Hanzi Are Fun

Published 2007-03-06

One of the small joys of living in China is learning Chinese. In a harsh blow to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the Chinese language is simple, elegant, and rational. This includes the writing system, which most foreigners and many Chinese people consider impossibly complex. Just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it’s complicated.

Written Chinese characters (Hanzi) are independent of any spoken version of the language. Chinese has several “dialects,” many of which (like Cantonese) are as different from Mandarin (the official national dialect) as German is from English. Every dialect can be written with the exact same Hanzi (with the caveat that, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, they use older, slightly more complex versions of some characters).

Using Hanzi instead of Pinyin (the Roman alphabet) or any other kind of phonetic alphabet has several advantages. First, and not insignificantly, you can use Hanzi for all those dialects, which is a major plus in a nation of a billion people speaking dozens of mutually unintelligible languages. With a little effort, you can even use Hanzi to write English. Second, this advantage runs backwards in time. With some additional education, any literate Chinese person can learn to read 2000-year-old Chinese texts as they were written. This is a little like being able to read the Gospels in the original Aramaic. Third, many Chinese characters provide clues to their meaning and pronounciation. So yes, while there are 20,000 Hanzi, and you need to learn about 3000 of them to be functionally literate, even learning a few hundred pays some dividends, because many of them are related, and they provide these useful clues.

For example, yesterday the building management at our apartment villa shut off the water main for repairs. I knew this because I could puzzle out the notice on our door: for example, I know the characters for “water,” “turn off/on,” and dates and times. When the water failed to be turned on at the expected time (5 pm), I went to the management office and asked a maintenance guy when we could expect to have water again. Like a lot of people, he could understand my “standard” dialect Mandarin, but produced such a thick accent that I couldn’t make out what time he expected the water to come back on. (To be fair, hearing Chinese is not my strong suit.) So I asked him to write it down, and because you use Hanzi to write every language spoken in China, I could understand him.

Finally, and this is really appealing to me personally, Hanzi form a system. You don’t have to learn 3000 completely arbitrary letters. You only have to learn the system, and memorize its components. I have the sort of brain that’s good at visual languages like maps or Sudoku; learning Hanzi is actually kind of fun.

The oldest and simplest Hanzi are literally pictograms of the daily life of Bronze Age China. Most of these no longer look anything like what they’re meant to represent, but if you squint, some of them do. For example:

means fire
means grain
means mountain and
means field.

If the Chinese people had to draw a new figure every time they needed to represent a concept, however, that would get pretty taxing on the memory. So most Hanzi are actually combinations of characters. The most straightforward of these actually tell a little story (and provide some insight into the minds of Bronze Age Chinese people). So:

good =
woman +

bright =
sun +

a forest has many

and a person with a
spear in
hand is self-sufficient, which means

By far the majority of Hanzi, however, use another system to represent both meaning and sound. (This is in theory, of course. In practice, you still have a lot of really arbitrary letters.) The way this usually works is to divide each character into two main parts: a radical, which conveys some sense of meaning, and a sound part, which (again, theoretically) provides a clue to pronunciation. The sound part, incidentally, is not usually meant to be related to the meaning of the entire character. Some ideal examples include

cao (grass), consisting of the radical for
plants and the character
zao (which means “early”)

gou (dog), consisting of the radical for
animals, and
kou (able)

xia (shrimp), consisting of the radical
for insects (which is also a character pronounced chong), and
xia, (below) and

hu, (lake), consisting of the radical
shui (water), and the character
hu, (beard).

is, in its own right, a compound character, consisting of
gu (antique) and
yue (moon). What this has to do with beards is beyond me.

湖 is actually pretty representative of most Chinese characters. The radical 水 might give you a clue to the meaning, but the actual logic of the character has become so encrusted with history that it becomes opaque. Of course, all these examples are concrete nouns, which are pretty easy in any language. But even for more abstract concepts, Hanzi a pretty versatile. As an archaeologist, I like the way layers of history are visible in written Chinese, and I love that 3000 year old notions of social order, agriculture, and technology are literally written on the wall here. As a designer (in the aesthetic sense), I admire the graphicness of written Chinese; as a designer (in the architectural sense), I admire its density of meaning and systematic nature.