Chinese Characters: not so magical

Mark over at Pinyin News had a great rant the other day reacting to a New York Times article which exoticized Chinese characters.

It’s funny, when you first learn anything about Chinese characters, you learn that they’re a “writing system.” Fair enough, seems simple, right? But you don’t have to study long before you’re bombarded with all kinds of ideas about how the characters are the language, or the characters are the essence of the culture, or the language could not exist without the characters.

And Mark is, of course, completely right to say that it’s all nonsense. He declares this so vehemently and at such length that the ordinary person might start getting suspicious, but it’s all true.


photo credit: DigitalFreak

Language is a fundamental part of the human condition. Writing is a technology. It’s an important technology, with a tremendous influence on culture and human civilization, but it’s still a technology. As Wikipedia puts it, “writing is the representation of language in a textual medium.” In human history, this representation always follows the representation we call speaking. Theoretically it shouldn’t have to; that’s just the way it works in practice. (If you don’t like it, turn to sci-fi.)

Could Chinese exist without characters? Yes. It existed for a long time before characters came along. I’m not advocating the abolition of characters; I think that will work its way out naturally in good time (accelerated by the internet). Mark feels quite strongly about this issue, though, which you can tell by reading the original article.

One of the comments in response to Mark’s post caught my attention:

> Nongandwong said,
July 2, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

> Wonderful post, pity lots of people will have read about magical Chinese from that NYT article.

> What they should have done is get her to try and explain the etymology of the character and how it relates to the meaning. This was the character that made me give up looking for character etymologies because the explanation made less sense than just memorising the strokes!

I had to laugh out loud when I saw this comment, because I had exactly the same experience myself. For me, the process went like this:

1. Try to learn characters by rote, as instructed by teachers. Hate it. Feel strongly that there must be a better way.

2. Discover Heisig’s method. Enjoy that breath of fresh air. But then start to doubt a little.

3. Try to abandon Heisig’s method in favor of learning actual character etymologies. Fail miserably, again and again and again (but starting with ).

4. Return to Heisig, but with a healthy longing for actual etymologies (except when they’re a hopeless, ridiculous goose chase).

For those of you that are wondering, the etymology of goes something like this (courtesy of Wenlin):

> 你 (nǐ): From 亻(人 rén) ‘person’ and 尔 ěr ‘you’.

> Etymologically 你 nǐ is a “colloquial variation” of 尔(爾) ěr; the two sounds nǐ and ěr both derive from ancient nzie (–Karlgren).

OK, so now all we need is something for “尔(爾) ěr” that makes sense, and we’re done, right?

> Which came first, 尔 or 爾?

> Wieger cites this explanation for 尔:

> “从入丨八, 会意。八者气之分也。”

> Then 爾 came from 尔 (phonetic), 巾 ( = 两 a balance) and 爻爻 weights on both sides, to give the meaning “symmetry, harmony of proportions”.

> Karlgren (1923) says of the form 爾, “…original sense and hence explanation of character uncertain”, and considers 尔 an abbreviation.

> The pronunciation was once something like nzie. This produced both ěr and nǐ, the latter written 你 nǐ, which is the modern word for ‘you’. Now 尔 is only used in a few adverbs and archaic expressions, and in foreign loan words.

Riiiight… This is the word for “you,” also the first character in the basic Chinese word for “hi” (你好), which is likely the first word you’ll ever learn. I guess it does make rote memorization look pretty good.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I didn’t read the NYT article so I don’t comment on that, but I strongly disagree with you and with Mark regarding characters.

    What Mark of Pinyin is stating is obvious to any linguist: the (spoken) language was there first, and writing is just a technology to get that language onto paper (or bones, etc).

    Certainly, writing could not exist without language, it is just a representation of it. But language as we know it today (with a vast, nuanced vocabulary for poetry, science, etc.) would also be impossible without writing. For centuries writing has evolved with the language, changing it, making it richer, preserving dead words of the past. It is only a technology, yes, but it is an essential one.

    So writing IS an essential part of a culture, yes, and in the case of Chinese this involves characters. Could the language be represented with latin letters? Of course it could. Could the country survive without characters? Certainly. Better still, the Chinese people could dump this artificially imposed Mandarin and learn English instead as a common language from childhood, that would make them more productive in a globalized economy, and the GDP would soar in a few years…

    But has it occurred to all these linguists that perhaps Chinese don’t actually want that?

    I have to wonder: Why are American linguists so virtuous and Descriptivist in their own language, but immediately turn Prescriptivist when they deal with Chinese? Do they feel they have a special mission to lead China to the right path? Why would anyone dedicate his career to the Chinese language if they are not ready to accept it as it is? What is the point of studying a culture but to understand its people as they are, and not as we want them to be?

    With all respect to you, Mark, and the many other great linguists that support pinyinization. I just don’t get it.

    • Julen,

      I agree that the Chinese don’t need outside help deciding how to write their language, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have an interesting discussion about it.

      Anyway, please, no need to rehash the whole “romanization vs. characters” debate here.

      • Mao Zedong Says: July 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

        china: sick man of asia
        china: century of shame
        china: 300 decline till 1978.
        Why: 50,000 primative characters.

  2. PS. I just went over to read Mark’s post and I actually agree with it, that NYT article was bad. My comment above is not directed to that rant in particular, but more in general to the character abolitionist ideas.

  3. Interestingly the use of computers and the smart input mechanisms they have developed may lead to a strange hybrid of character/ pinyin use.

    Pinyin input on a computereasily produces the characters without having to know how to write them, an issue that I encounter as a learner. it’s possible you could end up with people writing characters via pinyin on computers and pinyin when they hand write as they’ve never learnt hour to write characters!

    But as for characters going away, I suspect the influence of tradition is being ignored. You only have to look at the use of welsh in the UK to see that people hold on to this kind of thing to retain their identity, Chinese identity is through long use associated with characters and thier associated myths. This is true from both sides as any form of character based writing seems to be assumed to be Chinese if the viewer knows no better.

    I think maybe learners of Chinese loose some of the mystery as theybegintounderstandbut forgetthat others do not, characters represent the mystery of the east….

  4. Lang Sui Says: July 6, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    I read both the NYT article, Mark’s rant, and your post regarding Chinese characters. I find a striking difference between the western definition of “language” (from you, Mark and Wikipedia) as opposed to the Eastern definition of “language”, or at least what you perceive as the meaning of language. Unlike the alphabet, the Chinese language was never supposed to represent the spoken word.

    Prior to developing their own written languages, many countries in Asia used Chinese characters as a way to communicate with each other. These days, only a handful of countries still employ all or some of the characters to some degree. I have never learned Korean, but many say that their alphabet system is the most logical and makes for the easiest of learning. It essentially replaces characters and pinyin with how words should sound, but I can’t make my way around Korea looking at the characters, I can get around pretty far in Japan.

    In the early 1900s, people have argued for the elimination of characters and adopting solely a written language based on Romanization. But to be honest, china is still relatively a multi-dialect country, even with the domination of mandarin, many people will still pronounce a word that is of local dialect. Who’s to say that 孩子 is suppose to be pronounced “haizi” instead of “shazi”? You can say that “formally” 孩子 is pronounced “haizi”. One actually dictates how the word is suppose to be pronounced, and the other does not.

    While China is not exactly shy about making everyone say something the same way, but perhaps maintaining a written language that does not represent how words are suppose to be pronounced gives people some leeway as to their spoken language. Let me give you an analogy in English, if we take the word “tomato” for example in English, should we write it as “tomayto” or “tomahto”? Are they actually different things if we write it one way or the other? Is a tomayto not a tomahto? And if a tomahto “wins out” in the pronunciation game, do we then have to switch our dialect and say “tomahto” instead? It is much easier to refer to tomato as tomayto, but with tomahto, it’s hard to get around that. That’s a pretty simple example, as you can tell, it can get much more complicated. People speak as if the English language makes a lot of sense, that everything in it is very easy for people. But English is not easy, it’s made up of a number of different languages that is not easy for someone who’s not of English decent to learn. Christian Science Monitor did an article awhile back regarding is we should make English spelling easier.

    And I quote from them “Wiel wee ar at it, wee might az well cleen up ar eeraygyoolar verbz, mayking the preterit and past participal the saym in awl kasez and regyoolarizing awl ar plooralz. Bi then wee wil hav noe dowt bringed the literasee levelz of Inglish speekerz up to thoz uv other kuntreez.

    The reezult would bee a langwadje that iz konsistent, lojikal, and abil too bee eezily understud by evereewon. Jorj Bernerd Sha wood bee prowd.”

    As the English is actually pronounced from people now, this is what it should look like in writing, but in reality it’s far from it. Now imagine how that sentence would look if it’s based on an British accent? A Scottish? How about south eastern Boston? Or should I actually write “Basten” if I were from “Boston”? I think you get my point. I personally don’t know if it’s better to switch the written characters to some other system that may be easier for people to learn. I’m not I’m not sure if a language has to be “poetic” or “technical”. I personally feel like Chinese characters have served it self well for many centuries, there may be need for gradual changes, but there are many aspects to be considered.

    • Language is not script. Script is a graphic representation of language. Therefore it is nonsensical to state “Unlike the alphabet, the Chinese language was never supposed to represent the spoken word.” Representation of the spoken word is precisely why characters were invented. And bringing in other East Asian languages that were once written at least partly with Chinese characters makes no sense. English is written in Latin script, though it could’ve equally been written in Nordic Runes. Turkish, Vietnamese and Maori are also written in Latin script. English, Turkish, Vietnamese and Maori are completely unrelated to each other.

    • Lang Sui,

      the argument that Chinese characters allow the dialects to survive seems to me to be based on a fallacy. If Chinese dialects are written down, they actually look different from Putonghua even if they are written in characters. Look at written Cantonese. The order of the words is different, and you sometimes even need to make use of completely different characters.

      Putonghua written in characters is still Putonghua, and the fact that the characters aren’t phonetic simply means that people are encouraged never to learn how to pronounce Putonghua properly, instead speaking it with a horrible local accent.

  5. I think for me the magic in Chinese characters are in the fact that they were the first thing that grabbed me and made me notice the Chinese language. Unlike the person that decides to learn Italian after hearing Dante read aloud I don’t know anyone that decided to learn Mandarin after hearing a Tang poem or a Jay Chou song.

    I saw this first hand a couple years ago when I sat in on a 5th grade class in Boston before shipping off to Hunan to work as a high school teacher. At the end of the class the teacher allowed me to talk about China for a bit and I spent that time teaching the students some characters (albeit one’s with clear etymologies). I didn’t say a word of Mandarin, I just taught the kids some characters. The magic of Chinese characters could be seen in their wonder-filled eyes.

    While Chinese characters are certainly just a way of displaying a spoken language on paper, I don’t know many writing systems that have so thoroughly enchanted people throughout history that they do crazy stuff like move to a country on the other side of the world.

    • I have to say, I totally agree with you there. The characters have a definite charm, and they lured me in as well. But they’re not the “mystical” kind of magic. 🙂

      • When you realize that the first Chinese characters appeared as oracular inscriptions on tortoise shells and cattle bones, you understand why there is a mystical dimension to the Chinese characters.

  6. Hey, for me it’s the Heisig method all the way!!

  7. Hi, Thanks for using my image for your article. It would be great if you fully comply with the CC license to credit the photo owner, just like this other guy who use my image also

    have a nice day and keep up the good work, feel free to pick other images from my photostream.

  8. I think what gets people is that Chinese characters seem to be so deliciously decomposable, and our brains are so good at picking out patterns, that we really want 你 to come apart into nice little pieces. It doesn’t, but, to be fair, “ORIGIN Old English ēow, accusative and dative of gē (see ye 1 ); related to Dutch u and German euch. During the 14th cent. you began to replace ye 1 , thou 1 , and thee ; by the 17th cent. it had become the ordinary second person pronoun for any number and case.” is pretty useless for the foreigner learner of English trying to get the hang of ‘you,’ as well.

    As for characters going away… well, reforming English spelling would seemingly be a much simpler task, and look how well that’s gone… People that bring up Korea and Vietnam (and Japan, to some extent) are comparing apples and oranges, because written Chinese was actually designed for Chinese (more or less), not Korean or Vietnamese or Japanese. Never say never, of course, but I think I’m pretty safe in expecting characters to outlive me.

  9. Matthew Says: July 14, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Don’t get me wrong, I like pinyin, but wouldn’t the Chinese language get very confusing if written purely with pinyin? Whatever Mark says, there are many more homonyms in Chinese than in English. You would end up losing meaning.

    I find, as a learner of Chinese, that the characters help me tie down a memory about particular words, whereas I just get overload with all the pinyin combinations. They are too similar, and don’t have enough differences to help with remembering.

    This is all pretty academic anyway. China are not going to change their system of writing anytime soon. As Carl on the pinyin news site commented, Chinese characters are “ideographs” and whether we like it or not, Chinese people think in characters, it is central to their language. We probably just need to get over ourselves.

    For the record, I don’t think the internet will lead to the abolition of characters.

  10. I think the pinyin news rant goes a little to far in declaring that Chinese characters are not the same as Chinese language. Language is basically just a system of communication using an arbitrary symbols and grammar. Sign language works with visual motoric symbols and when you are chatting with someone online you are using orthographic symbols to communicate at more or less the same speed you do when you talk. I definitely think that the use of Hanzi as a opposed to an alphabet, could have been historically influential in many different ways. Would china have stayed as united with out the help of common characters? Look at the romance languages for example.

  11. Mao Zedong Says: July 20, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Intel corporation ceo Craig Barrett went to china and notice “80% are dumb peasants”
    china can be summed up in one-sentence… farm-base. agriculture employed 80% of the people
    china never have a native:

    1. Scientific revolution: experiment based sciences.

    2. Industrial reovolution: farms to city to industry

    3. Parliament: National congress National assembly
      National House of Representatives.

    4. Alphabet-based system of writing. 50,000 primative characters.

    What civilized nation in 21st. century uses such primative barbaric system of writing.
    Confucius: dead for 2000-3000 years now. dead for 2000 years.
    Hanzi: 5000-50,000 dead characters. dead writing system.
    Mao Zedong: dead corpse on display. Dead body for disply at the capital.
    Is china a civilized nation?
    Is china a modern nation?

  12. A beginner Says: August 4, 2010 at 7:01 am

    I heard that Chinese characters helped unify the country and its culture through the centuries, isn’t that right? If a script that’s slightly less dependent on pronunciation helps save thousands of people from torture and slavery, allows more peaceful family life, poetry and scholarship, spring and moon festivals, quiet night thoughts etc., perhaps it has been worthwhile? We may still thank it for that – who knows where we’ll wake up in our next life.

  13. I know this is quite a late post relative to the topic, but there’s some things I want to say too.

    I haven’t read the articles mentioned, but it’d like to give a personal opinion from personal experience. Regarding the false “magic” of the Chinese characters, people don’t really think deep enough about what they are talking about. Magic is in our minds. Pretty much every person I know loves the allure of the characters, even though they find themselves not willing to put in effort to study them. The characters have their magic, and it is not something you always find in an etymological dictionary. Use your imagination, be creative! This is what I love about Chinese. If you don’t get a satisfactory explanation for a character, make one yourself. Take for example the dreaded “你”. For me it is a person next to which I see a balance, thus meaning “a person equal to me”. Everyone could see something else, just use your imagination, and no one would be wrong. Another example, 早 (early) is, for me, the sun 日rising | over the horizon -. 流 (flow)is water going out of a cave and with drops of water spraying in the air. And an example where the standard etymology works well and is beautiful, 王 (king), the person | who unites Heaven -, Humankind – and Earth -.

    Also think of the consequences of romanization. Classical Chinese would become utterly incomprehensible. So would classical poetry. So would calligraphy. In fact, calligraphy has been considered the highest form of art because it gives both a visual (due to being a logographic script) and a linguistic experience.

    Only an anti-art and lazy person could want the abolition of Chinese characters just because an alphabet would take less effort to learn and be more “practical”. Is it really better to kill our global diversity so that all our languages look the same? We might as well abolish music and painting if practicality defeats artistic beauty. Those musicians and painters would be more useful doing some other job, right?

    Sorry for bringing in the discussion of abolition too, my point is Chinese characters ARE magical. Magic isn’t conjuring spirits and throwing fireballs, it is the unexplainable mystery inside our minds that science cannot explain and that keeps life interesting enough to keep us going throughout the day. Remember the origins of the Chinese characters are in divination. And now, they are both a writing system (one far less boring that an alphabet) and an art.

  14. MAO ZEDONG Says: October 12, 2010 at 2:10 am

    yahoo search:

    google seach: character amnesia in china japan.

    INTEL CPU Now have 2-billion Transistor.
    Hard Disk Now have 2- TB of Data.

    Computers have Digital Memory: Internet / CPU / DVD can “Digital Memorize” All characters.

    No need for humans to Memorize characters.
    Computers can “remember” All characters.
    Pinyin / Hanzi: Pinyin will replace Hanzi by 2020 2030

  15. […] treasure trove for bullshit purveyors of all kinds, whether it’s China’s mystical past, mystical writing system, mystical vocabulary (“crisis” = “danger” + “opportunity,” […]

  16. You say that chinese have a limited number of sounds(400 sounds),even

    whit the the use of tones(1200 posible sounds) and that will cause

    confusion if written in pinyin,because alot of chinese words whit

    different meanings will be written identical.The solution could be the

    use of combination of big and small letters.For example a word made

    from 2 letters(like HE) could have 4 posible combinations decided by

    convention:he,HE,hE.He.The word whit many sounds could have even more

    posible combinations.Word HUANG could be written


    aNg,hUanG,HUAng,huANG,HUANG,HUANg,HUaNG and so one in at least 36

    combinations for a word whit 5 letters.The more sounds a word has,the

    more posible combinations.But even simple 2 letter words can have 4

    different meanings.Such conventions could be easily created for

    problematic words

    how a romanian will write english orthography? like this:
    uen iu rid dis uierd sentens izali iu rili cnou dat dis is tru(when you

    read this weird sentence easily you really know this is true:D

  17. that combination of big and small letter is used only for the words whit identical tonal and letter spelling and when the context is not accessible.If the tonal are different then is no need for big and small letters.If huâng is identical whit another word huâng(to mean a different thing,just for the sake of argument)Than diferentiation will be huâng and huÂng,or hUâng,or huâNg.

  18. […] But radicals, or variations of Heisig’s method are not new. Learning thousands of characters is not effortless however you slice it. But it’s totally worth […]

  19. Web search for history of china.

    china never never never on its own had.

    1. Scientific Revoluotion. The system of “”” science””” where experiments are performed/ results published in journals for others to see.

    2. Industrial Revolution. 80-90% of people were living in farms, villages

    3. Age of Discovery. From Discovery of North America to First Flight at Kitty Hawk, 1903, to Moon landing in 1969.

    What have these people been doing for the last 500-1000 years.

    80-90% of all people lived in farms, villages as subsistance farmers off the land.

    1. china for 2000 years was a Medieval sociey/Feudal society.

    2. china had Annual of $200 dollars. Two hundred dollars in 1978.

    After 2000 years in 1978, china had annual income of $200.


    1911/1949: last emperor Puyi to chicken mao in 1949.

    Where’s the Vote for National Congress.

    Where’s the Vote for National President.

    who needs 50,000 barbaric characters when all you need is 26 letters.

    1. Number of ten. magic ten.

    abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxzy…. Magic of 26 letters. All you is 26 letters.

    10101010110: Magic of tow. All you need is two. Magic of two. just the magic number of two.

    Time to abolish Hanzi. No civilized nation uses uses old, archaic, backward system of writing.




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