly derived from a pictorial depiction of a dog, and one of the ancient forms certainly show the form of the “dog” or “beast” radical, 犭 (also quǎn). Personally I wouldn’t spend a long time trying to work out how it even looks like a dog – just remember it: it’s only 4 strokes after all. BUT do remember where the “dot” goes in relation to the character 大 because depending on where you put the dot, you may end up with 太 (tài), which us often used as “too”, in the sense of “too much”. For example, 太大 means “too big”.

The next character for today is 竹 (zhú), which means “bamboo”. The “bamboo” radical also looks very similar to the full character, which should help with remembering it.

The character for 竹 derived from a pictorial depiction of two bamboo plants.

The third character for this week is 笑 (xiào), which is currently written as the bamboo radical on top of 夭, meaning tender (we discussed this character in week 6, which you can find here). The character 笑 means to laugh.

I have read that one way people remember this character is to think of young and tender (夭) bamboo (竹) blowing in the wind bends and sways like someone laughing. Another way which I have read is that wind blowing through the young and tender bamboo of a bamboo grove sounds like laughter. Those mnemonics are probably easier than the real origin of the character.

The original form of this character replaced 夭 with 犬, making the character look like 𥬇. It meant laughter because… well, have you ever seen a dog that thought it could read before? The bamboo radical was used to symbolise written text because in the days of old before paper, we used bamboo scrolls as books.

The next character this week is 心 (xīn), which means “heart”. The original of this character is a pictorial depiction of a heart. Not in the sense of a “love heart”, but the shape of the actual organ, which you can hopefully see below.

The radical which is associated with 心 is 忄. You will often see this radical, or even the actual character 心 used in characters associated with emotions and thoughts, as it was considered that any thoughts also came from the heart.

The fifth character this week is 您 (nín) which is used as the second person pronoun as an honorific. It is made up of 你 (we looked at this character in week 5 which you can access here) and 心. Usually 您 will be used when you want to highlight respect to the person to whom you are speaking, so for example a student to a teacher, a child to their parents, or even people that you have never met but want to be polite.

The sixth character this week is that of 亡 (wáng) meaning “to flee”, “to hide”, or “to die”. The character initially used to be written as 亾 or 兦, showing a person placing himself in a corner to hide.

The 人 of 入 aspect of the original character has now changed to the lid radical, 亠 (tóu).

The seventh character is 忙 (máng) which means “busy”. The eighth character this week is 忘 (wàng) which means “to forget”. Both these characters are made of up 亡 with a 心 radical, either using the character itself or 忄. In both these words, 亡 provides the phonetic element to the words where as 心 and 忄 provide the meaning.

In the case of 忙, being busy is a state of occupying one’s mind, and therefore following the ancient Chinese thinking that thoughts are carried out with the heart, you have the heart radical showing that it is something to do with thoughts: to indicate meaning.

In the case of 忘, again 亡 provides the phonetic element, with the 心 radical (being the actual character this time) providing the meaning behind 忘. One way to possibly remember this character is that if you let something die (亡) within your heart (心), then it’s to forget it (忘).

Chinese characters – week 6 (夫, 天, 夭, 尢 / 尤, 兀, and 元).

This week, we’re going to have lots of fun with some very similar looking characters. It’s probably easier to just remember how different they look rather, but I’ll hopefully be able to give you some tips along the way. These characters are all based on 人 from week 1 (you can revisit week 1’s lesson by clicking here), and 大 from last week’s lesson (which you can revisit by clicking here).

The first character this week is 夫 (), which means “husband”, “adult”, or “man”. In older times, 夫 also be used meant “an important man”. The character derives from the character 大 in the old sense of a pictogram of a person. The added horizontal line in this character, some say, is a depiction of a hat.

If you look at the ancient form on the right, above, you can see how it looks like a person with a hat. It might help to think of the old hats which were worn by the Emperors and officials of the Song Dynasty Court, which had long “wings” protruding out to the sides. You can clearly see this in the palace portrait of the Shenzong Emperor from the Song Dynasty. Think of the vertical but jutting out above the first horizontal line as the main body of the hat, and the first horizontal line as the wings of the hat.

The second character is 天 (tiān), meaning “sky”, or “heaven”. Very similar to 夫, but without the vertical jutting out above the first horizontal line. The original character was a depiction of a horizontal line above a person in an enclosure, 人 within a 囗 (wéi) radical.

The first horizontal line is the part of the character which imports the meaning, namely something that is above people and enclosures (maybe buildings?) being the “sky”, or the “heavens”.

A way to assist in remember the character may be to start with 大 as “big”, and think if something were to be the biggest / grandest thing, then the next best thing would be “heaven” itself, hence another horizontal line above 大.

The next character is 夭 (), meaning “young”, “fresh looking”, or “to die young”. The ancient character was written as a person (but in the 大 form) slumped forwards. Maybe think of the origins as someone who has not grown to be an adult might not be able to hold themselves up in the same way as an adult.

Learn to differentiate this character from 天 is that the top of this character is NOT a horizontal line, but a stroke written from right to left, falling slightly as it ends on the left. We call this stroke a 撇 (piē), whereas the horizontal line is called a 橫 (héng). 

Try to remember 天 (the sky / horizon) as the character having the horizontal stroke, the 橫 (héng) stroke. The youth, in the sense of 夭, are less rigid, and therefore you want a more flexible 撇 (piē). Also works in the sense of 夭 meaning “to die young”, as dying means you’re falling away, hence the stroke which falls away from right to left.

The forth character used to be written as 尤 or 尢, and can also be pronounced as wāng or yóu. When pronounced as wāng it means lame. No, not lame as in “not cool”, but lame as in “crippled”. When pronounced as yóu it means “outstanding” as in “best”, or “especially”. It is more common to see 尤 used when the character is intended to be pronounced as yóu, and 尢 used when the character is intended to be pronounced as wāng.

In terms of the original meaning of the character (wāng) the main body of this character is made up by the character 人 (really, no pun intended there), but with one leg longer than the other, hence it is a person who is “lame”, or “crippled”.

The fifth character this week is 兀 (), meaning to “cut off the feet”. It can also mean “to rise to a height”, or “to tower over”. Whatever meaning you need this character for, the symbolism behind the character is quite helpful to help remembering this.

The original pictogram of this character was said to be to a man (you can see something more akin to the ancient form of 人) lifting up a table, depicted by a horizontal stroke. Hence the meaning of “to rise to a height”, or “to tower over”.

In the other sense of the character meaning “to cut off the feet”, again, refer back to the man, the 人 element with the character. Remember that 人 is a depiction of a man’s legs / feet. Imagine the horizontal line as a blade, cutting it off from the rest of the man. Hence the character just looks like a line with two legs under it.

The last character this week is that of 元 (yuán), meaning “head”, “origin”, “first”, or probably the most common usage as “dollar”. It can also be used for the Renminbi (人民幣 / 人民币). The two horizontal strokes of this character signify a “generic thing” which is above a man (人), hence the idea of the word meaning “head”. In terms of writing, you would write the two horizontal lines first, and therefore this “generic thing”, coming before a man, might lead you to think of “first”, or “origin”.

Chinese characters – week 5 (門, 們, 尔, 你, and 大).

For this week, the first character is that of 門 (mén), which means “door”. The etymology of this character is very simple: the ancient form of this character is only simply a picture of a door.

The second character for this week is completed by adding the 亻 radical, from 人 (we looked at this in week 1’s lesson, which you can access by clicking here), to the left side of the character 門 you will end up with the character 們 (men), which is used to turn a pronoun into its plural form.

In terms of an equivalent, you have the singular pronouns of “I”, “you”, and “he / she / it”. In Chinese, we would write these as 我, 你, and 他 / 她 / 牠 / 它. By adding 們 to the pronouns, you change them into the plural form, so 我們 is “we”, 你們 is “you”, and 他們 / 她們 / 牠們 / 它們 is translated as “them”.

You will also remember from week 1 that we discussed the fact that the third person pronoun in Chinese uses different words depending on the subject matter. The same rationale will also apply to the plural pronouns.

The third character this week is more of a historical one. Although the title of this lesson has this character as 尔 (ěr), it has in the past been written as 爾, which is more obvious when considering its ancient form.

Another way this character has been written before is 尒, which as you can see is closest to the form featured in the title of this week’s lesson,
尔. The character can be used to mean “like that”, or “that”, for example 爾時 would be “that time”, 爾日 for “that day”. Another meaning of the original character, which has now been replaced by the next character for this week, is that of the second person pronoun, 你 (), meaning “you”.

The forth character this week is 你 (), which I have already mentioned. This character actually used to be written as 儞, but as you can see from the above how 爾 has developed to 尔, so it follows the same pattern that 儞 had in the modern day incarnation developed to 你. The 亻 radical added to the left side of 尔 denotes some reference to people, which is handy for remembering that it is the second person pronoun, “you”.

In light of how this character has shifted from its original form, it’s probably best just to memorise how this character is written considering the small number of strokes (only seven strokes).

The final character this week is very simple, coming in at only three strokes. The character 大 (), meaning “big”. This character is a depiction of a person (人) with outstretched arms. It had also been written in the past as 亣, which looks like a stick figure with a small head, outstretched arms, and legs slightly apart.

Chinese characters – week 4 (言, 隹, 誰, 手, 弋, 戈, 我, and 找).

This week’s first character is a stand-alone character, as well as a radical. The character 言(yán) means “speech”, “words”, or “to speak”, usable as both noun and verb. As a radical it is used to indicate a relationship to speech. The ancient version of this character is said to have an inverted 立 above 口 to indicate that someone is speaking. In terms of the modern character, some people remember the lines above 口 to signify words, as if words were coming out of a mouth, hence the meaning of “speech”, “words”, or “to speak”.

The second character this week is the character 隹 (zhuī), which means “dove”, or a “short-tailed bird”. The ancient form of this character looked like a bird, and it can be seen how the modern character took shape. Despite the use of the 亻 radical, this word has nothing to do with people, but probably used in the character as simply part of the development from the pictorial form.

The third character his week is the character 誰 (shéi, or shuí), meaning “who”. It is made up of 言 as a radical on the left to indicate that it is related to speech in some way, and 隹 on the right as a phonetic loan. A very basic sentence with the word 誰 is “他是?”, which means “Who is he?” In this sense, it is clear that 誰 is a word which is very much related to speech, or a question, hence the 言 radical.

The forth character this week is 手 (shǒu), meaning “hand”. This character derives from a pictorial depiction of a hand. The radicals related to this character are 龵, and 扌. An example of the 龵 radical can be seen in the character 看, which was very briefly mentioned in the introduction to the six methods of character formation (see here), where I mused at the idea that someone may have their hand on their brow looking out at something, hence the 龵 radical over an eye (目), meaning “to see”. The other hand radical (扌) is mainly used in action related words, an example of which we will look at later.

The fifth character for this week is the character 弋 (), meaning “to shoot a retrievable arrow”, or a “retrievable arrow with a string attached to it”. It is a rather archaic character, but nonetheless quite important to learn if only to differentiate it from the next character. The original form of the character was a pictorial form of a spool for string, which makes sense in terms of the meaning.

The sixth character this week is the character of 戈 (), meaning a “lance” or a “rake”. The original anicent meaning meant “long-handled tool”. It is clearly seen from the ancient character that it was originally a pictorial depiction of a “long-handled tool”.

The character developed to a form where it looked like the ancient form of 弋, but with an added stroke, which is why the modern characters of 弋 and 戈 look so similar.

If you have a look at some of the blades of a 戈, you can see how the pictorial depiction (above right) relates to how the actual weapon looked.

The last two characters for this week are 我 (), and 找 (zhǎo), which as you can see are very similar. The first character is used as the first person pronoun, and the second character means “to seek”. They are both made up of 手, and 戈. The ancient form of 我 was a pictorial form of a hand on a “long-handled tool”, and used to be written as 𢦐.

The use of the character 戈 within these words is interesting, but probably reflects the historical culture of China, and the importance of the 戈 to both farming and warfare,戈 being a “long-handled tool”, later more specifically defined as either a “lance” or a “rake”.

With how similar these characters look, it is important to note their differences. One way to remember the difference is the fact that you would put your hand on something to claim it as yours, hence the 戈 with the hand attached to it should be the word used as the first person pronoun. The other character has the hand radical of 扌 detached from the 戈, and, no pun intended, but this signifies that you do not have your hands on the “long-handled tool”, and hence you need to seek / look for it in order to get your hand on it.

Chinese characters – week 3 (絲, 累, 艮, 很, 馬, and 嗎).

The first character for this week is the character for “silk”, 絲 (). This character is made up of two radicals which are commonly used in Chinese characters, 糹, and 糸. Because of the common usage of the two radicals of 糹, and 糸, it is really important to learn to write this character properly. This character was initially a pictorial depiction of two silk threads.

The second character for this week is 累 (lèi), which means “tired”. The character is formed as a compound ideogram made up of 田 (tián) (we covered this character as part of last week’s lesson, which you can review by clicking here), and 絲 () (using the 糸 “silk” radical). Culturally, men would work in the fields and women cultivating silk, and hence the compound character comprising of work for both men and women means tired. The character used to be written with three 田s, like this:纍, but this character now has a different meaning to “tired”.

Our next character this week is 艮 (gěn), meaning “blunt” as in tactless kind of blunt. This character originally meant “to look away”, and was depicted by a big eye on a person (目, and 人). If you imagine an eye on legs, which is pretty much what the ancient form of this character looks like, you kind of get the idea of looking away, or turning to look away. It is important to learn to write this character properly as this forms components of many other characters in terms of writing, for example characters like 很, 銀, 跟, 根, 恨…

If you change the pronunciation of this character to gèn, then you would be saying the name of one of the Eight Trigrams (八卦) of the I-Ching (易經). The Trigram of 艮 looks like this: ☶.

The forth character this week is a character which has 艮 within it: 很 (hěn), which now acts as a modifier of adjectives or adverbs to emphasise the quality they describe. In this sense, you can also generally use this interchangeably with the word 好 (hǎo), which we also touched on last week. For example, if you wanted to say something was “very big”, you could say either 很大, or 好大.

The original meaning of this word meant to disobey. It is made up of 彳on the right side of the character, and 艮 on the right side of the character. The 彳 radical is called chì. It is known as the “step” radical. It is also known as 雙人旁 (literally “double man side”) due to it’s similarities to to “man” radical, 亻. I think of this as meaning disobey because it is made up of the idea of someone looking away, as well as walking away, hence the “step” radical. In truth though, 艮 and 很 have developed to mean something so different to their original root that these two characters should probably be learned by memory. I only add the historical background of these two characters out of pure intellectual interest.

The final two characters for this week are 馬 (), and 嗎 (ma). The first character means “horse”, and the second character is used as a question indicator for sentences, used to indicate a yes / no question. I have put these two together because in terms of writing, once you have masted 馬 from this week, and 口 from last week, you should be able to write 嗎 since it is made up of 口 and 馬. For example, if you wanted to ask if someone was tired, you could ask: 你累

The character for 馬 derived from a pictorial depiction of a horse. With a little imagination, you can still see how it is made up of the mane of the horse, the four legs, and a sweeping tail.

Chinese characters – week 2 (了, 子, 好, 口, 十, and 田).

Let’s get straight into characters one and two for this week, which are 了, and 子. They are noticeably very similar, with only one stroke difference between these two characters.

The first character, 了 (le), is often now used as a modifier for verbs to indicate a completed action. For example, to have eaten could be written as 吃. The second character is 子 (, zi). This character means “child”. Despite the vastly different meanings nowadays, 了 actually used to mean “child” as well. Certainly both characters in their ancient forms did bear some semblance to a picture of a child or a baby.

The third character this week is 好 (hǎo), meaning “good”. This character is made up of 女, and 子. You may recognise 女 from last week’s post (which you can find by clicking here).  The etymology of the character is pretty obvious though if you just break down the two characters: a woman with a child. I mean, that’s a good thing in any culture, right? In some of the ancient forms for the character the position of the woman and the child were the other way around.

The forth character this week is 口 (kǒu). This character means “mouth”, and the etymology of this character is from a picture of a mouth. The modern character 口 can be used as a standalone character, or as a radical. It is also very similar to 囗 (wéi), the old form of 圍, which means “to surround”. Okay, so I say it is very similar, but it is practically very hard to distinguish the 口, and 囗. Their similarities mean that it is practically a “buy one get one free” character. Luckily for modern day readers 囗 (wéi) is not used as a standalone character anymore, and so you won’t get confused between 口 (kǒu), and 囗 (wéi) in modern texts.

Just out of further etymological interest: if you mix the 囗 (wéi) radical with 人 (rén), which we looked at last week, you get 囚 (qiú). Breaking down the character, what would you get if you trapped a person within an enclosure? A prisoner, of course, which is exactly what 囚 means.

The fifth character this week is 十 (shí), meaning the number “ten”. The original character for ten was the vertical stroke. This is one of those characters which is easier to just remember by rote rather than delving back into etymological past.

The last character for this week is 田 (tián), meaning “field” or “farm”. The reason I wanted to discuss the previous two characters is that in terms of modern writing, this character is made up of 口 (kǒu), or 囗 (wéi), with 十 (shí) inside it. In truth, those two characters have nothing to do with the etymological root for 田 (tián), which originates from a pictogram depicting a picture of a field with partitions in the middle of it.

Chinese characters – week 1 (人, 女, 牛, 也, 他, 她, 牠, and 它).

The first character to be featured is a simple two-stroke character meaning “man” or “person”, 人 (rén).

This character falls within the pictograms school of character formation, and in ancient script was a pictorial depiction of a man.

In terms of remember the character in its present day form you can look at the character as a stick figure with no head or arms, so just the legs. Or a stick-figure representation of someone’s legs when walking, viewed from the side.

The second character for this week is the character for a “woman”, 女 ().

This is another character which derives from the pictogram school of character formation, and in one of its ancient forms looked like a stick-figure representation of a woman.

If you have a look at the ancient form depicted above, it is clear how the character has developed visually. One way which you could remember the modern form is to think of it like a stick figure with a head at the top, arms to the side, and wide hips before moving down to the legs, the wider hips of 女 to indicate a woman rather than 人.

For the third character for this week, I want to introduce the character for cow, 牛 (niú).

This character is another pictogram character, with the ancient form depicting a cow or bull from the front. The character has somewhat developed to its present form, but it is clear from one of the ancient forms depicted below that the original character was that of a frontal depiction of the bovine creature in question.

Because these characters are quite simplistic in their basic forms, there’s not really much you can do apart from simply commit the to memory.

The forth character for this week is the character for “also”, 也 ().

Unfortunately the etymology of this character seems to be a little confused between 它, 㐌, and也, so there isn’t really much historical context to go on for learning this, save by simply memorising it by rote.

The last few characters have a very interesting history between them, and I guess there’s something to be said about saving the best until last for this week. The last characters for this lesson form the various third person pronouns, 他, 她, 牠, and 它. They are all pronounced as . Because of the corruption / confusion of the etymology of 也 being mixed with 它, and 㐌 these characters will need to be committed to memory, but you only really need to commit the 也 side of the character to memory, because the left radical for 他, 她, and 牠 follows quite logically. The remaining form of the third person pronoun, 它, will need to be memorised as well.

Starting with 他, this is the third person pronoun relating to males. The left side of this character is 亻, which is known as the rén radical, as it derives from the character 人. Since 人 is the character for person, and not a female specifically, the use of 亻 helps to suggest that 他 relates to a male.

The character 她 uses 女 as the radical on the left side of the character to indicate that the pronoun in this case refers to someone who is feminine, as opposed to 他 for the masculine.

Some say that 牠 and 它 can be used interchangeably as the third person pronoun for non-human related subjects, although others maintain that 牠 should only be used as a pronoun for animals, whilst 它 is used for inanimate subjects. The reasoning for this is that the left radical of 牠 is clearly indicative of a relationship with an animal, considering the radical is of a direct derivation of 牛.

On top of the confusion for the roots of 也, 他, 她, 牠, and 它 there is another reason why there is no real etymological history for 他 and 她. Although English has had a distinction between male and female third person pronouns since the 12th century. But in Chinese, there was no distinction in terms of the concept between male and female third person pronouns until 1823, when the usage of “他男”, “他女”, and “他物” came into being in a book explaining English usage, and specifically the absolutely foreign concept (literally!) of “he”, “she”, and “it”. It was not until 1917 that 她 started being used as a character to act as a third person pronoun in the female gender!

Introduction to the six tradition methods of character formation.

Traditionally it is considered that there are six rules to the formation of Chinese characters. The rules are known as 六書 (liùshū), which is literally translated as “six writings”. They rules have their origins in the Western Zhou dynasty (西周) which date from around 1046 BC to 771 BC. The six categories are as follows:

    • Pictograms (象形);
    • Simple ideograms (指事);
    • Compound ideograms (會意);
    • Phonetic loan characters (假借);
    • Phono-semantic characters (形聲); and
  • Derivative cognates (轉注).


These are characters which derive their present forms from pictorial depiction of the actual object to which they are attributed. I think one of the best modern examples of a pictogram which still look pretty close to the object to which it is attributed is the character 龜, which means a tortoise or a turtle. If you look at how the character is formed, you will be able to see the head at the top, the tail towards the bottom and curling to the right, the legs on the left side of the character, and the shell of the tortoise / turtle on the right side of the character.

Simple ideograms

These characters derive their present form through the representation of an abstract idea through a symbolic form. For example 上 and 下 to mean up and down, the characters being a symbolic representation of something pointing up and something pointing down respectively.

Compound ideograms

These characters are a combination of two or more pictographic or ideographic characters which are mixed together to form a new character, the meaning of which are suggested by the different pictographic or ideographic characters which have been combined to create this new character. Take the character 看, for example. This character means “to watch / to see”, and it is a combination of the character for hand (手), placed above the character for eye (目). Imagine you’re looking at something into the distance and shielding your eyes with your hands at your brow, and it’ll help you remember the character 看.

Phonetic loan characters

These are characters which have been formed from “borrowed” characters of homophonous (or near-homophonous) morphemes. For example the character for 10,000 (萬) used to be the same character for a scorpion. As 10,000 became the default meaning for 萬, a new word for scorpion was gradually developed into 蠆, where you had the 萬 element, the original word for scorpion, for the sound, and the 虫 added at the bottom to form the new word from the original word, which meaning has changed over time. It is important to note, though, that pronunciation in ancient Chinese is very different to modern Chinese pronunciation, and so whilst character formation relying on some aspect of pronunciation mostly makes sense, there may be some characters for which this no longer rings true due to changes in pronunciation from the original ancient pronunciation.

Phono-semantic compound characters

These characters may be easily confused with phonetic loan characters described above, but I think the best way to differentiate these two categories is that phonetic loan characters involve a change of meaning from the original usage which has necessitated in the formation of a new character. Like the use of 萬 from scorpion to 10,000 over time, necessitating the creation of a new character, loaning the original character for it’s phonetic quality, and forming a new character for scorpion using 萬 as a part of the new compound character.

These phono-semantic compound characters, however, do not involve a change in meaning of the character over time which has necessitated the creation of a new character. For example, the character for the verb “to pour” (淋) is pronounced as lín, which has the same pronunciation as the word for “forest” (林). By adding the water radical (氵) to the character for “forest”, it creates a character which indicates it has something to do with water, but sounds like (or in this case the same as) the character for “forest”.

It is estimated that over 90% of Chinese characters are formed by this method.

Derivative cognates

This category from the 六書 is the least understood, and is also the least common amongst Chinese characters. An example of the derivative cognate are the characters 老 and 考, which are said to have a similar pronunciation in old Chinese, and may have had the same etymological root meaning “elderly person”.

If you can understand the rules above, you can start to maybe guess what some characters may mean, and certainly the logical rules can help you learn a lot of characters, and can also help you make up some logical mnemonics for yourself too.

I will be starting a series of posts which address some history of the characters, as well as some ways which you may be able to use to remember the characters, bearing in mind that a lot of the characters nowadays may have departed from their original etymological roots, but I still find nonetheless it is interesting to sometimes look back. These “lessons” will focus on about five traditional characters a week, rather than simplified characters, as the traditional nature of them lends to the historical explanations a bit better than simplified characters.

I’m not suggesting I can teach you all Chinese characters, but hopefully can give you some suggestions as to how the see characters in a more logical way. So, keep an eye out for the weekly “lessons”.