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Chinese FAQs

Notes on reading this page
This page contains English, Simplified, Traditional and Pinyin characters. It is best displayed in Windows XP with Asian language support. Then you can view all the characters concurrently. If you do not use Windows XP, you can switch from Simplified Chinese to Traditional Chinese to display the characters in turn.

  1. How old is the Chinese language?
  2. Is there an alphabet for Chinese?
  3. Which direction is Chinese written?
  4. How many characters are there in Chinese?
  5. How are Chinese characters formed?
  6. How have Chinese characters evolved over time?
  7. What is the difference between Simplified and Traditional Characters?
  8. Where are the Simplified and Traditional Characters used?
  9. How many dialects are there in China?
  10. How are words exchanged between English and Chinese?

1. How old is the Chinese language?
Legend has it that the Chinese characters were invented by a scholar named Cang Jie (仓颉) during the time of China's first Emperor Huang Di (黄帝) about 4,500 years ago. The oldest recorded scripts and symbols were found on the unearthed pottery etchings from the Banpo Village Site in the East suburb of Xi'an, which dates back to 6,000 years ago. About 3,500 years ago in Shang Dynasty, characters and symbols were found on oracle bones (see picture below) or tortoise shells. About the same time, a complete Chinese writing system was formed. This is the oldest writing system among the early civilizations that has survived the millennia and is still in use today.

Click for a larger view

2. Is there an alphabet for Chinese?
No. The Chinese language does not have an alphabet like the Roman languages. Chinese characters are built using building blocks called radicals. While radicals may appear to bear some resemblance to an alphabet, they are not the basic linguistic unit in the Chinese language. Radicals are barely used to build the characters and contribute only in giving a character certain meaning and pronunciation. On the other hand, the characters themselves have complete meaning and can be used as a single character word. More importantly, unlike the alphabets in Roman languages where the alphabets are used directly to form a word. Radicals are not taken unaltered to form the characters. Instead, they are often adjusted to give the resulting character the best aesthetic appearance.
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3. Which direction is Chinese written?
Traditionally, Chinese is written from top to bottom in a column fashion. The vertical lines are read from right to left. For short displays, such as horizontal banners, the characters are also written from right to left. The graphic below shows an example. It reads from right to left as 難得糊塗 (Where ignorance is a bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.) The text is displayed in ancient print type (古印体) to provide some historical relevance.


When English words are needed between vertically printed Chinese characters, they are rotated 90 degrees clockwise. This printing style is still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong although many publications are also printed from left to right, just like English. In newspapers, when the text is printed from top to bottom, the banner headlines usually run from right to left.

Nowadays, in Simplified Chinese, almost all publications are printed from left to right with only occasional deviation when some layout variations are desired. Even with Traditional Chinese, most books and newspapers are also printed from left to right.
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4. How many characters are there in Chinese?
In the etymological dictionary entitled Shuo Wen Jie Zi (说文解字, Notes on Language and Characters, usually abbreviated as Shuowen) compiled by Xu Shen (许慎) in the Eastern Han Dynasty (121 AD), there were 9,353 characters. This is a monumental compilation of Chinese characters, especially when one considers that it was completed nearly 1,900 years ago. Many present day studies are still based on this work and the study of Shuowen itself has become a highly respected discipline. The Kang Xi Dictionary (康熙字典), which was completed in 1710, contains 47,035 words. This dictionary is named after the Qing Emperor Kang Xi who ruled China from 1662-1723 and ordered the compilation of the dictionary. The Emperor himself wrote the preface for the dictionary. A Sea of Chinese Characters (中华字海) published in 1994 by Leng Yulong and Wei Yixin lists more than 85,000 characters. This is the largest number of recorded Chinese characters in history. However, many of the characters in large dictionaries like this have variant forms. For example, In Hanyu Da Zidian (汉语大字典), another large dictionary published in the 1980's with 56,000 characters, the character 宝 (treasure or precious) has 13 variant forms. Imagine if we had 13 different spellings for the English word "precious," how are we ever going to communicate with each other in writing! This very fact attests to the need for reform and simplification of the Chinese characters.

While the total number of characters is overwhelming, many of them have overlapping meanings or are variants of other characters. For practical purpose, one only needs to have a small repertoire to be able to read and write adequately. It is said that it is only necessary to learn 2,000 characters to be able to understand 94% of all newspaper articles and books. An average educated person masters about 3,500 to 5,000 characters and can function properly in daily life and work.

Characters are combined to form words while most of the characters themselves can be considered as single character words. The commonly used 3,000-5,000 characters can easily create 40,000, 50,000 or even more words. In Chinese, there are many two-character words and four-character idioms. Chinese characters have many homophones. It is not uncommon that when you type in the pinyin of one character, you end up with a list of dozens or even hundreds of characters for you to choose from. Therefore, when you say a one-character word, people might wonder which character you are talking about. That is probably why we have so many two-character words in Chinese. Sometimes, though a character is complete in meaning by itself, we still add another character to make it a two-character word. An example will be 桌子(a desk or table, pronounced as zhuo). The 桌 by itself is already conveying the same meaning as 桌子. A meaningless 子 is added to make it sounds differently from other characters with the same pronunciation as 桌. Many two character words are formed similarly. The four-character idioms or set phrases usually allude to some historical events or legends and are rich in cultural contents and historical moral values.
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5. How are Chinese characters formed?
While Chinese is generally considered to be a pictographic language, only a small number of the 9,353 characters in Shuowen are actually classified as pictographs. This is because many more characters had been formed by other means. In Shuowen, Xu Shen divided the characters into six categories:

As it turns out, the semantic-phonetic complex (Xingsheng Zi) category consists of the bulk of the Chinese characters although some scholars argue that a few of the characters in this category belong to the Huiyi Zi category instead. In this category, there are usually two parts - a semantic element and a phonetic indicator. For example, mother (妈, mā) is composed of a semantic radical 女 (woman) plus a phonetic indicator 马 (mǎ). The word "scold" (骂, mà) is pronounced similarly with a different tone. It consists of a semantic part "mouth" ( two 口's) and the same phonetic indicator 马 (mǎ).

An example of a compound characters is 众 (crowd), which is comprised of three 人 (man). So, "man" + "man" + "man" = "crowd". Another would be "bright" (明), which is "sun" + "moon."

Contrary to the popular belief that all Chinese characters are pictographs, Xiangxing Zi only accounts for 4% of the 9,353 characters in Shuowen. The following is a graphic for the pictographic characters of sun, mountain and farmland, which is self-explanatory:

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6. How have Chinese characters evolved over time?
The history of the Chinese character is truly a history of change. The earliest known Chinese characters are symbols etched on pottery found in the Banpo Site and dates back to 6,000 years ago. By Shang Dynasty (later changed to Yin), about 3,500 years ago, the oracle-bone characters (甲骨文) were used. By the end of the Shang, Great Seal (大篆) characters were adopted and were mostly seen inscribed on bells and cooking vessels made of bronze. As the characters were mostly in scripted on metals, Great Seal was also called 钟鼎文 or 金文 (bronze inscription).

By 221 BC, the first emperor of the Qin unified China and ordered the country to use a single written language and the same measurement systems. The Great Seal was simplified to teh Small Seal (小篆) as the national writing system. However, even Small Seal was difficult and time consuming to produce. As state business was thriving at that time, lower level personnel (called 隶人) were asked to help write government documents, thus resulting in a new character type called Lishu (隶书), a shortcut to the Small Seal. In Eastern Han Dynasty, people felt that even Lishu was still too cumbersome, so they further reduced it to Zhangcao (章草), which was a shortcut to Lishu. As Zhangcao was easier, it was widely accepted. Therefore, Small Seal and Lishu were completely out of the mainstream and became decorative writing arts. Later on, Kaishu (楷书) was developed from Zhangcao. After that, Xingshu (行书) and Jincao (今草) started to gain popularity as people could write much faster with these styles. Until recent time, Kaishu had become the official printing type, and Xingshu, the type people used for daily handwriting.

The above is the generally accepted history of Chinese character evolution. However, in recent years, researchers have challenged this order of character development from the study of characters recorded on bamboo slips, wooden tablets and silks. For example, Zhong Mingshan, in the preface to a dictionary entitled Dictionary of Chinese Characters as Recorded on Bamboo Slips, Wooden Tablets and Silks published in 1991, contends that Lishu, Kaishu, Xingshu and Caoshu all had their origin from the Seals as there is evidence indicating that the latter character types in the above order, such as Kaishu and Caoshu, appeared much earlier than previously believed. However, I will not dwell on the details here as it is well beyond the scope of these FAQs.
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7. What is the difference between Simplified and Traditional Characters?

Currently, there are two main versions of Chinese: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese is the result of reducing some strokes from the traditional characters to make it simpler to remember and write.

Since the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Chinese government has been quite active in Chinese character reform. On February 2, 1956, the government published a document called A Scheme for the Simplification of Chinese Characters (汉字简化方案). This scheme consists of three tables. Table 1 lists 352 simplified characters that cannot be used as radicals. Table 2 lists 132 simplified characters that can be used as radicals, plus 14 simplified radicals. Table 3 contains 1,754 characters that were derived using the 132 radical-capable simplified characters and the 14 simplified radicals. The three tables simplified a total number of 2,236 characters.

In 1977, the Chinese government published the Second Scheme for the Simplification of Chinese Characters. Table 1 contained 248 characters. Table 2 included 605 simplified characters and 61 simplified radicals. However, since the simplification was so extreme, it met with strong resistance from the society. On June 24, 1986, that second scheme was rescinded. Later in 1986, the first scheme was republished with a few words in the tables adjusted. As a result, the total number of simplified characters now stands at 2,235.

It should be pointed out that the 2,235 simplified characters are calculated based on New China Dictionary (新华字典) published in 1962 with about 8,000 character entries. Considering that the total number of Chinese characters is more than 85,000, if the radical-capable simplified characters and the simplified radicals are applied to all the Chinese characters, the resulting number of simplified character will be much larger than the above number.

In the Chinese character simplification movement, there is one anecdote that is generally overlooked by the public. That is, the character reform was not started by the Chinese communist government, but rather by the National government before the new government took over in 1949. In 1935, the Ministry of Education of the then National Government issued The First List of Simplified Chinese Characters (第一批简體字表) which contained 324 simplified characters and required educational authorities of all cities and provinces to implement them. However, due to strong objection from high officials of the Kuomingtang government, the first simplification effort of Chinese characters in modern times was put on hold the next year and was never implemented.

Just recently, on December 27, 2001, The Ministry of Education and The State Commission of Language and Character Affairs published The First Compilation of Variant Words (第一批异形词整理表) to be implemented on March 31, 2002. This publication is not exactly about Chinese characters, but about words, i.e., character combinations. The list contains 338 sets of words with variant form(s). The recommended form is given at the beginning of the entry followed by a dash line, after which the variant form(s) are listed. Here are a few entries from the list. You can click here to view the complete list.

  • 按语-案语
  • 成分-成份
  • 百废俱兴-百废具兴
  • 订单-定单
  • 百叶窗-百页窗
  • 订货-定货
  • 保姆-保母、褓姆
  • 独角戏-独脚戏
  • 车厢-车箱
  • 勾画-勾划
  • It also includes an appendix that lists 44 sets of non-standard words with characters that are already abolished by the previously issued "A Scheme for the Simplification of Chinese Characters." This appendix serves the purpose of reminding people to avoid using those abolished characters (designated by an *) in words. Here are a few examples:

  • 抵触(*牴触)
  • 局促(*侷促*跼促)
  • 跖骨(*蹠骨)
  • 渺茫(*淼茫)
  • (Some graphic examples will be provided to illustrate the evolution of the Chinese characters throughout history, maybe a Flash animation if quality photos can be secured.)
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    8. Where are the Simplified and Traditional Characters used?
    Simplified Chinese is used in mainland China and Singapore and Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. With Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 and with the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, Simplified Chinese is gaining popularity in Hong Kong as people have more and more business interactions with mainlanders. Job seekers have advantages if they speak Putonghua (普通话), which is another name for Mandarin, the official spoken dialect in China.

    Outside China in Chinese communities and especially in the translation industry, Simplified Chinese is often referred to as Mandarin, and Traditional Chinese, as Cantonese. Strictly speaking, these names refer to the spoken language or dialects and will be quite correct to use if you are looking for interpreters for assignment. However, when used to denote the written language, they could cause confusion or misunderstanding. For example, Mandarin is spoken both in China and Taiwan, and increasingly in Hong Kong. Many people in the US Chinese community also speak Mandarin. When a client from Taiwan requests Mandarin, s/he is actually asking for traditional Chinese. Therefore, the best way is to identify the target geographical region, then offer the correct version accordingly and ask the client to confirm. This way, you will never end up with a wrong version.
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    9. How many dialects are there in Chinese?
    While Chinese has a unified written form, thanks to the first emperor of the Qin dynasty who unified China in 246 BC, the spoken language is far more varied. In southeastern China, where there is the most diversity of dialects, it is even said that people living in neighboring villages speak differently. Generally, there are eight dialects in the Chinese language:

    Dialect Chinese Name % Population*
    Mandarin 普通话 74.8
    Wu 吴语 8.0
    Yue (Cantonese) 广东话 4.8
    Xiang 湖南话 4.0
    Southern Min 闽南话 2.7
    Northern Min 闽北话 1.0
    Hakka 客家话 2.7
    Gan 江西话 2.0

    * Data source: David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 1997

    Among these, Mandarin is the most widely spoken. It covers all the area north of The Yangtze River and the southwestern part of China to south of The Yangtze. Of course, in this vast area that accounts for about 80% of China, it is only natural that the Mandarin spoken in different locales will also vary. For example, Mandarin spoken in the Sichuan Province is quite different from that spoken in Beijing. However, the pronunciations are close enough with the difference being mainly in tonal variation. Therefore, even though Sichuan Hua is called a "Hua" (dialect) and is quite popular in China, it does not technically qualify as a separate dialect.

    Wu is also widely spoken in the Lower Yangtze valley to the south, primarily in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai. This relatively small area is very rich in cultural heritage, producing many of the cultural giants in Chinese history. Then comes Yue Yu or Guangdong Hua, which is mostly spoken in Guangdong, eastern part of Guangxi and Hong Kong. In overseas Chinese communities, it is called Cantonese.

    Minnan Hua is also an important dialect in modern China. It is mainly spoken in coastal Fujian and Taiwan as many Taiwanese are the descendants of early immigrants from Fujian Province.

    Hakka is spoken in Northern Guangdong, Southern Fujian and Southern Jiangxi Provinces. It is one of the dialects that is spoken in overseas Chinese communities.

    The following is a map showing the regions where the different dialects are spoken (Source: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 1997 edition) .

    Click for a larger view


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    10. How are words exchanged between English and Chinese?
    In modern times Chinese has, especially in technical area, imported words from many other languages of the world, most notably English. Borrowed words are admitted into Chinese in three main ways: translation, transliteration, and in a few cases, a mixture of both.

    Unlike Japanese and Korean, where technical terms are transliterated using Katakana and Hangul, in Chinese, borrowed technical terms are mostly translated conceptually. Therefore, each borrowed word will have a specific Chinese word corresponding to it. To make things even worse, different scientific or engineering disciplines often have different translations for the same English word. For example, the English word "cross-hair" is translated as 十字光标, 十字准线 or 十字叉丝 in computer science, 交叉标线 in Metallurgy, 十字瞄准线 or 十字丝 in machinery engineering, 十字线 in telecommunications, 十字丝 in navigation, 瞄准线 or 十字丝 in aviation, and 十字线 in atomic energy. Borrowed words are also translated differently in Traditional (CHT) and Simplified (CHS) Chinese. A few examples will be: computer (计算机 in CHS and 电脑 in CHT), access (访问 in CHS and 存取 in CHT), radio (无线电 or 射频 in CHS and 无线电 in CHT), and transistor (晶体管 in CHS and 电晶体 in CHT). Millions of technical terms have been translated into Chinese with most disciplines having their own specialty English-Chinese dictionaries. English technical terms are also sometimes transliterated, especially where there is no existing concept in Chinese that is close to the meaning of the borrowed word. This includes gene (基因), humor (幽默) and others. Some chemical and drug name suffixes also systematically use transliteration, such -cain(e) (卡因), nin(e) (宁), -oin (偶姻), to list just a few.

    The second category is transliteration, which applies mostly to proper names, such as people's names, geographical names, trade names, etc. In this category, the borrowed words are translated phonetically as close to the English word as possible. In China, there is a foreign-Chinese dictionary of people's names with nearly 4,000 pages providing standard transliteration for 650,000 foreign people's names from around the world. Geographical names are also another area for this category. Most geographical names are transliterated directly with only a few exceptions, such as San Francisco (旧金山), Honolulu (檀香山) where, for historical reasons, the Chinese name has no phonetic relationship with the original English name. A few geographical names are translated conceptually, such as West Point (西点), Mediterranean Sea (地中海), Ivory Coast (象牙海岸), Oxford (牛津) and Iceland (冰岛). The translation of a country's name also does not exactly follow the pronunciation. Usually a commendatory notion and the character 国 (country) are often added. Therefore, United States of America becomes 美国 (Beautiful Country), England, 英国 (hero country), and Deutchland, 德国 (moral country), etc.

    The last category is a combination of the two methods - that is, half conceptual and half phonetic. Typical examples are Cambridge (剑桥) and New Zealand (新西兰), where cam is transliterated and bridge is translated while New is translated and Zealand is transliterated.

    Some English words are also introduced into Chinese through Japanese such as, economy (经济), crisis (危机), democracy (民主) and others.

    In the other direction, English also imported some words from Chinese. Common examples are ginseng (人参), silk (丝), tea (茶), dimsum (点心), typhoon (台风), fengshui (风水), kow-tow (磕头), etc. Just as Chinese borrowed some English words through Japanese, similarly, English also borrowed some characters through Japanese, such as, judo (柔道), tofu (豆腐), and even kanji (漢字).

    Among all Chinese transliteration of English proper names, Coca Cola is probably the best example of excellence. The Chinese transliteration is 可口可乐 (kěkǒ kělè), which means delicious and making one happy (or very happy) and is very close to the original in pronunciation. What else could the company have hoped for?!
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    11. How is Chinese written and how about Chinese calligraphy?
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    12. How are the characters phonetically represented?
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    13. What is the relationship among CJK characters?
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    14. How are Chinese characters entered into a computer?

    Click for a larger view
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    15. How does a computer process Chinese characters?
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