Chinese Corner

A Horse Is a Horse… of Course?5 min read

Chinese characters aren’t pictographs (anymore) – by Ash Henson

From my earliest memories, I’ve always been fascinated by things foreign, and upon first glance, Chinese writing looked really, really foreign. Chinese characters have always held a certain mystique. They are the subject of mountains of misinformation, originating both from the Chinese themselves and from everyone else. Starting with this post, I will be guiding you through the entrancing and enraging world of Chinese characters.

It is often said that Chinese characters are not related to sound, but put a meaning directly into your head. The day I sat down to learn my first set of characters, it became clear that this is not true. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. Eventually, I left a career in engineering to move to Taiwan to go to graduate school. If Chinese characters were boring, I’d probably be making much more money than I am now!

I’ll save you the trouble of moving to Taiwan by giving a quick overview of the origin and evolution of the Chinese script.

Oracle bone circa 1200 BCE. (Wikimedia Commons)

The first Chinese characters appear on the scene around 1200 BC during the Shang Dynasty, carved into turtle shells or ox bones for the purposes of pyromancy, a type of divination. The diviner would first carve on characters related to the questions being asked of the deities, which could be anything from what the weather was going to be like on a given day, when to plant crops, or whether a military campaign would be successful. Next, the turtle shell or ox bone would be heated until it cracked. The way the cracks interacted with the carved characters was used to interpret the divination. This practice continued for centuries, eventually dying out during the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 221 BC).

Early characters were very picture-like. Let’s take a look at the character for “horse.” It first appeared on oracle bones like this:

This horse is a horse, of course. Later oracle bone forms tend to be more abstract, such as:

The horse’s head, legs and tail are still apparent, but you have to compare it to the earlier form to really see that it’s a horse.

Zhou Dynasty bronzeware with inscription on inner surface, circa 900 BCE. (National Palace Museum)

Another major source of ancient forms of Chinese characters comes from inscriptions on bronze work. These can be anything from simple cups, to swords and daggers, to more complex items like large containers used for cooking or ceremonial purposes. The characters inscribed in bronze tend to be less angular than the oracle bone forms, due to how they were written. Early bronze inscriptions were carved directly into the clay used as the mold, producing rounder shapes and fewer sharp edges:

This is an example of an early bronze inscription. Here, we see the horse’s mane, which is missing from the earlier example. The same character has multiple paths of form evolution. Later bronze inscriptions were carved into the metal, returning a more angular look.

The next major node of evolution came during the Warring States period (475 BC to 221 BC), a time of political division. Each state developed its own writing system, though they were all related to each other.  Here are a few of the forms of “horse” from this period:

Some of the forms are more abstract than others, but they all share some common traits. This period ended with the unification of China in 221 BC under the Qin Dynasty. The script was also unified – actually, the Qin just got rid of the scripts from the other states. There was just one way to write “horse”:

As time progressed, character forms became more and more stylized. “Horse” became ever less horse-like:

Though the three forms above are over 1500 years old, Chinese readers will clearly recognize them as “horse” (馬). The script in use today is virtually unchanged from the shape they took two millennia ago.

Now, let’s look at that same evolution for the character meaning “woman,” from oracle bone carving to bronze inscription to ink-and-brush form:

The earliest form depicts a kneeling woman with her hands crossed over her lap. Once again, the change is from life-like images to stylized characters.

Here’s where the story gets really interesting. “Woman” is 女, pronounced , which was originally a depiction of a woman in a kneeling position. “Horse” is 馬, pronounced , a depiction of a horse. “Mom” is 媽. When I first encountered this character, I knew instinctively that there is no way the appearance of  in 媽 could be anything other than a representation of sound. (And there’s 女 on the left, hinting at the meaning.) It was so obvious. How could everything that I had heard be so wrong?

Most characters in modern use are like this, with a combination of components or “radicals” forming the sound and the meaning of the character. They are appropriately called sound-meaning characters, and demonstrate conclusively that sound representation is very important for understanding the Chinese script and how it works.

That is just a rough overview of how the Chinese script developed. The whole story is full of twists and turns and dead ends and madness. I’ll be back to explore all that craziness with you in future columns. And who knows, you may find yourself on the next flight to Taipei, after all. ∎

For more detailed explanations of the origins of Chinese characters, check out Ash’s dictionary app Outlier Linguistics.