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Chinese Characters

Chinese characters unify the separate dialects

There are about 50,000 Chinese characters in existence but only 2-3,000 are required to read a newspaper and two (男 nán – male and 女 nǚ – female) to avoid embarrassing faux pas in China.

Chinese characters represent meaning. They also have a pronunciation assigned to them, but this can vary with the Chinese dialects, whereas the meaning doesn’t. This means that in theory Chinese characters could be used to represent any language in the world.

Early Chinese characters were simply pictures of the things they represented. Over the time the pictures became more stylised, examples of this type of character are 人 rén (person) and 龜 guī (tortoise). The latter is a traditional character not used in mainland China, but common in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The majority of today’s characters consists of two components – one pointing to the pronunciation, the other vaguely suggesting the meaning, for example the character 妈. The right hand part, 马, is pronounced mă on its own, and suggests the pronunciation of the whole character, which is pronounced mā. The left hand part is also a character in it’s own right, 女 and it means female, hinting at the meaning of the new character, which means mother.

The inherent difficulty of memorising thousands of characters led the CCP to begin simplifying them in 1954. This helped increase literacy rates, but traditionalists argue the characters lost some of their meaning and beauty. Simplified Chinese characters certainly don’t look as foreign and mysterious as the traditional characters.

Compare the traditional character for tortoise: 龜 with the simplified version 龟. Simplified Chinese characters were never adopted in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and you can still sometimes see traditional characters in mainland China where they are considered rather sophisticated.

A word in the Chinese language can either be made up of one character or by combining two or more:

东 = East 西 = West 东西 = Thing

Most combinations make a little more sense though, e.g.

火 = Fire 车 = Vehicle 火车 = Train

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