Flashcards for learning Chinese characters the efficient way
Learning Chinese characters may seem to be a hard task. It is true that the
Chinese writing system is not as easy as something like German. However,
students can adopt a strategy that will help them not become frustrated.
Chinese characters had their beginnings in drawings that represented things
directly. The Chinese word for "horse" is "mǎ," and in traditional Chinese
characters it is written as 馬. The main stages of its development are as
(Drawing of Chinese characters after Gao Shu-fan, Xing-Yin-Yi
Zong-he Da Zi-dian.)
The earliest examples of Chinese characters we have were inscribed on the
shells of tortoises and the shoulder bones of cattle. In the character at
the left it is easy to see the hooves, the legs, the body, the tail, the
mane, and (since horses have extremely large eyes for their size), the eye.
In the next form, engraved on bronze ceremonial vessels, the eye is given a
pupil, and the top and bottom lines of the eye are extended to form part of
the mane. The rest of the horse has become more of a "stick horse." The
third version, a character that was engraved on stone, streamlines things
still further. The traditional form, on the right, still preserves the eye
and mane at the top, the bottom of the eye is extended to form the back, and
the back goes around a corner to form the tail. Below these elements are
four short lines that represent the legs of the horse. With this
information, students will be able to understand that the character for
horse is not ten arbitrarily placed lines.
If every word, every concept, had to be represented by such a drawing, then
the Chinese writing system would be very difficult indeed. However, many
Chinese characters are made on a sort of rebus principle. For instance, the
character for "female human being," which was originally a more realistic
picture, is now written as 女 and pronounced nǚ. The character
for horse, 馬, is pronunced mǎ. To write the character for "mom" or
"mama," mā, the character for female human being is used to give the general
class of things involved, and the character for horse is used to suggest the
pronunciation, resulting in 媽。 To write "mama," or "māma" in Chinese, one
simple writes the character twice: 媽媽.
printing out and using the flashcards provided as PDF files below.
The first four pages of flashcards presented here provide twenty of the most
often used characters that also are used to form other, more complicated,
characters. They are:
目、mù, eye, which you already have learned above.
口、kǒu, mouth, to which you have also been introduced .
耳、ěr, ear, a highly stylized picture of a human ear.
手、shǒu, hand, a simple drawing showing five fingers.
止、zhǐ, to stop, a drawing of a left foot. (I'm going to put my foot
down! Stop this nonsense!)
金、jīn, gold, a picture of an a-frame shed covering a shaft in the earth 土 in
which two nuggets of gold can be seen.
木、mù, tree (or wood), a picture of a tree with three branches at the top and
three roots at the bottom.
水、shuǐ, water, a picture of ripples in the course of a stream that is going
around a couple of bends.
火、huǒ, fire, a picture of a bonfire with flames leaping from it.
土、tǔ, earth, a picture of some plant forcefully thrusting itself up from the
surface of the land.
禾、hé, growing grain, a picture of something like a tree but with a heavy
head of grain bending down its top.
田、tián, field, a picture of a paddy with four flooded plots.
首、shǒu, head, an eye above which is something that may represent the horns
of some animal like a deer or antelope.
貝、bèi, cowry shell, a picture that shows the two feelers of the little sea
organism at the bottom, and a pattern on its shell
人、rén, human being, a human being seen from the side.
巾、jīn, scarf, kerchief, a human being (just the vertical line), and the
scarf (⼌) draped over his or her shoulders.
宀、 mián, thatched hut, a picture that shows just the roof of a thatched hut.
(See the flashcard for a picture of the kind of half-underground prehistoric
戈、gē, a kind of spear-like weapon designed for hacking rather than stabbing.
Technically, it is called a "halberd," or, more properly
刀、dāo, knife. the character is a picture of something like the western meat
cleaver, but it is a tool designed to be used for cutting as well as
勺、sháo, a ladle or large spoon. The character shows a sort of scoop with
something lying in it.
With just these characters, it is possible to construct:
口＋土＝吐, tǔ, to spit
禾＋口＝和 hé, harmony
手＋目＝看 kàn, (hand shading eye) to look
人＋木＝休 xiū (亻is the compressed form of 人) to rest (a schematic picture
of a human being leaning on a tree)
禾＋火＝秋 qiū (when grain stalks, leaves, etc. are burned), autumn
禾＋刀＝利 lì (刂is the compressed form of 刀) (to cut grain stalks with a
knife or sickle) (1) benefit (2) sharp
木＋木＝林 lín, grove, woods
木＋木＋木＝森 sēn, forest, jungle
目＋人＝見 jiàn , to see, to perceive
By putting one character after another it is possible to make "compounds"
水手 shuí shǒu, "water hand," i.e., sailor
口水 kóu shuǐ, "mouth water," i.e., saliva
水田 shuǐ tián, "water field," i.e., flooded field
(N.B. Two third tones change into a second tone and a third tone in
Click the link below to download four pages of four-sided flashcards. Print
the PDF document, next fold it down the center line with the writing on the
outside, and then fold down the new center line in the same way. Cut
the cards apart on the horizontal lines. Now you will have 20 cards the will
look like little books. The "page" numbered (1) should be on the outside. It
will be the English word for the Chinese character. Try to recall the
pronunciation for the Chinese term. You may write it down. Then you should
open the book slightly and peek at page (2). If you got it right then you
may try to write the Chinese character and check yourself against page (4).
However, if you get stuck then you can look at page (3) for a hint. Do not
just look at the Chinese character you are trying to write without first
trying to write it and taking advantage of the hint if you need help.
Flashcard set one (Characters 1—20)
The second four pages of flashcards provide the following characters:
尚、shàng, ascendant; yet, still; [surname]. One explanation says that this
character consists of 宀 mián, house, that has a 口 kǒu, "mouth," but here
"window," and 八 bā, "eight, but here (as is frequently the case) it is a
drawing used to indicate "splitting up." The windows in simple houses with
one window and one door would be on the opposite side from the door, which
typically would face south for warmth from the sun. So "window in house"
suggests "north," and "north" suggests "a direction." A "splitting up" would
then suggests "going in different directions," and by extension that would
suggest divergence in social positions, nobility versus common status, etc.
言、yán, speech, a saying. The early diagrams seem to represent a flute or
horn of some kind being pressed to the lips of someone who is making a sound
with it. See Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa, item 251.
隹、zhuī, short-tailed bird. The early forms are stylized pictures of some
kind of bird.
力、lì, strength, power. The early forms are "stick man" pictures showing only
two arms engaged in arm wrestling.
心、xīn, heart, mind. The early characters show cross-sectional views of a
大、dà, big, large. The early drawings is a simple "stick-man" figure
with arms outstretched to show how large something is.
𠤎 、huà, change, transform. This character is the inverted form of 人 rén,
"human being." Sometimes it appears as the character for 人 mirrored left for
辶 、chuò, the "running radical," used for ideas involving motion. The early
form shows a foot (pointing downward on the page) in the middle of a
小 、xiǎo, little, small. The basic character is just three little lines.
矢 、shǐ, arrow, crossbow quarrel, dart. The early forms are all pictures of
因 、yīn, because, reason for something, The early character shows a "stick
man" resting on some kind of a mat. Compare this image with the English idea
of "depending" or "hanging from" something.
而 、ér, indicates that the preceding and following elements are related. "↔"
The early character is a picture of a mustache and a forked beard. The
points of the beard point in to directions, so it is similar to a
不 、bú (if followed by a fourth, descending, tone), otherwise bù, negative
for non-past events, for intentions, volitions, etc. The early character
seems to depict a three-pronged hand tool of some kind. It must have been
borrowed to represent this very abstract idea.
見 、jiàn, (1) to perceive, to see, to hear (in certain compounds), etc. (2)
to go to see someone of higher status. The character consists of 目 mù, "an
eye" on ⼉ rén , "human being, a variant showing only the legs." It is almost
as though the ancient Chinese has an expression similar to our, "I'm
森 、sēn, forest, jungle. Three 木 mù, "trees," suggest the idea of a dense
forest or jungle
林 、lín, grove, wood (as in "wooden desk"), [surname]. Two 木 suggest the idea
of a smaller concentration of trees than a forest.
只 、zhǐ, only. Some authorities say this character is composed of 口 kǒu,
"mouth," and something like 八 bā, "eight or 'to divide or split'" that
represents breath being exhaled downward. However, the oracle bone character
is very complex and seems to depict two hands reaching out to grab a
swaybacked creature with long hair or a plume that is standing on two legs.
character is similar on conception to 隻 zhī, "hand holding a bird," which
has a very similar pronunciation. So the early form may have been borrowed
to write the abstract meaning of "only," and later simplified to its present
了 、le, verb+le indicates "did [whatever the verb was]." (It is used, in
combination with the verb, to answer positively the question, "Did you do it
yet?") The original characters are completely abstract and explanations such
as "an armless 子 child" are not helpful.
豕 、shǐ, swine, The early characters are drawings that depict a very fat
乍 、zhà, suddenly and unexpectedly. There are other explanations, but to me
the oracle bone forms seem to involve a foot and either something catching
the foot (as would an untied shoe string) or somebody stubbing his or her
With the characters listed above, it is possible to construct the following
尚 ＋ 土 ＝ 堂， táng, hall (public meeting place)
尚 ＋ 田 ＝ 當, dāng, ought, should; to hold the position of
尚 ＋ 巾 ＝ 常, cháng, constant, frequent
言 ＋ 人 ＝ 信, xìn, trust, belief; a letter
隹 ＋ 口 ＝ 唯, wéi, only
隹 ＋ 水 ＝ 淮, huái, name of a river, a major tributary to the
力 ＋ 口 ＝ 加, jiā, to add
心 ＋ 田 ＝ 思, sī, thought
大 ＋ 力 ＝ 夯, hāng, rammed earth construction
大 ＋ 小 ＝ 尖, jiān, sharp (point)
𠤎＋人＝化, huà, to transform
辶＋首＝道, dào, the way; a road
矢＋口＝知, zhī, to know
不＋木＝杯, bēi, drinking glass
豕＋辶＝逐, zhú, gradual, sequential
乍＋心＝怎, zěn, how (can that be)
人＋乍＝作, zuò, to do
By putting one character after another it is possible to make "compounds"
水力, shuǐ lì, water power
人力, rén lì, human power (for vehicles, etc.)
大人, dà rén, adult
大刀, dà dāo, sword
Flashcard set two (Characters 21—40)
The third four pages of flashcards provide the following characters:
又 yòu, (referring to events in the past) again. (This character is a picture
of a hand, and it usually has that meaning as a component in another
衣 yī, clothing. (The character depicts a short-sleeved garment.)
肉 ròu, meat, flesh. (The character depicts a hanging piece of meat like a
𠂤 duī, pile (The drawing that forms this character has been rotated 90°
clockwise. Tt shows two piles lying on the ground.)
中 zhōng, middle, center; in (The character shows some kind of a target
pierced by spears or arrows with pennants attached.)
青 qīng, green and blue, with shades to black (The character shows some kind
of pot with a plant growing out of it.)
天 tiān, heaven, sky, day (The character shows a man with a large head, a
"head man." The earliest roal ancestor resides in heaven.)
白 bái, white (The character shows a gingko fruit. immature fruit have a waxy
white appearance, and the seeds are bone white.)
歹 dǎi bad, evil. (This character depicts bones broken in half)
日 rì sun, day (picture of the sun)
至 zhì, to arrive at (picture of an arrow falling to earth and sticking
谷 gǔ valley
黃 huáng, yellow
今 jīn current, recent
正 zhèng, square, upright, orthogonal, correct
門 mén, gate, door (picture of double doors, the kind used in saloons in
這 zhè, zhèi this (The character originally had something to do with motion,
and was later borrowed to represent the abstract idea "this.")
彳 chì, short step. (This character shows a human being and a mark above, or
ahead, to suggest the idea of taking a short step forward.)
广 yǎn, cliff dwelling. (The character 厂 represents a
cliff. The dot above the cliff represents smoke coming out of a human
子 zǐ, child (This character depicts a human being with a
proportionately large head, a characteristic of the very young.)
The fourth four pages of flashcards provide the following characters:
女 nǔ female human being, daughter (The character shows a kneeling female
human with upper body rotated so that two breasts are clearly visible)
在 zài to be located at.
用 yòng to use; a function. The original character depicts a series of tubes
of graduated length. The function performed by these tubes
is the production of musical notes of varying frequencies.
父 fù father. The original character depicts a man with stick in hand.
母 mǔ mother. The original character is the same as for 女 except that there
are two dots to indicate the prominent nipples of a lactating mother.
米 mǐ rice (uncooked). The original character depicts the orderly arrangement
of grains in a head of rice.
也 yě also. The original character is said to depict the labia and clitoris.
必 bì must.
乞 qǐ to beg. This character is a cognate of 气, pronounced qì, and has been
borrowed to write the abstract idea of begging.
常 cháng constant, frequent, often. 尚 shàng, is this character's phonetic
component, and 巾 jīn, kerchief, suggests the idea of something long and
尤 yóu especially.
易 yì chameleon, change, easy, the Book of Changes. The original character
depicts a lizard. A chameleon changes, and can do so easily.
利 lì benefit; sharp. This character is composed of two meaning components, 禾
hé, growing grain with a large hanging head of grain, and 刀 (刂), which
suggests the idea of a sickle, a sharp tool used to harvest the beneficial
艮 gèn "hard stare." (The dictionary meaning is (1) to stop, and (2) hard.)
The original character depicts a man with an eye nearly closed, as though
squinting or glaring angrily at someone, giving someone a "hard stare" to
stop them from doing something.
王 wáng king; [surname]. The original character is similar to 立, which
resembles 大 written over a line (stick man standing on something) with an
enlarged head. So it depicts someone who stands or has been established as
the head man for his country.
兒 ér infant → child, son. The character depicts a kneeling human with a
skull in which the bones have not yet grown fully together and fused, so it
depicts an infant.
取 qǔ to pick up, to grab, to grasp. This character shows a hand, 又, grasping
some miscreant by the ear. So the basic meaning is, "to nab."
是 shì is. The oracle bone character, which was considerably more
complicated, has been simplified to show 日 rì, the sun, over 正 zhèng.
"upright." The original character depicted somebody going somewhere with a
flag oe placard on a pole and planting it there to indicate, "This is it!"
Turning the placard into the sun and the 止 (picture of a foot) into 正
(upright) by combining two separate elements into one has created a
character the components of which do not any longer have a plausible reason
for being put together.
知 zhī to know. 矢 shǐ, dart or arrow, and 口 kǒu, mouth, when combined suggest
vividly to me the way people rush to claim, "I know! I know!"
巴 bā serpent. (It is not known exactly what kind of snake this was.) The
original characters are drawings of a snake coiled and ready to strike.
西 xī west. The character depicts a bird on its nest. When the sun goes down
in the west, then birds return to their nests.
馬 mǎ horse. The character is a stylized or "stick" horse. Visible are 目 (the
eye of the horse), 三 (the mane of the horse), a horizontal line for the back
of the horse, a descending line representing the tail, and four dots that
represent the horse's legs.
高 gāo high, tall. The character represents a tall pagoda.
牛 niú cow. The character depicts the horns and powerful forequarters
of a bull, its head and its tail.
本 běn root, basic, fundamental. The character uses a short horizontal
line to mark the root of 木 a tree.
山 shān mountain. Three peaks are shown standing over the land.
羊 yáng sheep. The character shows the curved horns of a ram, four legs, and
the back and tail.
可 kě permissible may, can. The character shows a mouth and ㄎ (but
reversed left for right), indicating the reverse of an obstructed breath,
i.e., a relaxed, at ease, and therefore complaisant breath. So the idea is
that the mouth released a breath that indicates satisfaction with some
proposal or state of affairs.
怕 pà to fear; fear. The character combines the idea of heart/mind and
(a face that has turned) white.
男 nán male human. The character combines the idea of field (field work) and
生 shēng to grow; to live; to grow out from, to be produced, to give birth
to; to produce; to be produced (as by condensation). The character
shows a plant sprouting up from the ground.
步 bù footstep. The character shows a left foot out in front of a right foot,
indicating one step forward.
曰 yuē to say. (This character is ordinarily used only in classical Chinese)
The character shows a mouth and a tongue.
未 wèi not yet, never yet. The early form of this character, a tree 木 with
many branches, is similar to another character that shows fruit at the
end of each branch. Perhaps the idea of this character is to depict a tree
that has not yet produced fruit.
有 yǒu to have. The character depicts a hand 丆 and some meat 肉, in the
compressed form ⺼.
者 zhě the one who (pronoun). The character shows a footprint of someone
walking away from a basket. Perhaps this fact indicates the one who removed
the contents of the basket.
老 lǎo old (almost never used to describe anything other than
humans). The earliest character shows an old man supporting himself on
a cane. Later the character evolves to depict an individual whose hair is
changing to gray or white.
立 lì to stand, to establish. The early character involves a "stick
figure" human 大 standing on a horizontal line.
幵 jiān level, even in
length. (Simplified as 幵
when it appears as a component of another character. ) The character may
represent two things of even length.
上 shàng up, on, to ascend; upper, top, etc.; to bring (food, etc.) on (The
character shows a horizontal reference line and another line rising from it,
⟂. The Western equivalent would be ↑or ↑.)
下 xià to descend; lower, bottom, etc. The early form was just ⟙.
容 róng to contain. The character is formed by 宀, a roof, and 谷, a valley. A
covered valley would have a very great storage capacity.
難 nán difficult. The left-hand component is a compressed version of 黃,
yellow or brown, and 隹, a short-tailed bird. When all the earth turns brown
birds have a hard time of it.
回 huí to return, turn back. The early form of this character consists of two
concentric circles. The circles suggest the idea of turning and of
來 lái motion toward the speaker (to come). The character resembles 木 because
it originally named a kind of grain-bearing plant. It was "borrowed" to
write the abstract idea "to come."
才 cái This character is now written to represent the idea "only then." It
retains its original meaning of talent or innate capacity. It depicts a
plant growing out of a subterranean bulb.
平 píng level, even, uneventful. A single horizontal line at the top suggests
the idea of "level," and the remainder of the character is an early
安 ān peaceful, tranquil; peace. A 女 (woman) in her 宀 (home) will
be at peace.
寸 cùn A Chinese inch. The original character shows a hand and an additional
mark that points to an acupuncture point that is one "inch" above the wrist.
(In acupuncture, one 寸 is proportional to the patient's body, and is defined
as the length of the first segment of the patient's index finger.)
圭 guī a jade tablet that denotes the authority of a feudal lord. Feudal
lords received parcels of 土 land that were defined by the king.
囗 wéi to surround. The drawing gives the idea of a fence line that surrounds
something. As a free-standing character, 囗 is ordinarily given a clarifying
phonetic and written as 圍。
兌 duì to exchange money, to
barter; to transfer liquid from one vessel to another. This character
originally meant "to rejoice" so we see a human (⼉), a mouth (口), and
two lines indicating "to split into a smile."
足 zú foot; sufficient. The original character is a drawing of the leg and
糸 mì floss, filament. The early characters show a skein of thread that,
because of the way filaments are twisted together to spin thread, has
twisted into a figure 8, and, to prevent tangles has been secured by strings
at the top and bottom.
合 hé to unite. The early characters show two parts of a clam shell that come
together to form a safe shelter, or a bottle and its fitted cap.
冉 rǎn The bottom shell of a turtle (plastron). The original characters seem
to show a cord with tassels on both ends. Since plastrons were used for
ritual purposes, perhaps they were held by tasseled cords during storage.
邑 yì principality, a small state like Monaco. The original character shows a
fenced domain and a kneeling human figure. The idea seems to be "territory
睘 huán running wildly in circles. “Alarmed look" is suggested by 目 (rotated
90°). "Running" is suggested by 袁, long flowing garment, and circularity is
suggested because of this character's connection with 還 (to re-turn), and 圜
(circle → circle back).
北 běi north. This character was borrowed from a character meaning
back-to-back. The back-to-back idea is formed by writing 人 and 𠤎 (human and
inverted human) side by side. The back-to-back meaning is now represented by
背 bèi, "back."
出 chū to exit; to emit. The original character shows an enclosure at the
bottom and a foot pointed out of the enclosure at the top.
哥 gē elder brother. The character 可 kě is repeated to indicate
"affable sound." The character was borrowed to write "elder brother."
跟 gēn to follow; and; with. 足 zú, foot, gives the general sense of the
character, and 艮 gèn gives an indication of the pronunciation.
光 guāng rays of light; brightness, bright. The character is a drawing of a
person carrying some kind of torch.
還 hái (also read huán with a different meaning, "to return something") still
(→ even more). 辶 chuò (the "running radical") gives an indication of the
general category of meaning for "to return something," and 瞏 (in a modified
form) that indicates staring and running in circles gives the pronunciation
好 hǎo good. 女 nǚ, human female, suggests mother, and 子 zǐ, child, drawn in
beside its mother suggests the good relationship that normally prevails
between mother and child.
虎 hǔ tiger. The original character is a picture of a tiger with big jaws and
家 jiā family; home; guild. 宀 mián is a drawing of a house. 豕 shǐ indicates
pigs or pork, which have various associations with homes and families.
件 jiàn measure word (MW) for events and some other things; an article, an
item. human beings (人) can divide cows (牛). The modern meaning extends the
idea of "parts," or "components."
嗎 ma (mə) sentence ending that makes a statement into a question. 口 kǒu,
mouth, indicates that the character is "just a sound," and 馬 mǎ gives an
indication of the pronunciation.
沒 méi to sink, to confiscate → to not have. The original character has 水
shuǐ, water or stream, a figure that originally resembled 回 and was a
drawing of a whirlpool, and 又 yòu, hand. the entire picture was then of a
person being sucked into a whirlpool in a river, the hand waving for
attention being the only part of the person left to be seen.
們 men pluralizing ending for certain nouns that can be conceptualized as a
guild or special association. Each guild is conceptualized as having its own
門 mén, gate. The several 人(亻) rén, people, who belong together behind a gate
or in a guild, are thus a plurality the members of which have a family-like
or guild-like relationship among them.
你 nǐ you, your. 人 (亻) indicates the category of human beings, and 尔 is
the extreme cursive (or "grass") form of the classical word for "you," 爾 ěr.
事 shì event, affair. This character has compressed elements that make it
difficult to analyze with certainty. the component that 事 has in common with
聿 is another form of 又 yòu, hand. The remainder of 事 is apparently a
version of 吏 lì (but missing one stroke), a character that means "minor
official," which itself derives from 史 shǐ, a picture of a hand holding an
official document, especially a document that relates to some case being
contested or otherwise handled. Just looking at the components, there are
multiple references to "hand," or perhaps "handling," and the general
context seems to indicate the world of officialdom.
説 (說variant form used in printing) shuō to say. 言 yán, speech, gives
the general category of meaning of this word, and 兑 duì gives a rough
indication of the pronunciation. (when it means "to persuade," (説 can
also be pronounced shuì when it means "to advise," which is closer to duì.)
The handwritten form of 兌 normally has the top strokes pointing in the other
direction,兌. Some printed
forms also follow the handwritten way of writing this character.
太 tài too → Mrs., lady. This character consists of 大 dà, large, and
either one mark (which may function like our ditto mark) or two marks, the
character 二 èr, two. So the basic sense seems to be "doubly large,"
"extremely large," and then "too large" or just "extremely."
我 wǒ i, me, my. The left half of this character, slightly compressed,
is 手 shǒu, hand. The right half is 戈 gē, halberd. The idea of "I, me, my,"
is communicated by a picture of an individual taking a weapon in hand to
defend himself/herself and/or his/her property.
先 xiān prior, former. 止 zhǐ, a foot, is at the top and 儿 (a form of 人)
rén, human being, is at the bottom. This drawing suggests a foot going out
ahead of the body.
自 zì self; from. The ancient form of this character is a picture of a nose.
古 gǔ ancient. A story that passes from (口 kǒu) mouth to mouth ten (十 shí)
times is said to be an old story.
以 yǐ to take to do, to take as, to use as, to the (east, north, south, west,
higher, lower, etc.) This character has always been very abstract. Tts
earliest form is a single curved line resembling an inverted "9." The
present-day "grass" form is almost the same as the original character. There
appear to be no very plausible reconstructions explaining why the character
was originally written as it was. Some suggest that it is a cognate of 厶 sī,
which is plausible because it now stands as the phonetic component of 似 sì,
以 yǐ to take to do, to take as, to use as, to the (east, north, south, west,
higher, lower, etc.) This character has always been very abstract. Its
earliest form is a single curved line resembling an inverted "9." The
present-day "grass" form is almost the same as the original character. There
appear to be no very plausible reconstructions explaining why the character
was originally written as it was. Some suggest that it is a cognate of 厶 sī,
which is plausible because it now stands as the phonetic component of 似 sì,
他 tā he, she it. (in modern othography, she and it are represented by 她 and
它 or 牠.) 人(亻) gives the general category of meaning, and 也 replaces an older
地 dì earth, land. 土 gives the general category of meaning, and 也 replaces an
最 zuì most. 冃 mào hat, cover (looks like 日）and 取 qǔ originally were
used for their meanings. This character, which now means "the most,"
originally meant "to steal." Perhaps the idea was the use of a kind of
slight of hand in which a thief first casually dropped a cloth or something
over a bracelet or other valuable object and then picked them both up.
位 wèi position, social status, as a measure word (MW), "person of status."
人（亻）depicts the idea of a human being who 立 stands in a position or has a
道 dào road, a way to do something, the Way. 首 shǒu is a picture of a head,
and 辶 chuì (full form 辵）indicates motion. People turn their heads in
some direction and then walk, so gradually a road is formed.
看 kàn to look at, to read. When a 手 shǒu (hand) shades one's 目 mù,
(eyes), then onw is probably looking at something.
工 gōng to work. The ancient character is a picture of some kind of workman's
tool. Some say it is a carpenter's square.
作 zuò to do. 人(亻) human being suggests the general meaning-class of this
character and 乍 zuò gives a very general idea of its pronunciation.
很 hěn very 彳chuò, short step may give the idea of "a step too far,"
and 艮 gèn (hard stare) may give both an indication of the
pronunciation and also point to the reaction of others to someone who has
gone too far.
給 gěi to give. 糸 mì filament and 合 hé to unite seem to suggest some idea of
a bond or a continuity uniting those who give with those who receive.
相 xiāng mutually, reciprocally xiàng to examine. When examining a 木 mù
tree to determine its suitability as a source of lumber it is necessary to
use one's 目 mù eyes.
麻 má hemp. When hemp fibers are prepared to make cord or cloth, the mature
plants are first soaked in water so that the non-fibrous parts are
decomposed by bacterial action. Afterwards, the accumulated stalks (林 lín
grove) are stacked in a roofed area (广 yǎn cliff dwelling) for drying and
么 yāo tiny. The ancient drawing depicts a single filament. (Compare with 糸
昔 xí ancient times. 日 rì is the sun, meaning "the days of" and ♒
above it represents the ancient waters of the flood. (China
had its own flood myth.) The days of the flood were in high antiquity.
戔 jiān smithereens, to hack to pieces, tiny, mincemeat. 戈 gē halberd
against 戈 gē halberd produces badly hacked up fighters.
里 lǐ village, Chinese mile. 田 tián fields and 土 tǔ earth, or shrine to the
earth god, suggests the idea of a village; the average distance between
villages may have been taken as a unit of distance, the "Chinese
mile," which is about one third of an English mile.
⽨ bò The ancient character depicts two feet moving in opposite direction
成 chéng to complete. O.K. 戊 wù halberd with a big blade like an
ax, and 丁dīng nail, as the phonetic, are used to mean to put an end to
warfare. The oracle bone characters show a kind of long-hafted battle ax and
a single line. That vertical line is taken to indicate the end-point or the
termination of hostilities.
此 cǐ this. 止 zhǐ is a picture of a foot and means "to stop." 𠤎 huà depicts
either an inverted human being or else is the ordinary character for human
being flipped left for right. So the combination of these two components it
taken to mean "the place where the person has currently stopped, i.e., this
place," and, by extension, to mean "this."
丰 fēng 丯 jiè originally these two were apparently the same drawing. they
represented a plant with its roots (emphasized) growing down into the earth
and its stem and branches growing up into the air. 丰 fēng emphasizes the
goodness of luxuriant growth, and 丯 jiè has more to do with the the rankness
of growth. jiè also resembles the threads of screws. the image of a plant
growing from a seed or bulb to form roots that go down and a stem that goes
up also suggests the idea of penetration.
功 gōng meritorious accomplishment.
貫 guàn pierced coins strung together; anything that is so strung together;
to string things together.
咼 guo* (technically, this character is pronounced kuā or wāi, but it always
indicates the sound "guo" when it occurs as a component of a
character) "twisted mouth."
己 jǐ self. filaments, straws, etc. can be individuated by bending them
or tying knots in them. so an individuated fiber has a self identity.
借 jiè to lend; to borrow. 人 (亻) rén human being gives the general sphere of
meaning of this word since something that is owned by one person is
temporarily treated as though it belonged to another person, and 昔 xí
gives a rough indication of its current pronunciation.
開 kāi to open. 門 mén, "gate," is one kind of thing that is frequently opened
and shut, and 幵 jiān, "even, level," gives some indication of the
麼 ma (mǝ) a question-word ending.麻 má, "hemp," gives an idea of the
pronunciation and 么 yāo, "tiny," gives the idea of smallness.
Originally, this character meant "small in diameter," "thin," etc. It is now
primarily borrowed to represent the "mǝ" sound on the end of certain words
in vernacular Chinese.
其 qí its (in classical Chinese and certain compounds). This character
originally was a drawing of a basket on a low table. It was borrowed very
early on to write the word for "its" in classical Chinese.
錢 qián money. 金 jīn, "gold," gives an idea of the meaning, and 戔 jiān, "to
hack into tiny pieces," gives an idea of the pronunciation.
去 qù motion not toward the speaker, "to go." Originally this character had 大
serving as a picture of a human being on the top, and something resembling 凵
below to indicate an enclosure that the individual was moving away from.
什 shé a squad of 10 men; what. 人(亻) rén, "human being," and 十 shí, "ten,"
together give the clear idea of a squad of ten people. This character is now
often borrowed and used with 麼 to write shéme, "what."
亡 wáng to perish. There are other explanations, but to me the early forms of
this character all look like 人 a human or 𠤎 an inverted human (dead human)
resting in a grave as seen from above.
為 wéi to be, to do; wèi for the sake of. There is one current form of the
printed character that has 爪 zhuǎ or "paw," at the top, and a version
of 象 xiàng, "elephant," below it. This current character more closely
represents the original character, which shows a human hand and an elephant.
I think the obvious intention is to show the multiplication of human effort
that can be obtained by gaining control of the strength of an elephant. The
elephant then serves the human being to do certain things for the sake of
its mahout's purposes.
想 xiǎng to think. 相 xiàng, "to examine, to evaluate," and 心 xīn, "heart,
行 xíng to go, to travel, the opposite of "no go." háng a row (of
businesses), a specialty, a specialist. The ancient character shows a
業 yè enterprise, work, task, job, business. Originally, this character was a
drawing of a rack used to organize bells or other musical instruments. It
later came to mean, among other things, a piece of wood upon which a text
was engraved (as it would be for printing). 書冊之版
圣 kū working the land. 又yòu, "hand," and 土 tǔ, "dirt," give a clear
picture of working the land.
並 bìng "double-plus" when followed by a negative; moreover. This character
is formed by writing two 立 lì characters side by side. 立 is just a picture
of a human being standing still. Two of them provides the picture of human
being standing together, so the ordinary meaning of this character is
"moreover." When it appears with a negative, e.g., 並不, it serves to give
strong emphasis to the negative, so 並不 means "certaingly is not."
帛 bó silk cloth. 白 bó or bái, "white," is written above 巾 jīn,
到 dào motion toward a destination; to arrive. The general meaning of this
character is given by 至 zhì and the pronunciation is given by 刀 (刂) dāo.
封 fēng to seal; a seal; an envelope; mw for letters. The left-hand element
resembles 圭 guī, "jade tablet that is an emblem of authority," which
suggests part of the meaning, and 寸 cùn, "Chinese inch" but also a drawing
of a hand with one digit emphasized, gives the idea of pressing a seal onto
a document. However, examination of the oracle bone and bronze characters
shows that this character was originally formed from 丰 fēng, depicting
vegetation penetrating into the earth (and also the phonetic part of this
character), 土 tǔ, dirt, and uses 寸 cùn to suggest the idea of planting the
vegetation (trees) into a place symbolic of a man's status as feudatory
過 guò to cross over (a bridge, some distance, some time, etc.); past (in
time expressions, 5 past 3). 咼 kuā gives a rough idea of
the pronunciation, and 辵 (辶) gives the general idea of movement.
害 hài to injure. the opening of a wound (口 kǒu) produced by penetration (丰
fēng) and covered by a bandage (宀 mián, or maybe in the beginning
冖mì). （the traditional explanation seems contrived.)
後 hòu aft (after, behind, etc.) 彳chì "short step" may be a shortened
version of 行 xíng "to go." 么 yāo is a drawing of a filament,
and 夂 zhǐ gives the idea of catching up from behind. the character
depicts someone moving forward while trailing a thread. the thread naturally
falls behind the person. someone else follows to catch up with the first
person from behind. so the idea of being behind is symbolized in two ways.
(There are other analyses that depend on a different understanding of what
the part of the ancient characters that corresponds to 夂 may represent in
京 jīng capital. the ancient character shows a tower or a castle. the ancient
character is just like 高 gāo except that instead of a mouth (representing a
window?) at the bottom there is a 門 mén, "gate. Cities are associated with
the idea of city gates that are topped by roofed guard stations.
那 nà nèi that. 冉 rǎn, turtle shell (plastron), is the character's phonetic
component, but pronunciations have changed so much over the intervening
centuries that the current pronunciation of 那 and 冉 are now quite
different.邑 yì, "principality," suggests the idea of a small country.
Originally, this character named a small country in the western part of
您 nín，you (formal). 你 nǐ, "you," gives the basic meaning of this character,
and 心 xīn, "heart," indicates the heartfulness of the respect offered
by this term of reference.
舌 shé 口 kǒu, mouth, is one part of the ancient character. the other
part, represented by something now looking much like 千, is a picture of the
forked tongue of a snake.
誰 shéi X person, who. 言 yán, speech, gives the general category of meaning
of this character. 隹 zhuī, short-tailed bird, gives an indication of the
實 shí real. 宀 mián gives the idea of a house and 貫 guàn, "coins strung
together," suggests the idea of real value.
思 sī thought. 田 tián, "flooded field," is a simplified version of 囟
xìn, a character that depicts the skull and fontanelles. The 心 xīn,
"heart," is also believed to be connected to thought and emotions.
些 xiē several 此 cǐ, "this," and 二 èr, "two," combine to suggest
the idea of "more than one of these.."
炎 yán flames rising, blaze up. 火 huǒ, "fire," is duplicated.
要 yào to want, to require, to be required to, to lack. The upper part, 覀. is
a drawing of hands on hips, and the hips belong to a 女 nǚ, "human female."
The question that needs elucidation is, "Whose hands are those?"
音 yīn sound. The original character shows some kind of musical instrument
being held to 曰 yuē, a picture of the mouth with the tongue also shown.
月 yuè moon. The earliest characters are drawings of a crescent moon.
真 zhēn genuine, real, really, truly. 𠤎 huà. "transformed human
being," 目 mù. "eye," and 几 jī, "low table" are the components of this
character. There seems to be some idea that forming a stable basis for
perception can lead to the spiritual tranformation of a human being, making
him or her a "true person." This religious idea from early China was
extended to refer to all kinds of genuine, as opposed to fabricated,
幫 bāng to help. 封 fēng, "to seal" with 帛 bó, "silk fabric." The
original meaning has to do with the beneficial effect to the entire shoe
that is performed by the welt or edging of cloth shoes, i.e., something like
twill tape that was used to join the upper part of a cloth shoe to the cloth
sole of the shoe. The most frequent points of failure of shoes are the
points at which movements of the foot while walking create strong tensions
between the upper part and the sole. The welt of shoes currently in
production is designed to be as mechanically durable as possible.
城 chéng 土 tǔ, "dirt" is used because city walls were frequently tall earthen
embankments. 成 chéng gives both the pronunciation and the idea of making and
completing something out of dirt.
囪 cōng smoke hole. before humans built chimneys into their houses they
simply constructed a hole in the roof to let the smoke from their fires
leave the building.
都 dū capital (city); dōu all. (the second meaning just borrows the character
to represent something in vernacular chinese.) 者 zhě, "the one
who," gives an indication of the pronunciation, and 邑 (阝)
弓 gōng bow. the ancient characters depict a recurved bow. In the modern form
the bowstring has become invisible.
關 guān to close, to close up, to close in. To connect (as by cords typing
two doors together); to lock up. 門 mén gives a general indication of the
meaning of this word, and the part inside is regarded as the phonetic
component of this character. 丱 guàn, "double pig-tails," is itself a
phonetic, which leaves the two 么 above them. 么 yāo is a picture of a
filament or thread, and the two of them suggest the idea of tying the two
panels of the double door together.
鬼 guǐ ghost; imp, devil. The original character shows something that looks
like 田 tián, "field," which is 甶 fú, a character that represents a large
head, or possibly a ceremonial mask used to impersonate the dead or to
represent spirits attending the funeral of a dead person, atop ⼉, which
represents the legs (and body) of a human, and a small element that now
looks like 厶 that is intended to represent the spirit of the dead as it
departs from the body.
侯 hóu (next to highest feudal rank, inferior to a 公 gōng, "duke"). 人 rén
human being, is written beside what is the modern form of the most ancient
character, 矢 shǐ, an arrow, pointing toward the top element (originally
written like 厂), which represents a piece of cloth used as a target. the
character originally referred to a seasonal archery contest, and the feudal
rank is an extended meaning of this term.
話 huà word, language, speech; story. 言 n, "speech," gives one of the aspects
of meaning of this character, and 舌 shé, "tongue," gives another aspect of
its meaning. (the latin word for language is lingua, and that word also
街 jiē street. 行 xíng, "to go," originally was a picture of a crossroads, so
it also suggests the idea of road. 圭 guī, jade symbol of authority, gives an
indication of the pronunciation of this word. (Many times characters that
are pronounced with a "g" initial consonant will appear in words that now
have a "j" initial consonant, and vice-versa.)
就 jiù the fundamental meaning was "to approach," →; then (can imply a very
easy transition, "easy as falling off a long"), exactly or precisely the one
being described. 京 jīng 尤 yóu.
忙 máng busy. 心 xīn, "heart/mind" gives some idea of the meaning, and 亡
wáng, "to perish," is this character's phonetic component.
明 míng bright. 日 rì, "the sun," is the brightest thing in the daytime sky,
and 月 yuè, "the moon," is the brightest thing in the nighttime sky.
殳 shū a kind of hafted weapon. 又 yòu at the bottom is the picture of a
hand. the remainder of the character represents a sort of long-handled club
寺 sì temple (and, originally, an official place of government business). the
character on top, now written 土 tǔ, dirt, was originally some version or
cognate of 之 zhī, which has, as one of its meanings, "to go forth." The
bottom was originally written as 又 yòu, "hand," and was later written as 寸
cùn, which is a hand with one finger given special emphasis. the actions of
those who served in the 寺 were done in service of and/or gave directions for
some public or institutional goal.
她 tā she 女 nǚ, "human female," gives an idea of the general category of
meaning of this character. 也 yě, "also," is this character's phonetic
談 tán to chat. 言 yán, "speech," gives an indication of the meaning of this
character, and 炎 yán, "blaze up," gives an indication of its pronunciation.
玉 yù jade. This character is a drawing of three pieces of jade on a string.
Because in its original form it resembled 王 wáng, "king," an extra dot has
been addedcreate a distinction to between the two characters.
主 zhǔ master, host, most important thing, focus of attention. The ancient
forms of this character depict something like an altar flame on a stand of
some kind, something that would automatically form the center of attention
for anyone entering the room.
処 chù to pursue; to find. 夂 zhǐ, "to catch up with from behind," gives an
indication of the meaning of this character. 几 jī, is "low table." The
original character may have depicted a servant following behind a guest or a
head of the household to provide a table (or perhaps a bench) to rest
against or on.
處 chù place (in classical Chinese and some present-day compounds). 虎 hu,
"tiger," gives some indication of the pronunciation of this character and
its meaning is given by 処 chù.
cōng hurriedly. (currently written 匆). The pronunciation of this character
is given by 囪 cōng, "smoke hole," and 心 xīn, "heart/mind," gives this
character's general category of meaning.
當 dāng to take a position. 尚 shàng, "ascendant," gives an indication of the
pronunciation, and 田 tián, "rice fields," gives the idea of an area
sectioned off into identifiable positions.
發 fā ⽨ bò 弓 gōng 殳 shū 癹 ＋ 殳 step forward and strike + hafted weapon.
XYY Dict. 1091
住 zhù to reside, to stay. 人 rén human being gives the general category of
meaning of this character, and 主 zhǔ, "master," gives an indication of the
候 hòu time. 侯 hóu is changed by adding a small vertical line. Early meanings
were related to shooting an arrow at a target.
塊 a lump, a piece, a dollar. 土 tǔ, "dirt," gives the idea of a clod or lump
and 鬼 guǐ, "ghost," gives an indication of the pronunciation.
裡 lǐ lining of clothing; inside. 衣 yī, "clothing," gives an idea of the
basic meaning, and 里 lǐ, "Chinese mile," gives the pronunciation.
且 qiě， moreover XXY 007
時 shí 日 rì, "sun," gives the idea of the sun's being our earliest
measure of time, and 寺 sì, "temple," gives an indication of the
pronunciation of this character.
忘 wàng to forget. 亡 wáng, "to perish," gives part of the meaning of this
character and also a close indication of its pronunciation, while 心 xīn,
"heart/mind," gives another part of the meaning. To forget is for something
to perish and be lost from the mind.
現 xiàn now, current. 玉 yù, "jade," gives an idea of something so vivid and
beautiful that it is sure to be 見 jiàn, "perceived" clearly in the
here and now.
意 yì meaning, intention. 音 yīn, "sound," gives the idea of internal dialog,
or talking to oneself, in one's 心 xīn, "heart/mind."
竹 zhú bamboo. The early characters give a clear drawing of bamboo plants
with their long, draping leaves.
走 zǒu, originally, "to run," now, "to walk." The original character has two
parts, the character 止 zhǐ at the bottom, which is a picture of a foot, and
a version of 大 dà, "large." The version of the stick man in this character
shows arms bent at the elbow as they would need to be in the case of someone
固 gù, sturdy, solid. 囗 wéi, "enclosure," suggests the original meaning of
this character, an impregnable perimeter defense, and 古 gǔ, "ancient." gives
both an indication of the pronunciation and also suggests that the defensive
perimeter is good for the long term.
亥 hài (cyclical character used to note time periods). The oracle bone and
bronze versions of this character are believed to represent the root
structure of some plant. Later characters seem to misinterpret parts of the
early diagrams as discrete individual things. So the explanations for the
present appearance of this character are problematical.
尸 shī corpse. This character depicts a person burial in flexed
position on his or her side. The so-called "flexed burial position" was a
feature of some prehistoric cultures.
頁 yè head, and by extension heading at the top of a page and then just page.
The ancient form of this character shows a kneeling human figure with a
prominent head and hair growing out of this head.
永 yǒng long term, perpetual, eternal. The oracle bone and later
versions of this character appear to show a tributary joining a larger
river. When many tributaries feed one river, the major river will have
excellent long-term prospects to continue flowing.
吧 ba Sentence ending that make a command a suggestion, and an affirmative
sentence a tentative declaration. 口 kǒu, "mouth," tells us that what
this character represents is "just a sound." 巴 bā, serpent, gives an
indication of the pronunciation.
個 ge Measure word (MW) for human beings and some other very commonly used
things. 人 rén, "rén," gives the general category of meaning, and 固 gù,
"sturdy," gives some indication of the character's pronunciation.
各 gè 夂 zhǐ 口 kǒu p. 203 The early characters all have two basic
components facing each other, a foot (moving down from the top) and an
opening toward which the foot is moving. The idea seems to be of two things
being particularly suited to each other, and implying that each foot must
find its own particular hole to fit into.
孩 hái an infant after the age of being able to smile, a child. 子 zǐ,
"child," gives an indication of the meaning, and 亥 hài, a cyclical
character, gives an indication of the pronunciation.
會 huì p. 96 to meet together; to experience mystic union, to know how to do
something. The oracle bone form of the character seems to be a drawing of
something like a clam and the two shells, top and bottom.
尼 ní nun 尸 shī, "corpse," and 𠤎 huà, "inverted or reversed person," The
earliest characters seem, however, simply to be drawings of two people
positioned head to foot. The original meanings were "to approach from
behind," and "near, close."
題 tí topic. 是 shì, "is," serves as the phonetic of this character. Because
of the changes in the Chinese language that have occurred over the last
3,000 years, ancient sounds often have evolved in two or more
directions. In many characters the phonetic element 是 indicates that the
character has the pronunciation "ti." 頁 yè, "heading," suggests the idea of
問 wèn to ask. 門 mén, "gate, door," gives an indication of the
pronunciation. 口 kǒu, "mouth," gives an indication of the meaning. When
somebody comes to the door, the first thing that happens is that somebody
asks that person, "Who are you?"
樣 yàng pattern, kind, sort, variety. 木 mù, "tree, wood," gives an indication
of the meaning of this character, and 羕 yáng, "water flowing a long way,"
gives an indication of its pronunciation.
弋 yì fishing arrow (arrow trailing a string). Karlgren, Grammata Serica
Recensa, p. 242, says that in the Book of Poetry it means
"to shoot with arrow and string attached.... The graph must be a drawing of
some kind of arrow." See the oracle bone form reproduced at
http://chinese-characters.org/meaning/5/5F0B.html#.T_TuonDFmX0, a source
that Karlgren did not have.
再 zài again. 一 yī, "one," is used as a kind of ditto mark. 冉 rǎn,
turtle shell (plastron) is the bottom half of another character, 冓 gòu,
which is, in all the early forms, a perfectly symmetrical character composed
of something resembling 冉 above and below. So 再 stands as a kind of graphic
comment on that character—saying that one writes the 冉 character below, and
then again writes the same thing
upside-down above it.
早 zǎo early. 日 rì, "sun," is written above a horizontal line that represents
the horizon to the east, and a vertical line is drawn to emphasize how near
the sun is to the horizon when it is early. The vertical line may have
represented the stalk of some plant on which the sun could appear to be
growing in the early morning.
怎 zěn how. 乍 zhà, "suddenly," is the phonetic component of this character
and 心 xīn, "heart/mind" gives the general class of meaning of this
word. (怎 frequently carries a connotation of incredulity.)
官 guān official. 宀 mián, "thatched hut," gives the idea of some kind of
building, and 𠂤 duī, "heap" suggests there being a large number of
people in the same building.
犬 quǎn canine, dog. This character does not represent the ordinary
word for dog, which is 狗 gǒu. I translate it as "canine" primarily to
suggest that it is used in compounds such as 獵犬 liè quǎn, "hunting dog."
气 qì breath, gas, lifebreath. The early characters consist of three wavy
lines that probably are meant to depict the puffs of condensed moisture that
one sees after exhaling on a frosty day. This form is now used as a
simplified Chinese character, and the traditional equivalent is 氣. The form
taught in this lesson is a component in many other Chinese characters.
厂 hǎn cliff. The edge of the cliff is on the left.
代 dài generation, take over for, represent. 人 rén, "human being" gives an
indication of the general category of meaning, and 弋 yì, "fishing arrow with
string," suggests the idea of one person taking the place of another because
of their being, in some sense, strung together.
拜 bài to pay respects to (elders, spirits of the dead, etc.) This character
repeats the character 手 shǒu, "hand" and adds 下 xià, "down, to lower," to
the hand character on the right. (It appears in its original form, ⟙, so
that one only sees a single extra horizontal stroke. The idea seems to be
that the hands are held down at the sides when bowing.
管 guǎn a pipe or tube; to manage 竹 zhú, "bamboo," suggests the idea of a
tubem and 官 guān, "official," indicates the pronunciation.
對 duì to match correctly. 業 yè, "an enterprise," but also "a board with some
text engraved upon it," and 寸 cùn, "inch" (picture of a hand with one finger
singled out). A contract would be engraved on a board and the board would be
broken in two parts, one for each party to the agreement. In any later
inquiry into fulfillment of the contract, the two halves (one in the
possession of each of the two parties to the agreement) would be brought
together and matched along the broken edge before a judge.
煩 fán annoance. 火 huǒ, "fire," gives part of the meaning, and 頁
yè. "head," gives the other part of the meaning of this character.
氣 qì breath, gas, vapor, lifebreath. 气 qì, has the same general range
of meanings as 氣. 米 mǐ, rice, was originally added to make a new character
that described the fragrant vapor that rises from cooking rice. Later, that
meaning was replaced when 氣 came to be written where 气 used to be written.
The actual form being replaced, however, was basically just three wavy
lines, so it was a graph that could easily be mistaken for 三 sān, "three,"
or otherwise misinterpreted.
客 kè guest. 宀 mián, "thatched hut," suggests the place where the guest will
stay, and 各 gè, "each and every," gives an indication of the
pronunciation of this character.
找 zhǎo to search for. 手 shǒu, "hand," gives a suggestion of a hand groping
for something, and 戈 gē, "halberd," may suggest the idea of what a
warrior might grope for if his army were to be attacked at night.
呢 ne sentence ending particle giving the sense of matching information being
sought, "And you....?" 口 kǒu, "mouth," indicates that this character "just
represents a sound," and 尼 ní, "nun," gives an indication of the
阜 fù plateau, hill, mound. The early characters are similar to the early
versions of 𠂤 duì, "pile," but where the latter shows two mounds, this
character shows three mounds. To me, the early characters suggest a kind of
natural terracing of land rising to a plateau.
失 shī to lose. This character was originally composed of 大, serving as a
stick man, the character for hand (手), and an additional stroke indicating
something leaving the hand. (That part is the little dot or short line on
the very top of the character.)
共 gòng together. Early characters show the hands of two people holding onto
the same object.
舟 zhōu small boat, rowboat, nacelle. The early characters are drawings of a
㥁 dé upright character or behavior 直 zhí , straight, gives some indication
of the meaning of this word, and 心 xīn, "heart/mind," gives another part of
昨 zuó yesterday. 日 rì, "sun," gives an indication of the meaning of this
character, and 乍 zhà, "suddenly and unexpectedly," gives an indication of
夬 guài One of the hexagrams of the Book of Changes, ䷪, the
emblem of breakthrough or of breaking apart. The original character shows
some kind of a stick, represented by a vertical line, and a hand on each of
its two ends. See 形音義, p. 486.
段 duàn a paragraph, a section of a road. 手 shǒu 殳 shū
攴、⺙ pū (the second character is the compressed form) to hit with a stick.
The part that looks like 上 was originally written as a single upright line
depicting a stick, and 又 yòu, "again," is a picture of a hand in profile.
The entire character depicts a hand holding a stick.
川 chuān stream, river. The earliest graph seems to represent water
flowing between two banks, with some indication of turbulence.
冖 mì (bottle or jar) cap. The early drawings show something like a bottle
cap in cross section.
欠 qiàn to owe; gasp. The original graph shows a kneeling person being
choked, leading to a deficiency of breath and a gasping sound.
重 zhòng heavy. One component of this character is 壬, which in its early form
looked like 工 and provides the top and bottom strokes of 重. The remainder of
this character is a distorted form of 東 dōng, east, is this character's
phonetic component. Some authorities say that the oracle bone form was a
picture of some kind of weighing device, and others say that the original
character meant "heavy" in the sense of "thick."
全 quán entire, complete. 玉 yù jade is 入 rù (to enter) put into safekeeping
so that it will remain whole.
ㄐ jiū intertwined vines; entangled.
奇 qí to be strange and marvelous. 大 dà serves as a stick picture of a man,
and 可 kě (permissible) stands for an exhalation or gasp of surprise or
牙 yá tooth. Picture of top and bottom teeth meshing.
辛 xīn acrid. The early characters lack the dot found on the modern version.
They show a spiky plant with its top two needle-like termini plunging into
some other body, suggesting the offensive nature of the plant and, by
extension, its odor or taste.
雨 yǔ rain. The earliest form writes the four dots below the first four lines
of the character, depicting a cloud above and rain drops falling down from
襄 xiāng （1）to complete， accomplishment, (2) to ascend, to
climb over, (3) to get rid of. The structure of this character has always
involved 衣 yī clothing, but there are many explanations for its remaining
理 lǐ pattern, pattern behind activities of things, "principle." 玉 yù,
"jade," gives the idea of pattern 里 lǐ, "Chinese mile," gives the
pronunciation of this character.
半 bàn half. 八 bā, "eight," but also "to split," and 牛 niú, "cow." The
ancient characters show a cow being split into two halves.
壬 rén, "the ninth heavenly stem," but also is a version of 工 gōng (work)
with and additional horizontal line to indicate the burden of work assigned
方 fāng square, region, place, part of the country. The oracle bone
characters depict a person carrying two carpenter's squares. The early
drawings of squares are usually something like ⌶. It is unclear why such a
structure would be needed unless it were done that way to provide more
mechanical stability. Some similar squares in use today are simpler, being
merely on rail to lay along the edge of a plank and one extension at 90° to
draw the line where the plank should be sawed: ┴. If and additional square
of this type were to be combined (mentally, at least), ┬, then one
would have an instrument shaped like ┼, and that instrument could point to
the four cardinal directions, to the four corners of the world, etc., and so
it would be an appropriate symbol for talking both about geometrical
squares, squared edges, but also regions, places, and parts of a country or
even of the world.
瓜 guā melon. The early characters show climbing melon vines, their tendrils,
尹 yǐn to govern, to rule. This character is composed of a variant of 又, yòu,
a hand, and a line going diagonally to the left. It may be a straightedge
and therefore a symbol of conformity to a standard, or it may be a stick
used to compel conformity to rules. Possibly, like our oaken ardsticks, it
could serve both purposes.
夕 xì evening, dusk. The oracle bone form shows a drawing like that for 月
yuè, "moon," except that it is short one of the horizontal lines. The
features of the moon are clearly visible at night, but when it is just
getting dark they are generally obscured to some degree.
士 shì a knight, and, because knights had to be educated to perform some of
their duties, any well-educated, literate person. The character is similar
to 王 wáng, "king," but lacks the prominent head signified by the top line of
the character for king. 士, 王, and 皇 all depict seated officials. The first
is without any special details, the second has a prominent head (for head
man), and the third adds a crown (now simplified as 白). 皇 was the title of
the three legendary rulers, Fu Xi (culture hero to whom fishing and trapping
are attributed), Shen Nong (culture here to whom agriculture and medicinal
use of herbs are attributed), and Huang Di (culture hero who invented
曲 qǔ bent, twisted, convoluted. The original graphs all show objects with
one or more bends in them. The current form obscures this idea by adding an
extraneous line in the top middle position.
把 bǎ to take in hand. 手 shǒu, "hand," gives an idea of the category of
meanings to which this character belongs, and 巴 bā. "serpent," gives an
indication of its pronunciation. This character is rarely used as a verb.
One can 把 the wield the tiller of a boat, for instance. However, this
character is most often used to indicate that something has become the
subject of special ministrations, usually with the kind of negative
consequences appropriate to sentences that begin something like, "When I get
my hands on you...."
間 jiān interval; gap. One part of the meaning of this character is suggested
by 門 mén, "double door," and the remainder is given by 日 rì, "sun." The
entire character depicts the sun being seen through the crack between double
同 tóng fit together; same. This character depicts a bottle opening by using
the character 口 kǒu, "mouth," and 冖 mì, cover or bottle cap. The two must be
at (一 yī) one with each other to work well.
等 děng equal, classes of things (e.g., railway tickets). 竹 zhú, "bamboo,"
was used to refer to the bamboo slips originally used for written records,
and 寺 sì, "government office," but also "to serve," was used to indicate the
work of "evening out the records." The superficial meaning would have been
to put all bamboo slips of the same length together, but government
officials producing these records would surely have had the slips all
manufactured to a standard length. To do otherwise would have made it
impossible to string them together into a bound volume constituting a single
document. So the meaning must have been figurative, to find and balance the
evidence as given in one document against the evidence given in one or more
與 yǔ to give; and. The oracle bone characters show two hands at the top
(belonging to one person), two hands at the bottom (belonging to somebody
else), and in the middle there is a picture of something that appears to be
a 舟 zhōu, "boat." So this character seems to depict two people exchanging
property. In later versions of this character, the part that appears to be 舟
is replaced by 与. 与 yǔ itself means to pass something from one person to
another, to give.
舟 zhōu small boat, dugout canoe. The early graphs depict a dugout canoe. The
top of the character represents the prow. There are places for two riders.
Just as the character that represents a crescent moon is not properly closed
at the bottom (月) so this character is also not properly closed at the
比 bǐ to compare. This character is composed of two identical characters,
both being 𠤎 huà, which represents an inverted human being. There is
another character that places two 人 characters side by side, so when they
wanted to use a picture of two humans being compared, e.g., as to height,
they chose the alternate kind of picture of a human being to use instead.
Sets 1 & 2 w/ examples
(Characters 1-40 with examples to trim away)
For more help on the origins and structures of Chinese characters see Zhong