Introduction to the six traditional methods of character formation


#1

My friend, Ruth, and I were discussing languages randomly one day earlier this year, and she mentioned that having been to Hong Kong, she found it absolutely fascinating how Chinese people were expected to learn and memorise around a set of 5,000 characters which seemed completely random in her mind. At this point, I started trying to explain to her that Chinese characters were not random at all, and that there are rules which form the basis of forming Chinese characters. I had promised to teach her, but sadly she passed away unexpectedly before I could start. And so stemming from that promise to Ruth, I figured I would still try and teach and explain about the logic behind Chinese characters to my readers instead. So, here we go.

Traditionally it is considered that there are six rules to the formation of Chinese characters. The rules are known as 六書 ( liùshū ), which is literally translated as “six writings”. They rules have their origins in the Western Zhou dynasty (西周) which date from around 1046 BC to 771 BC. The six categories are as follows:

  • Pictograms (象形);
  • Simple ideograms (指事);
  • Compound ideograms (會意);
  • Phonetic loan characters (假借);
  • Phono-semantic characters (形聲); and
  • Derivative cognates (轉注).

Pictograms

These are characters which derive their present forms from pictorial depiction of the actual object to which they are attributed. I think one of the best modern examples of a pictogram which still look pretty close to the object to which it is attributed is the character 龜, which means a tortoise or a turtle. If you look at how the character is formed, you will be able to see the head at the top, the tail towards the bottom and curling to the right, the legs on the left side of the character, and the shell of the tortoise / turtle on the right side of the character.

Simple ideograms

These characters derive their present form through the representation of an abstract idea through a symbolic form. For example 上 and 下 to mean up and down, the characters being a symbolic representation of something pointing up and something pointing down respectively.

Compound ideograms

These characters are a combination of two or more pictographic or ideographic characters which are mixed together to form a new character, the meaning of which are suggested by the different pictographic or ideographic characters which have been combined to create this new character. Take the character 看, for example. This character means “to watch / to see”, and it is a combination of the character for hand (手), placed above the character for eye (目). Imagine you’re looking at something into the distance and shielding your eyes with your hands at your brow, and it’ll help you remember the character 看.

Phonetic loan characters

These are characters which have been formed from “borrowed” characters of homophonous (or near-homophonous) morphemes. For example the character for 10,000 (萬) used to be the same character for a scorpion. As 10,000 became the default meaning for 萬, a new word for scorpion was gradually developed into 蠆, where you had the 萬 element, the original word for scorpion, for the sound, and the 虫 added at the bottom to form the new word from the original word, which meaning has changed over time.

Phono-semantic compound characters

These characters may be easily confused with phonetic loan characters described above, but I think the best way to differentiate these two categories is that phonetic loan characters involve a change of meaning from the original usage which has necessitated in the formation of a new character. Like the use of 萬 from scorpion to 10,000 over time, necessitating the creation of a new character, loaning the original character for it’s phonetic quality, and forming a new character for scorpion using 萬 as a part of the new compound character.

These phono-semantic compound characters, however, do not involve a change in meaning of the character over time which has necessitated the creation of a new character. For example, the character for the verb “to pour” (淋) is pronounced as lín , which has the same pronunciation as the word for “forest” (林). By adding the water radical (氵) to the character for “forest”, it creates a character which indicates it has something to do with water, but sounds like (or in this case the same as) the character for “forest”.

It is estimated that over 90% of Chinese characters are formed by this method.

Derivative cognates

This category from the 六書 is the least understood, and is also the least common amongst Chinese characters. An example of the derivative cognate are the characters 老 and 考, which are said to have a similar pronunciation in old Chinese, and may have had the same etymological root meaning “elderly person”.

If you can understand the rules above, you can start to maybe guess what some characters may mean, and certainly the logical rules can help you learn a lot of characters, and can also help you make up some logical mnemonics for yourself too.

I will be starting a series of posts which address some history of the characters, as well as some ways which you may be able to use to remember the characters, bearing in mind that a lot of the characters nowadays may have departed from their original etymological roots, but I still find nonetheless it is interesting to sometimes look back. These “lessons” will focus on about five traditional characters a week, rather than simplified characters, as the traditional nature of them lends to the historical explanations a bit better than simplified characters.

I’m not suggesting I can teach you all Chinese characters, but hopefully can give you some suggestions as to how the see characters in a more logical way. So, keep an eye out for the weekly “lessons”.


#2

Thank you a lot. I heard about the 6 rules and there are many articles in Chinese explaining it but not so much in English language, so your post is appreciated. Noawadays scholars studying Chinese also like to analyze characters based on their form, sound and meaning component. You may look into the Outlier dictionary made by Outlier Linguistics. They also wrote interesting blog posts https://www.outlier-linguistics.com/blog and are about to start a course next January. You being a native speaker may understand better than us foreigners.