Monday, November 26, 2007

Written Chinese refers to the written symbols used to represent spoken Chinese, along with rules and conventions about how they are arranged and punctuated. These symbols are commonly known as Chinese characters (traditional/simplified Chinese: 漢字/汉字; pīnyīn: hànzì), many of which have been definitively traced back to the 商 Shāng Dynasty about 1500 BCE, though the process of creating characters likely began some centuries earlier.

Chinese characters in other languages
Written Chinese is unusual in being the only major modern-day writing system not based predominantly on an alphabet or a compact syllabary. Instead, Chinese characters are glyphs whose parts may depict objects or represent abstract notions. These parts may occasionally stand alone as independent characters; far more typically, they are combined, using a variety of different principles, to form more complex characters. The most popularly known exposition of Chinese character composition is the 說文解字/说文解字 Shuōwén Jiězì, compiled by 許慎/许慎 Xǚ Shèn around 120 CE. Since Xǚ Shèn did not have access to Chinese characters in their earliest forms, his analysis, based as it is on somewhat later forms, cannot be taken as authoritative.
The last two principles do not produce new written forms; instead, they transfer new meanings to existing forms:
Chinese characters are generally written to fit into a square (except for simple characters such as 一 yī "one" for which this is not possible), even when they are composed of two simpler forms written side by side or top to bottom. In such cases, each form is compressed appropriately so that the entire character continues to fit into a square.

象形 xiàngxíng: Pictographs, in which the character is a graphical depiction of the object it denotes. Examples: 人 rén "person", 日 rì "sun", 木 mù "tree/wood".
指事 zhǐshì: Indicatives, or ideographs, in which the character represents an abstract notion. Examples: 上 shàng "up", 下 xià "down", 三 sān "three".
會意/会意 huìyì: Logical aggregates, in which two or more parts are used for their meaning. This yields a composite meaning, which is then applied to the new character. Example: 東/东 dōng "east", which represents a sun rising in the trees.
形聲/形声 xíngshēng: Phonetic complexes, in which one part indicates the general semantic category of the character (such as water-related or eye-related), and the other part is another character, used exclusively (in most cases) for its phonetic value. Example: 晴 qíng "clear/fair (weather)", which is composed of 日 rì "sun", and 青 qīng "blue/green", which is used solely for its pronunciation.
轉注/转注 zhuǎnzhù: Transference, in which a character, often with a simple, concrete meaning takes on an extended, more abstract meaning. Example: 網/网 wǎng "net", which was originally a pictograph depicting a fishing net. Over time, it has taken on an extended meaning, covering any kind of lattice. Today, in fact, it can be used to refer to a computer network; the word 網上/网上 wǎngshàng means "on the Internet".
假借 jiǎjiè: False borrowing, in which a character is used, either intentionally or accidentally, for some entirely different purpose. Example: 哥 gē "older brother", which is written with a character originally meaning "song/sing", now written 歌 gē. At one point, there was no character for "older brother", so an otherwise unrelated character with the right pronunciation was borrowed for the purpose. Chinese writing system The structure of Chinese characters

Main article: Chinese calligraphy Chinese written forms
The seal script, though the earliest surviving form of Chinese writing, does not represent the embryonic stage of Chinese writing. The first indisputable evidence of Chinese writing, dating back to the Shāng Dynasty in the latter half of the second millennium BCE, comes to us in the form of so-called oracle bones (primarily ox scapulae and turtle shells), used for divination. Characters were inscribed on the bones in order to frame a query; the bones were then heated over a fire, and the resulting cracks were interpreted to determine the answer to the query. Such characters are called 甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén "shell-bone script" or oracle bone script.

Earlier forms

Main articles: Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and Debate on traditional and simplified Chinese characters Simplified and traditional Chinese
Chinese characters conform to a roughly square frame and are not usually linked to one another, so they can conceivably be written in any direction in a square grid. Traditionally, Chinese is written in vertical columns from top to bottom; the first column is on the right side of the page, and the text runs toward the left. Text written in Classical Chinese also uses little or no punctuation.

Layout of written Chinese
Because the majority of modern Chinese words are polysyllabic (and therefore multi-character), there are at least two measuring sticks by which Chinese literacy can be measured: the number of characters known, and the number of words (character combinations with specific meanings) known. John DeFrancis, in the introduction to his Advanced Chinese Reader, suggests that a typical Chinese college graduate recognizes perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 characters, and 40,000 to 60,000 words. Examples of this phenomenon remain in common use to this day, as for instance 雞/鸡 jī "rooster", whose right side can also be written as 鳥/鸟 niǎo (in fact, the simplified character is already written that way). The two alternative right halves are different characters for "bird".

Chinese dictionaries

Main articles: Pinyin, Zhuyin, Wade-Giles, and Gwoyeu Romatzyh

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