六書 Liushu

So I think what I’m going to do is have each post dedicated to one character in general, and every now and then throw in a post about something else. Before even looking at specific characters, it is essential to know how characters are made and how to recognize them.

According to the first Chinese dictionary, 說文解字(Shuōwén Jiězì) dating back to about 100 CE, there are 6 different types of Chinese characters (I’ll be using “漢字” from now on instead of “Chinese characters”). I will go over these very briefly since you can find better information on Wikipedia here.

  1. 象形 – Pictograms
  2. 指事 – Ideograms
  3. 會意 – Ideogram compounds
  4. 形聲 – Phono-semantic compounds
  5. 假借 – Rebus (phonetic loan)
  6. 轉注 – Derivative cognates


象形 – Pictograms

These characters are visual representations, pretty self-explanatory. Roughly 600 漢字 are pictograms.

Ex. 日,月,木,目 (You can find nice little list with pictures on the Wikipedia link)


指事 – Ideograms

These express abstract ideas. Sometimes they can be a little hard to guess the meaning.

Ex. 一,二,三 (1, 2, 3),中 (middle, a line through the center of a circle)


會意 – Ideogram compounds

Two or more pictograms or ideograms whose meanings combine to create a new meaning.

Ex. 林(two trees=woods), 森(three trees=forest), 休(man leaning against a tree=rest)


形聲 – Phono-semantic compounds

These make up for over 90% of all 漢字 used today. They are made up of a semantic part and a phonetic part. The phonetic value is not always 100% accurate; over time and through different dialects of Chinese the phonetics of characters have changed so often they are very similar to their original phonetic part, but not exact. Often only the tone will change.

Ex. 鋼 gāng(steel)=金(metal radical)+岡(gāng) 近 jìn(close, near)=辶(walk radical)+斤(jīn)


假借 – Rebus (phonetic loan)

These 漢字 originally had a different meaning, but were “borrowed” to write a morpheme with the same phonetic value. Wikipedia gives a good example of how we use “4” in English to represent “for”, here “4” is a rebus.

Ex. 北 běi – Originally meant “back”, now means “north”. “Back” is now 背. 永 yǒng – Originally meant “to swim” now means “forever”. “To swim” is now 泳.


轉注 – Derivative cognates

This is the last one and hardly worth mentioning. Derivitive cognates are two characters whose characters share a similar meaning and often a common etymological root. I only know of two characters that fit this profile.

Ex. 老(lǎo) and 考(kǎo): The words derive from a common etymological root (approximately *klao’), and the characters differ only in the modification of one part.