Un­der­stand­ing Chi­nese Char­ac­ters:

Special Focus - - Contents - Wil­liam Christo­pher Furr [USA]

Study­ing Chi­nese char­ac­ters can be dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially when we try to mem­o­rize char­ac­ters with­out un­der­stand­ing the ‘ why’ be­hind the way the char­ac­ters are writ­ten. If you think about the ‘why’ be­hind Chi­nese char­ac­ters, it can help you re­mem­ber the char­ac­ters more eas­ily be­cause it makes study­ing more in­ter­est­ing. For in­stance, how much do you re­ally un­der­stand the logic be­hind the char­ac­ter 妈(mā, mean­ing “mother”)?

The pic­to­graphic char­ac­ter 女 ( nǚ) has been a fre­quently used Chi­nese char­ac­ter and Chi­nese rad­i­cal ( Chi­nese char­ac­ter com­po­nent) for sev­eral thou­sand years. In Man­darin Chi­nese, it is used in many fre­quently oc­cur­ring words, such as 女儿 (nǚér, daugh­ter), 妇女 (fùnǚ, woman), and 女士 (nǚshì, lady). Ac­cord­ing to mod­ern schol­arly anal­y­sis, the char­ac­ter 女 ( nǚ) is a pic­to­graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a kneel­ing woman, hands crossed at the wrists, and fac­ing down­wards. The cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of a kneel­ing woman was that the woman was soon to be mar­ried or was gen­tle and agree­able.

The pic­to­graphic char­ac­ter 马 ( mǎ) is an­other Chi­nese char­ac­ter and Chi­nese rad­i­cal ( Chi­nese char­ac­ter com­po­nent) which has been fre­quently used in the last sev­eral mil­len­nia. In Man­darin Chi­nese, it is used in the words 马上 (mǎshàng, soon) and 马虎 (mǎhu, care­less). In an­cient times, this char­ac­ter looked like a horse with its legs fac­ing to the left and head fac­ing up­wards. In 1964, to in­crease the speed with which Chi­nese could be learned, the tra­di­tional form 馬 (mǎ), which is made up of nine strokes, was sim­pli­fied to 马 (mǎ), which is made up of three strokes. The fi­nal stroke writ­ten from left to right, which re­placed the orig­i­nal four dots in the old form, rep­re­sents the legs of a horse.

When we com­bine the two com­po­nents into one char­ac­ter, we get the char­ac­ter 妈 (mā). The char­ac­ter 妈 (mā) is what can be re­ferred to as a phono-se­man­tic com­pound ( 形声字 , xíng­shēngzì). Phono-se­man­tic com­pounds are made up of two com­po­nents: a mean­ing com­po­nent ( 形旁 , xíng­páng) which tells us some­thing about the mean­ing of the char­ac­ter, and a sound com­po­nent ( 声旁 , shēng­páng) which tells us some­thing about the sound of the char­ac­ter.

The left-hand side of the char­ac­ter 妈 (mā) uses the pic­to­graph 女 (nǚ) as a mean­ing com­po­nent to tell us that the mean­ing of 妈 ( mā) is re­lated to “fe­male.” The right- hand side of the char­ac­ter uses the char­ac­ter 马 ( mǎ) to tell us that the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of 妈 ( mā) is re­lated to the sound mǎ. Other char­ac­ters which use 女 ( nǚ) as a mean­ing com­po­nent in­clude the phono- se­man­tic com­pound 姐 (jiě) in 姐姐 (jiějie, el­der sis­ter) and the ideogram­mic com­pound 好 (hǎo, good). Other char­ac­ters that use 马 (mǎ) as a sound com­po­nent in­clude the phono-se­man­tic com­pound 蚂 (mǎ) in

蚂蚁 (mǎyǐ, ant) and the phono-se­man­tic com­pound骂 ( mà, to scold). In some char­ac­ters, 女 (nǚ) can be used as a sound com­po­nent like in the phonose­man­tic com­pound 努 (nǔ) used in 努力 (nǔlì, hard work). In many char­ac­ters, 马 (mǎ) can be used as a mean­ing com­po­nent, like in the phono-se­man­tic com­pound 驾 (jià) used in驾驶 (jiàshǐ, drive).

In the Analect­sofCon­fu­cius , Con­fu­cius is quoted as say­ing, “学而不思则罔 (Learn­ing with­out thought is la­bor lost); 思而不学则殆 (thought with­out learn­ing is per­ilous).” ( Analects 2:15, James Legge Trans­la­tion) You don’t need to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing all at once, but you if you re­ally want to un­der­stand Chi­nese, char­ac­ter con­struc­tion is one of the things you need to have a gen­eral un­der­stand­ing of.

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