Chinese Characters

Chinese characters are the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world. They are also among the most widely used writing systems by number of users. How many characters exist is open to debate, but there are 47,035 Chinese characters in the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典), the standard national dictionary developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most speakers of Chinese know and use far fewer—Chinese newspapers and magazines tend to use no more than 3,500 basic characters.

A character consists of two elements, the radical and the phonetic. There are 214 radicals, ranging in construction from one to 17 strokes. The number of phonetics is probably multiple thousands, but I could find no number listed in sources I checked.

In principle, the function of the radical is to suggest meaning, that of the phonetic to imply sound, but as characters have developed over thousands of years, those roles have become remote. There are thousands of characters in common use in which neither the radical nor the phonetic suggest either current meaning or sound. A student of Chinese has no choice but to memorize characters one by one.

Writing characters is an art to which the Chinese devote years of effort. The drawing of a character is properly done with a brush and black paint. I never tried to create characters that way but still spent literally years trying to perfect the art of inscribing them and never really succeeded. My rendering of characters, even after all these years, still looks more like the efforts of a child than that of a mature man.

The Chinese Communists have introduced a simplified system of drawing characters called Chinese Character Simplification Scheme. Simplified Chinese characters may be referred to by their official name above or colloquially as 简体字, Jiǎntǐzì. The end result is a reduced number of characters that are also easier to write and remember. But the new system also reduces one of the great arts of all times to a level of everyday practicality.

Given a choice, I’ll take the old system with all its intricacy. It also introduces great beauty into ordinary life.

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