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Introduction to the Chinese writing

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Why characters?

Why Chinese writing has not been replaced by some kind of alphabetic system yet, limiting the use of characters to the art of calligraphy? The reason why Chinese-speakers still use a writing system where one is forced to memorize thousands of symbols is not merely a tribute to their history and traditions, nor to artistic beauty; it's rather the unique nature of Chinese language itself that makes alternative systems unfit.

First of all, Chinese is not alphabetic but syllabic. Hindi is an example of a syllabic language that uses a few tens of symbols - only twice Western alphabets - but while it's still possible to understand an Indian word in Latin letters, one can only try to guess the meaning of a transcribed Chinese word, in spite of the fact that so-called Mandarin Chinese has more than 400 different syllables. The problem is, words are often composed of only one syllable. While classical Chinese was almost completely monosyllabic, polisyllables are becoming more and more common in modern Chinese. The average number of syllables in a word, however, is two; still too low to allow a precise individuation of a word's meaning by its transcription.

In spoken Chinese the problem is overcome by the context and by the use of five different tones, but an isolated syllable can be actually misunderstood in spoken language, too. Characters, on the contrary, are impossible to misunderstood, and that is why they have always been a unifying factor among speakers of different dialects or languages, such as Cantonese, Korean and Japanese.
By now, the difference between writing the character ("middle") and the correspondent transcription zhong should be clear, because while the former is immediately recognizable among 50.000 some symbols, the latter could well be meaning, for instance, "clock" () or "loyal" (), each of them pronounced exactly the same.

Transcribing characters

So is it transcription useless? Actually, it is on of the easiest ways to memorize characters and their pronounciation, because it codifies a huge range of sounds that are only slightly different to a Western ear. The People's Republic of China promotes the diffusion of "pinyin" transcription, an alphabet of 26 letters, the same of the English alphabet, but outside China a different transcription is still widely used, especially for classical Chinese: the so-called "Wade-Giles" system. The latter makes it easier to guess the correct pronounciation of syllables... but once you have learned the few rules of pinyin you will hate it.
A few examples of the differences among these two systems:

CharacterWade-GilesPinyin
chih zhi
hsien xian
ts'ao cao

There are other systems, such as the one used in France, which is similar to Wade-Giles, and the Chinese Phonetic Script ( zhuyin zimu), which uses special symbols. Of course we will use the pinyin transcription for the characters we'll present.

Traditional and simplified characters

Chinese writing has actually undergone some kind of modernization. You may have noticed that Taiwanese and emigrants use different characters from continental Chinese; the reason why is that people outside China still use traditional characters ( fanti zi). In the Sixties the government of the People's Republic of China, on the contrary, decided to simplify most characters and therefore reduce the number of strokes that compose them. Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, published in 1931, contains characters of up to 28 strokes, while the majority of characters can be written nowadays with no more than ten strokes.
Here we are with three examples:

became guo (country)
became ma (horse)
became ti (body)

In the following tutorial we will learn simplified characters ( jianti zi)... but who knows? Maybe you'll have the chance to know more on traditional ones in future pages on classical and medieval Chinese...


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By Diana Lavarini & Anna Del Franco, 1999.
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