Brendan on the Meaninglessness of Chinese Characters

I’ve been dealing a lot with clients’ Chinese character issues, and happened to stumble upon this Quora answer of Brendan O’Kane’s to a question about the origin of the character :

Chinese speakers believe a lot of things about their own writing system, many of them untrue. One of the deepest-rooted and most pernicious of these false beliefs is the notion that characters have meaning. They don’t. The Chinese language [simplifying here; feel free to replace with “Chinese languages,” if you prefer] was spoken long before it was ever written, and has been spoken fluently throughout its history by far more people than have been able to write it fluently. The modern components of a character are not a reliable guide to either the meaning of the character or the early forms of a character, and the characters that make up a word are not necessarily a reliable guide to the meaning of the word. A lot of the stuff referred to as “etymology” in Chinese would more accurately be described as “stories about pictures” — cute, and occasionally helpful for memorization, and sometimes even sort of accurate, but mostly no more truthful than the old story about the English word “sincere” coming from Latin “sine cera,” “without wax,” or about “history” being “his story.”

Lots of interesting ideas here, and Brendan is spot on. And although “Chinese speakers believe a lot of things about their own writing system, many of them untrue,” that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn much of what Chinese speakers believe about their language (and writing system). In fact, you kind of have to. That’s culture. It’s like learning about all the ways that “America” is “the land of the free,” even if you don’t believe that the U.S. is that great bastion of liberty. What a people believes about its country is important.

Still, you don’t take everything at face value. Brendan’s point might be a “there is no spoon” moment for you, though, if you’re ready for it.

There is no spoon (勺子)

The key point here is that no bit of language, either spoken or written, has a meaning that people haven’t given it. (For more information on where meaning comes from, read up on semiotics and semantics.) Furthermore, spoken language is primary. Written language is a technology employed by a society. Sure, it’s a special technology with special properties and all kinds of cultural power, but it’s not the language itself, nor is it inherently meaningful in itself. Chinese characters do not hold any meaning that people do not give them.

If all this sounds obvious, that’s great, but if you pay attention, you may notice that Chinese characters do sometimes seem to take on mystical qualities in Chinese culture.

I’m not trying to get overly philosophical or quibble over irrelevant details. The question for me is: what does this mean for the learner of Chinese? Here are a few points:

  • You don’t have to know the full origins of every character you learn. Sure, they are sometimes helpful for memorization, and if that’s the case, great.
  • It’s worth noting how many non-language-oriented native speakers, fully fluent and literate, have no interest in character origins, and have forgotten most of what they once knew about that stuff. And yet they are still fully fluent and literate in Chinese.
  • Since character meanings are neither inherent nor absolute, it’s not bad to sometimes make up your own little stories to help you remember characters. The key is consistency (so as not to confuse yourself), not factual accuracy.
  • Still, because characters are such an important part of Chinese culture, it’s not a good idea to make up your own stories that run counter to the standard ones that virtually every Chinese person knows, like the meanings of the most basic pictographic (人, 日, 木, etc.) or the simple or compound ideographic (上, 明, 好, etc.) ones. For the more complicated ones that most native speakers couldn’t explain, your own story mnemonics are safe to use.

This is a complicated issue with tons of cultural baggage, I realize. I’m happy to discuss in the comments!


John Pasden

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


  1. Similar to my experience growing up speaking Spanish, learned on the playground and in school. There were a lot of things I just *learned* to automatize, and it wasn’t until I moved back to the US and stopped speaking on a daily basis that I would have moments of realization about the etymology of certain words, which as a semi-native speaker I didn’t really care about and were not necessary to speak the language fluently.

    That said, knowing the etymologies does make you more educated and able to draw connections between words/characters and ideas, so I think that taking the “characters are meaningless” concept to its theoretical extreme would be pretty silly, no matter whether you’re a beginner using etymologies to remember characters or an advanced Chinese user making puns or playing character games while writing high-level text.

  2. The land of the free! What a joke! Americans are the least educated and knowledgeable of foreign affairs, languages, and disparate cultures, societies, and social norms amongst all Westernized countries and the least exposed universally.

    Saying “I’m not racist but I voted for Trump” is a lot like saying “I’m vegetarian but I ordered the steak”. Trump inspires people by appealing to their nastiest, most inhuman and unneighborly instincts. This is why he won.

    We have a whole planet to save. We don’t need to “bring the jobs back”. We need to do the job of saving the planet. We give these people jobs, what are they going to spend their money on? Meth and oxy. They are racist to the bone. That is obvious. They don’t deserve to be sugar-coated. There is no reason to bend over backward to understand their motivation for voting for the guy who has a neo-nazi as his top advisor. America voted for hate.

    • Brendan Says: June 7, 2017 at 2:54 pm

      Totally with you, Heike, but perhaps you meant to post this comment somewhere where it would have been relevant?

    • Heike, can you not read?

      John wrote:
      “That’s culture. It’s like learning about all the ways that “America” is “the land of the free,” even if you don’t believe that the U.S. is that great bastion of liberty. What a people believes about its country is important.”

      Try reading it again and calm down.

  3. Adam Morris Says: June 7, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    The whole story-about-characters-came-about is really meta-linguistics, which is well placed in the curriculum in both second-language instruction and native-language instruction. I fondly remember explaining to my classmates that I can remember how to read and write “busy” because the character looks like a woman on the left (the heart) at a desk on the right. Silly, kinda dumb, but memorable, fun, and why not? Chinese has a lot more shapes than other languages: Like the constellations and clouds in the sky, pattern-making is inevitable.

  4. The key point here is that no bit of language, either spoken or written, has a meaning that people haven’t given it.

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, to be honest. Can you give an example of anything that has a meaning that people haven’t given it? I can’t think of any concept in philosophy, mathematics, art, music or anything that has a meaning people haven’t given it.

    • I’m referring to instances I’ve run into the past where native speakers sometimes think that a pictographic character like, say, 山 objectively looks like a mountain, not too far removed from an actual photograph of a mountain, as if there’s no other possible interpretation for that symbol. Sure, 山 does somewhat resemble a mountain, but the concept of symbols (even pictographic ones) as social conventions seems to escape some people.

      • Ah okay. So basically, you’re talking about Victor Mair’s “If aliens landed on earth and saw Chinese characters, how much would they understand?” thought experiment. I agree with that. To be fair, they probably wouldn’t understand much of our math, music or art either, though.

  5. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book “Moon Walking With Einstein”, but that book talks about how memory “athletes” devise different ways to memorize information. One of the techniques is forming a story with the information that you’re to memorize. Perhaps making up etymology stories for the characters was a way to get people to remember and pass down the writing system through thousands of years.

  6. Thanks for posting this, John! I wrote this a couple of years ago as part of a response to an internet crank (the Quora thread linked above will give you some of the context) so it’s not necessarily the fullest expression of my thoughts on how Chinese is written — but I hardly ever get compared to Neo, so I’ll happily take the compliment.

    Basically, I think characters are a great example of a tail that wags the dog. They represent words, but are not actually words themselves. Knowing how they developed is great, and certainly can be helpful — shout-out to Outlier Linguistics, whose product I would’ve absolutely loved to have had years ago! — but it’s not clear to me that knowledge of characters and their histories is all that good an analogy to knowledge of cognates in European languages. It’s a history of how the word has been written, rather than a history of the word itself.
    It’s important for Chinese-learners to be able to decompose modern characters into their components, something that becomes a lot easier once one has a couple hundred characters under their belt. This makes learning and remembering characters an awful lot easier, and it does tell us something about the historical pronunciation of certain words — but there’s no etymological relationship between 江 and 紅 and 工 and 空 and 扛 and 缸 and 虹. (To say nothing of characters like 經 or 左 or 差, where the component 工 appears as the result of regularization, rather than as a phonetic component.) It’s good for people to draw connections between these characters — but that’s not the same thing as etymology. (Sometimes there are real etymological relationships between the words written by related characters — 型/刑/形 is the first one to come to mind, though I’m sure there are better examples — but there are also plenty of cases in which words that do have an etymological relationship are written with completely distinct characters, like 之 and 的, the latter of which was also commonly written as 底 right up through at least the 1930s.)

    The primacy of speech is a whole other issue, and there’s probably a whole mess of sociocultural considerations that complicate the picture when we think about how characters historically functioned within literate East Asian society. But the tl;dr of my original cranky post is that characters write words, and words are associated with meanings, but that there’s nothing inherent to the arrangements of lines used to write the words for, say, “child 子” and “roof 宀” that necessitates the meaning “character.” Learning to write characters is time-consuming enough already — for Chinese people too! — without ascribing magical powers to them.

  7. Stavros Says: June 8, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Our brains are synced with our native language to the point where we don’t question the meaning and definition of words – or in this case, the meaninglessness of characters.

  8. 永远蓝天 Says: October 18, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    I totally agree with the comments by both John and Brendon, which are totally accurate, but maybe a bit of the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater.

    I think “seeing” the mountain in 山 or the woman in 女 or the house in 家 and the pig within — are there and it is also a great way to enter the written text, even as the pictograph associations get lost (or meaningless) in more complex characters like 复杂. Some of these associations also create a tremendous imagery and appreciation for Chinese writing in terms of visual asthetics, which is different from say anything visual in the word “house,” which maybe just has a chair, rather than a the paws of a “mouse.”

    A secondary point is about meaning, consensus on meaning, and sounds to form a language. What I’m trying to say is that language is a beautiful capacity by humans and the human effort put into creating a written form also shouldn’t be underappreciated.

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