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Chinese Characters

The Chinese written language employs Chinese characters (漢字/汉字 pinyin: hànzì), which are logograms: each symbol represents a semanteme or morpheme (a meaningful unit of language), as well as one syllable; the written language can thus be termed a morphemo-syllabic script.

Chinese characters evolved over time from earliest forms of hieroglyphs. The idea that all Chinese characters are either pictographs or ideographs is an erroneous one: most characters contain phonetic parts, and are composites of phonetic components and semantic Radicals. Only the simplest characters, such as ren 人 (human), ri 日 (sun), shan 山 (mountain), shui 水 (water), may be wholly pictorial in origin. In 100 AD, the famed scholar Xǚ Shèn in the Hàn Dynasty classified characters into 6 categories, namely pictographs, simple ideographs, compound ideographs, phonetic loans, phonetic compounds and derivative characters. Of these, only 4% as pictographs, and 80-90% as phonetic complexes consisting of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that arguably once indicated the pronunciation. There are about 214 radicals recognized in the Kangxi Dictionary, which indicate what the character is about semantically.

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Modern characters are styled after the standard script (楷书/楷書 kǎishū) (see styles, below). Various other written styles are also used in East Asian calligraphy, including seal script (篆书/篆書 zhuànshū), cursive script (草书/草書 cǎoshū) and clerical script (隶书/隸書 lìshū). Calligraphy artists can write in traditional and simplified characters, but tend to use traditional characters for traditional art.


There are currently two systems for Chinese characters. The traditional system, still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, takes its form from standardized character forms dating back since the late Han dynasty. The Simplified Chinese character system, developed by the PRC Mainland China in 1954 to promote mass literacy, simplifies most complex traditional glyphs to fewer strokes, many to common caoshu shorthand variants, with a larger pool of synonymous characters.

Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, is the first – and at present the only – foreign nation to officially adopt simplified characters, although it has also become the de facto standard for younger ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. The Internet provides the platform to practice reading the alternative system, be it traditional or simplified.

A well-educated Chinese today recognizes approximately 6,000-7,000 characters; some 3,000 of them are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this literacy could be pretty functional. A large unabridged dictionary like the Kangxi Dictionary contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant and archaic characters; only a quarter are now commonly used.

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Chinese Translation :: Chinese: Language or Language Family? :: Chinese Characters :: Chinese Phonology :: Chinese Vocabulary :: Chinese Learning