Logographic writing system used in the Sinosphere region
For the moth known as the "Chinese character", see Cilix glaucata.
Unless otherwise specified, Chinese text in this article is written in simplified Chinese / traditional Chinese, pinyin order. If the simplified and traditional characters are the same, they are written only once.
|Bronze Age China to present|
Top-to-bottom, columns right to left (traditional)
|Languages||Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Okinawan, Vietnamese, Zhuang, Miao|
|ISO||Hani, , Han (Hanzi, Kanji, Hanja)|
|This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between , // and ⟨⟩, see IPA §Brackets and transcription delimiters.|
Chinese characters, also called hanzi (traditional Chinese: 漢字; simplified Chinese: 汉字; pinyin: hànzì; lit. 'Han characters'), are logograms developed for the writing of Chinese. They have been adapted to write other East Asian languages, and remain a key component of the Japanese writing system where they are known as kanji. Chinese characters are the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world. By virtue of their widespread current use in East Asia, and historic use throughout the Sinosphere, Chinese characters are among the most widely adopted writing systems in the world by number of users.
The total number of Chinese characters ever to appear in a dictionary is in the tens of thousands, though most are graphic variants, or were used historically and passed out of use, or are of a specialized nature. A college graduate who is literate in written Chinese knows between three and four thousand characters, though more are required for specialized fields. In Japan 2, are taught through secondary school (the Jōyō kanji); hundreds more are in everyday use. Due to post-WWII simplifications of characters in Japan as well as in China, the kanji used in Japan today are distinct from Chinese simplified characters in several respects. There are various national standard lists of characters, forms, and pronunciations. Simplified forms of certain characters are used in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia; traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and to a limited extent in South Korea. In Japan, common characters are written in post-WWII Japan-specific simplified forms, while uncommon characters are written in Japanese traditional forms.
In modern Chinese, most words are compounds written with two or more characters. Unlike alphabetic writing systems, in which the unit character roughly corresponds to one phoneme, the Chinese writing system associates each logogram with an entire syllable, and thus may be compared in some aspects to a syllabary. A character almost always corresponds to a single syllable that is also a morpheme. However, there are a few exceptions to this general correspondence, including bisyllabic morphemes (written with two characters), bimorphemic syllables (written with two characters) and cases where a single character represents a polysyllabic word or phrase.
Modern Chinese has many homophones; thus the same spoken syllable may be represented by one of many characters, depending on meaning. A particular character may also have a range of meanings, or sometimes quite distinct meanings, which might have different pronunciations. Cognates in the several varieties of Chinese are generally written with the same character. In other languages, most significantly in modern Japanese and sometimes in Korean, characters are used to represent Chinese loanwords or to represent native words independent of the Chinese pronunciation (e.g., kun-yomi in Japanese). Some characters retained their phonetic elements based on their pronunciation in a historical variety of Chinese from which they were acquired. These foreign adaptations of Chinese pronunciation are known as Sino-Xenic pronunciations and have been useful in the reconstruction of Middle Chinese.
When the script was first used in the late 2nd millenniumBC, words of Old Chinese were generally monosyllabic, and each character denoted a single word. Increasing numbers of polysyllabic words have entered the language from the Western Zhou period to the present day. It is estimated that about 25–30% of the vocabulary of classic texts from the Warring States period was polysyllabic, though these words were used far less commonly than monosyllables, which accounted for 80–90% of occurrences in these texts. The process has accelerated over the centuries as phonetic change has increased the number of homophones. It has been estimated that over two thirds of the 3, most common words in modern Standard Chinese are polysyllables, the vast majority of those being disyllables.
The most common process has been to form compounds of existing words, written with the characters of the constituent words. Words have also been created by adding affixes, reduplication and borrowing from other languages. Polysyllabic words are generally written with one character per syllable.[a] In most cases the character denotes a morpheme descended from an Old Chinese word.
Many characters have multiple readings, with instances denoting different morphemes, sometimes with different pronunciations. In modern Standard Chinese, one fifth of the 2, most common characters have multiple pronunciations. For the most common characters, the proportion rises to 30%. Often these readings are similar in sound and related in meaning. In the Old Chinese period, affixes could be added to a word to form a new word, which was often written with the same character. In many cases the pronunciations diverged due to subsequent sound change. For example, many additional readings have the Middle Chinese departing tone, the major source of the 4th tone in modern Standard Chinese. Scholars now believe that this tone is the reflex of an Old Chinese *-s suffix, with a range of semantic functions. For example,
- 传/傳 has readings OC *drjon > MC drjwen' > Mod. chuán 'to transmit' and *drjons > drjwenH > zhuàn 'a record'. (Middle Chinese forms are given in Baxter's transcription, in which H denotes the departing tone.)
- 磨 has readings *maj > ma > mó 'to grind' and *majs > maH > mò 'grindstone'.
- 宿 has readings *sjuk > sjuwk > sù 'to stay overnight' and *sjuks > sjuwH > xiù 'celestial "mansion"'.
- 说/説 has readings *hljot > sywet > shuō 'speak' and *hljots > sywejH > shuì 'exhort'.
Another common alternation is between voiced and voiceless initials (though the voicing distinction has disappeared on most modern varieties). This is believed to reflect an ancient prefix, but scholars disagree on whether the voiced or voiceless form is the original root. For example,
- 见/見 has readings *kens > kenH > jiàn 'to see' and *gens > henH > xiàn 'to appear'.
- 败/敗 has readings *prats > pæjH > bài 'to defeat' and *brats > bæjH > bài 'to be defeated'. (In this case the pronunciations have converged in Standard Chinese, but not in some other varieties.)
- 折 has readings *tjat > tsyet > zhé 'to bend' and *djat > dzyet > shé 'to break by bending'.
Principles of formation
Main article: Chinese character classification
Evolution of pictograms
Chinese characters represent words of the language using several strategies. A few characters, including some of the most commonly used, were originally pictograms, which depicted the objects denoted, or ideograms, in which meaning was expressed iconically. The vast majority were written using the rebus principle, in which a character for a similarly sounding word was either simply borrowed or (more commonly) extended with a disambiguating semantic marker to form a phono-semantic compound character.
The traditional six-fold classification (liùshū六书 / 六書 "six writings") was first described by the scholar Xu Shen in the postface of his dictionary Shuowen Jiezi in AD. While this analysis is sometimes problematic and arguably fails to reflect the complete nature of the Chinese writing system, it has been perpetuated by its long history and pervasive use.
Pictograms are highly stylized and simplified pictures of material objects. Examples of pictograms include 日rì for "sun", 月yuè for "moon", and 木mù for "tree" or "wood". Xu Shen placed approximately 4% of characters in this category. Though few in number and expressing literal objects, pictograms and ideograms are nonetheless the basis on which all the more complex characters such as associative compound characters (会意字/會意字) and phono-semantic characters (形声字/形聲字) are formed.
Pictograms are primary characters in the sense that they, along with ideograms (indicative characters i.e. symbols), are the building blocks of associative compound characters (会意字/會意字) and phono-semantic characters (形声字/形聲字).
Over time pictograms were increasingly standardized, simplified, and stylized to make them easier to write. Furthermore, the same Kangxi radical character element can be used to depict different objects. Thus, the image depicted by most pictograms is not often immediately evident. For example, 口 may indicate the mouth, a window as in 高 which depicts a tall building as a symbol of the idea of "tall" or the lip of a vessel as in 富 a wine jar under a roof as symbol of wealth. That is, pictograms extended from literal objects to take on symbolic or metaphoric meanings; sometimes even displacing the use of the character as a literal term, or creating ambiguity, which was resolved though character determinants, more commonly but less accurately known as "radicals" i.e. concept keys in the phono-semantic characters.
Also called simple indicatives, this small category contains characters that are direct iconic illustrations. Examples include 上shàng "up" and 下xià "down", originally a dot above and below a line. Indicative characters are symbols for abstract concepts which could not be depicted literally but nonetheless can be expressed as a visual symbol e.g. convex 凸, concave 凹, flat-and-level 平.
Also translated as logical aggregates or associative idea characters, these characters have been interpreted as combining two or more pictographic or ideographic characters to suggest a third meaning. The canonical example is 明 bright. 明 is the association of the two brightest objects in the sky the sun 日 and moon 月, brought together to express the idea of "bright". It is canonical because the term 明白 in Chinese (lit. "bright white") means "to understand, understand". Adding the abbreviated radical for grass, cao 艹 above the character, ming, changes it to meng 萌, which means to sprout or bud, alluding to the heliotropic behavior of plant life. Other commonly cited examples include 休 "rest" (composed of the pictograms 人 "person" and 木 "tree") and 好 "good" (composed of 女 "woman" and 子 "child").
Xu Shen placed approximately 13% of characters in this category, but many of his examples are now believed to be phono-semantic compounds whose origin has been obscured by subsequent changes in their form.Peter Boodberg and William Boltz go so far as to deny that any of the compound characters devised in ancient times were of this type, maintaining that now-lost "secondary readings" are responsible for the apparent absence of phonetic indicators, but their arguments have been rejected by other scholars.
In contrast, associative compound characters are common among characters coined in Japan. Also, a few characters coined in China in modern times, such as 鉑 platinum, "white metal" (see chemical elements in East Asian languages) belong to this category.
Also called borrowings or phonetic loan characters, the rebus category covers cases where an existing character is used to represent an unrelated word with similar or identical pronunciation; sometimes the old meaning is then lost completely, as with characters such as 自zì, which has lost its original meaning of "nose" completely and exclusively means "oneself", or 萬wàn, which originally meant "scorpion" but is now used only in the sense of "ten thousand".
Rebus was pivotal in the history of writing in China insofar as it represented the stage at which logographic writing could become purely phonetic (phonographic). Chinese characters used purely for their sound values are attested in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period manuscripts, in which zhi氏 was used to write shi是 and vice versa, just lines apart; the same happened with shao 勺 for Zhao趙, with the characters in question being homophonous or nearly homophonous at the time.
Phonetical usage for foreign words
Chinese characters are used rebus-like and exclusively for their phonetic value when transcribing words of foreign origin, such as ancient Buddhist terms or modern foreign names. For example, the word for the country "Romania" is 罗马尼亚/羅馬尼亞 (Luó Mǎ Ní Yà), in which the Chinese characters are only used for their sounds and do not provide any meaning. This usage is similar to that of the Japanese Katakana and Hiragana, although the Kanas use a special set of simplified forms of Chinese characters, in order to advertise their value as purely phonetic symbols. The same rebus principle for names in particular has also been used in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Maya hieroglyphs. In the Chinese usage, in a few instances, the characters used for pronunciation might be carefully chosen in order to connote a specific meaning, as regularly happens for brand names: Coca-Cola is translated phonetically as 可口可乐/可口可樂 (Kěkǒu Kělè), but the characters were carefully selected so as to have the additional meaning of "Delicious and Enjoyable".
- 形声字 / 形聲字 Mandarin: xíngshēngzì
Semantic-phonetic compounds or pictophonetic compounds are by far the most numerous characters. These characters are composed of at least two parts. The semantic component suggests the general meaning of the compound character. The phonetic component suggests the pronunciation of the compound character. In most cases the semantic indicator is also the 部首 radical under which the character is listed in dictionaries. Because Chinese is replete in homophones phonetic elements may also carry semantic content. In some rare examples phono-semantic characters may also convey pictorial content. Each Chinese character is an attempt to combine sound, image, and idea in a mutually reinforcing fashion.
Examples of phono-semantic characters include 河hé "river", 湖hú "lake", 流liú "stream", 沖chōng "surge", 滑huá "slippery". All these characters have on the left a radical of three short strokes (氵), which is a reduced form of the character 水 shuǐ meaning "water", indicating that the character has a semantic connection with water. The right-hand side in each case is a phonetic indicator- for instance: 胡hú has a very similar pronunciation to 湖 and 可kě has a similar (though somewhat different) pronunciation to 河. For example, in the case of 沖chōng (Old Chinese *ɡ-ljuŋ) "surge", the phonetic indicator is 中zhōng (Old Chinese *k-ljuŋ), which by itself means "middle". In this case it can be seen that the pronunciation of the character is slightly different from that of its phonetic indicator; the effect of historical sound change means that the composition of such characters can sometimes seem arbitrary today.
In general, phonetic components do not determine the exact pronunciation of a character, but only give a clue as to its pronunciation. While some characters take the exact pronunciation of their phonetic component, others take only the initial or final sounds. In fact, some characters' pronunciations may not correspond to the pronunciations of their phonetic parts at all, which is sometimes the case with characters after having undergone simplification. The 8 characters in the following table all take 也 for their phonetic part, however, as it is readily apparent, none of them take the pronunciation of 也, which is yě (Old Chinese *lajʔ). As the table below shows, the sound changes that have taken place since the Shang/Zhou period when most of these characters were created can be dramatic, to the point of not providing any useful hint of the modern pronunciation.
|Character||Semantic part||Phonetic part||Mandarin|
|也||(originally a pictograph of a vulva)||none||yě||jaa5||ya||jiaX||*lajʔ||grammatical particle; also|
|馳 / 驰||马 / 馬 horse||也||chí||ci4||chi||ɖje||*lraj||gallop|
|弛||弓 bow (bend)||也||chí (Mainland)|
|ci4||chi, shi||ɕjeX||*l̥ajʔ||loosen, relax|
|施||㫃 flag||也||shī||si1||se, shi||ɕje||*l̥aj||spread, set up, use|
|地||土 earth||也||dì||dei6||ji, chi||dijH||*lˤej-s||ground, earth|
|de, di||-||-||-||adverbial particle in Mandarin|
|他||人 （亻）person||也||tā||taa1||ta||tʰa||*l̥ˤaj||he, other|
|拖||手 （扌）hand||也||tuō||to1||ta, da||tʰaH||*l̥ˤaj||drag|
Xu Shen (c. AD) placed approximately 82% of characters into this category, while in the Kangxi Dictionary (AD) the number is closer to 90%, due to the extremely productive use of this technique to extend the Chinese vocabulary. The Chu Nom characters of Vietnam were created using this principle.
This method is used to form new characters, for example 钚 / 鈈bù ("plutonium") is the metal radical 金jīn plus the phonetic component 不bù, described in Chinese as "不 gives sound, 金 gives meaning". Many Chinese names of elements in the periodic table and many other chemistry-related characters were formed this way. In fact, it is possible to tell from a Chinese periodic table at a glance which elements are metal (金), solid nonmetal (石, "stone"), liquid (氵), or gas (气) at standard conditions for temperature and pressure.
Occasionally a bisyllabic word is written with two characters that contain the same radical, as in 蝴蝶húdié "butterfly", where both characters have the insect radical 虫. A notable example is pipa (a Chinese lute, also a fruit, the loquat, of similar shape) – originally written as 批把 with the hand radical (扌), referring to the down and up strokes when playing this instrument, which was then changed to 枇杷 (tree radical 木), which is still used for the fruit, while the character was changed to 琵琶 when referring to the instrument (radical 玨). In other cases a compound word may coincidentally share a radical without this being meaningful.
The smallest category of characters is also the least understood. In the postface to the Shuowen Jiezi, Xu Shen gave as an example the characters 考kǎo "to verify" and 老lǎo "old", which had similar Old Chinese pronunciations (*khuʔ and *C-ruʔ respectively) and may once have been the same word, meaning "elderly person", but became lexicalized into two separate words. The term does not appear in the body of the dictionary, and is often omitted from modern systems.
According to legend, Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie, a bureaucrat under the legendary Yellow Emperor. Inspired by his study of the animals of the world, the landscape of the earth and the stars in the sky, Cangjie is said to have invented symbols called zì (字) – the first Chinese characters. The legend relates that on the day the characters were created, grain rained down from the sky and that night the people heard ghosts wailing and demons crying because the human beings could no longer be cheated.
Early sign use
Main article: Neolithic signs in China
In recent decades, a series of inscribed graphs and pictures have been found at Neolithic sites in China, including Jiahu (c. BC), Dadiwan and Damaidi from the 6th millenniumBC, and Banpo (5th millenniumBC). Often these finds are accompanied by media reports that push back the purported beginnings of Chinese writing by thousands of years. However, because these marks occur singly, without any implied context, and are made crudely and simply, Qiu Xigui concluded that "we do not have any basis for stating that these constituted writing nor is there reason to conclude that they were ancestral to Shang dynasty Chinese characters." They do however demonstrate a history of sign use in the Yellow River valley during the Neolithic through to the Shang period.
Oracle bone script
Main article: Oracle bone script
The earliest confirmed evidence of the Chinese script yet discovered is the body of inscriptions carved on bronze vessels and oracle bones from the late Shang dynasty (c. –BC). The earliest of these is dated to around BC. In , pieces of these bones were being sold as "dragon bones" for medicinal purposes, when scholars identified the symbols on them as Chinese writing. By , the source of the bones had been traced to a village near Anyang in Henan Province, which was excavated by the Academia Sinica between and Over , fragments have been found.
Oracle bone inscriptions are records of divinations performed in communication with royal ancestral spirits. The shortest are only a few characters long, while the longest are thirty to forty characters in length. The Shang king would communicate with his ancestors on topics relating to the royal family, military success, weather forecasting, ritual sacrifices, and related topics by means of scapulimancy, and the answers would be recorded on the divination material itself.
The oracle-bone script is a well-developed writing system, suggesting that the Chinese script's origins may lie earlier than the late second millenniumBC. Although these divinatory inscriptions are the earliest surviving evidence of ancient Chinese writing, it is widely believed that writing was used for many other non-official purposes, but that the materials upon which non-divinatory writing was done – likely wood and bamboo – were less durable than bone and shell and have since decayed away.
Bronze Age: parallel script forms and gradual evolution
Main article: Chinese bronze inscriptions
The traditional picture of an orderly series of scripts, each one invented suddenly and then completely displacing the previous one, has been conclusively demonstrated to be fiction by the archaeological finds and scholarly research of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Gradual evolution and the coexistence of two or more scripts was more often the case. As early as the Shang dynasty, oracle-bone script coexisted as a simplified form alongside the normal script of bamboo books (preserved in typical bronze inscriptions), as well as the extra-elaborate pictorial forms (often clan emblems) found on many bronzes.
Based on studies of these bronze inscriptions, it is clear that, from the Shang dynasty writing to that of the Western Zhou and early Eastern Zhou, the mainstream script evolved in a slow, unbroken fashion, until assuming the form that is now known as seal script in the late Eastern Zhou in the state of Qin, without any clear line of division. Meanwhile, other scripts had evolved, especially in the eastern and southern areas during the late Zhou dynasty, including regional forms, such as the gǔwén ("ancient forms") of the eastern Warring States preserved as variant forms in the Han dynasty character dictionary Shuowen Jiezi, as well as decorative forms such as bird and insect scripts.
Unification: seal script, vulgar writing and proto-clerical
Seal script, which had evolved slowly in the state of Qin during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, became standardized and adopted as the formal script for all of China in the Qin dynasty (leading to a popular misconception that it was invented at that time), and was still widely used for decorative engraving and seals (name chops, or signets) in the Han dynasty period. However, despite the Qin script standardization, more than one script remained in use at the time. For example, a little-known, rectilinear and roughly executed kind of common (vulgar) writing had for centuries coexisted with the more formal seal script in the Qin state, and the popularity of this vulgar writing grew as the use of writing itself became more widespread. By the Warring States period, an immature form of clerical script called "early clerical" or "proto-clerical" had already developed in the state of Qin based upon this vulgar writing, and with influence from seal script as well. The coexistence of the three scripts – small seal, vulgar and proto-clerical, with the latter evolving gradually in the Qin to early Han dynasties into clerical script – runs counter to the traditional belief that the Qin dynasty had one script only, and that clerical script was suddenly invented in the early Han dynasty from the small seal script.
Proto-clerical evolving to clerical
Proto-clerical script, which had emerged by the time of the Warring States period from vulgar Qin writing, matured gradually, and by the early Western Han period, it was little different from that of the Qin. Recently discovered bamboo slips show the script becoming mature clerical script by the middle-to-late reign of Emperor Wu of the Western Han, who ruled from to 87BC.
Clerical and clerical cursive
Contrary to the popular belief of there being only one script per period, there were in fact multiple scripts in use during the Han period. Although mature clerical script, also called 八分 (bāfēn) script, was dominant at that time, an early type of cursive script was also in use by the Han by at least as early as 24BC (during the very late Western Han period),[b] incorporating cursive forms popular at the time, well as many elements from the vulgar writing of the Warring State of Qin. By around the time of the Eastern Jin dynasty, this Han cursive became known as 章草zhāngcǎo (also known as 隶草 / 隸草lìcǎo today), or in English sometimes clerical cursive, ancient cursive, or draft cursive. Some believe that the name, based on 章zhāng meaning "orderly", arose because the script was a more orderly form of cursive than the modern form, which emerged during the Eastern Jin dynasty and is still in use today, called 今草jīncǎo or "modern cursive".
Around the mid-Eastern Han period, a simplified and easier-to-write form of clerical script appeared, which Qiu terms "neo-clerical" (新隶体 / 新隸體, xīnlìtǐ). By the late Eastern Han, this had become the dominant daily script, although the formal, mature bāfēn (八分) clerical script remained in use for formal works such as engraved stelae. Qiu describes this neo-clerical script as a transition between clerical and regular script, and it remained in use through the Cao Wei and Jin dynasties.
By the late Eastern Han period, an early form of semi-cursive script appeared, developing out of a cursively written form of neo-clerical script[c] and simple cursive. This semi-cursive script was traditionally attributed to Liu Desheng c. –AD,[d] although such attributions refer to early masters of a script rather than to their actual inventors, since the scripts generally evolved into being over time. Qiu gives examples of early semi-cursive script, showing that it had popular origins rather than being purely Liu's invention.
Wei to Jin period
Regular script has been attributed to Zhong Yao (c. –AD), during the period at the end of the Han dynasty in the state of Cao Wei. Zhong Yao has been called the "father of regular script". However, some scholars postulate that one person alone could not have developed a new script which was universally adopted, but could only have been a contributor to its gradual formation. The earliest surviving pieces written in regular script are copies of Zhong Yao's works, including at least one copied by Wang Xizhi. This new script, which is the dominant modern Chinese script, developed out of a neatly written form of early semi-cursive, with addition of the pause (顿/頓dùn) technique to end horizontal strokes, plus heavy tails on strokes which are written to the downward-right diagonal. Thus, early regular script emerged from a neat, formal form of semi-cursive, which had itself emerged from neo-clerical (a simplified, convenient form of clerical script). It then matured further in the Eastern Jin dynasty in the hands of the "Sage of Calligraphy", Wang Xizhi, and his son Wang Xianzhi. It was not, however, in widespread use at that time, and most writers continued using neo-clerical, or a somewhat semi-cursive form of it, for daily writing, while the conservative bafen clerical script remained in use on some stelae, alongside some semi-cursive, but primarily neo-clerical.
Meanwhile, modern cursive script slowly emerged from the clerical cursive (zhāngcǎo) script during the Cao Wei to Jin period, under the influence of both semi-cursive and the newly emerged regular script. Cursive was formalized in the hands of a few master calligraphers, the most famous and influential of whom was Wang Xizhi.[e]
Dominance and maturation of regular script
It was not until the Northern and Southern dynasties that regular script rose to dominant status. During that period, regular script continued evolving stylistically, reaching full maturity in the early Tang dynasty. Some call the writing of the early Tang calligrapher Ouyang Xun (–) the first mature regular script. After this point, although developments in the art of calligraphy and in character simplification still lay ahead, there were no more major stages of evolution for the mainstream script.
Although most simplified Chinese characters in use today are the result of the works moderated by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the s and 60s, the use of some of these forms predates the PRC's formation in Caoshu, cursive written text, was the inspiration of some simplified characters, and for others, some are attested as early as the Qin dynasty (– BC) as either vulgar variants or original characters.
One of the earliest proponents of character simplification was Lufei Kui, who proposed in that simplified characters should be used in education. In the years following the May Fourth Movement in , many anti-imperialist Chinese intellectuals sought ways to modernise China as quickly as possible. Traditional culture and values such as Confucianism were challenged and subsequently blamed for their problems. Soon, people in the Movement started to cite the traditional Chinese writing system as an obstacle in modernising China and therefore proposed that a reform be initiated. It was suggested that the Chinese writing system should be either simplified or completely abolished. Lu Xun, a renowned Chinese author in the 20th century, stated that, "If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die" (漢字不滅，中國必亡). Recent commentators have claimed that Chinese characters were blamed for the economic problems in China during that time.
In the s and s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of the intelligentsia maintained that character simplification would help boost literacy in China. In , simplified characters collected by Qian Xuantong were officially introduced as the table of first batch of simplified characters, but they were suspended in due to fierce opposition within the party.
The People's Republic of China issued its first round of official character simplifications in two documents, the first in and the second in In the s and s, while confusion about simplified characters was still rampant, transitional characters that mixed simplified parts with yet-to-be simplified parts of characters together appeared briefly, then disappeared.
"Han unification" was an effort by the authors of Unicode and the Universal Character Set to map multiple character sets of the so-called CJK languages (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) into a single set of unified characters and was completed for the purposes of Unicode in (Unicode).
Apart from Chinese ones, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese normative medium of record-keeping, written historical narratives and official communication are in adaptations and variations of Chinese script.
Adaptation to other languages
Dark Green: Traditional Chinese used officially (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau)
Green: Simplified Chinese used officially but traditional form is also used in publishing (Singapore, Malaysia)
Light Green: Simplified Chinese used officially, traditional form in daily use is uncommon (China, Kokangand Wa Stateof Myanmar)
Cyan: Chinese characters are used in parallel with other scripts in respective native languages (South Korea, Japan)
Yellow: Chinese characters were once used officially, but this is now obsolete (Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam)
See also: Chinese family of scripts
The Chinese script spread to Korea together with Buddhism from the 2nd centuryBC to 5th centuryAD (hanja). This was adopted for recording the Japanese language from the 5th centuryAD.[f]
Chinese characters were first used in Vietnam during the millennium of Chinese rule starting in BC. They were used to write Classical Chinese and adapted around the 13th century to create the Nôm script to write Vietnamese.
Currently, the only non-Chinese language outside of China that regularly uses the Chinese script is Japanese. Vietnam abandoned their use in the early 20thcentury in favour of a Latin-based script, and Korea in the late 20th century in favour of its homegrown hangul script, although as Korea switched much more recently, many Koreans still learn them to read texts written before then, or in some cases to disambiguate homophones.
Main article: Kanji
Chinese characters adapted to write Japanese words are known as kanji. Chinese words borrowed into Japanese could be written with Chinese characters, while native Japanese words could also be written using the character(s) for a Chinese word of similar meaning. Most kanji have both the native (and often multi-syllabic) Japanese pronunciation, known as kun'yomi, and the (mono-syllabic) Chinese-based pronunciation, known as on'yomi. For example, the native Japanese word katana is written as 刀 in kanji, which uses the native pronunciation since the word is native to Japanese, while the Chinese loanword nihontō (meaning "Japanese sword") is written as 日本刀, which uses the Chinese-based pronunciation. While nowadays loanwords from non-Sinosphere languages are usually just written in katakana, one of the two syllabary systems of Japanese, loanwords that were borrowed into Japanese before the Meiji Period were typically written with Chinese characters whose on'yomi had the same pronunciation as the loanword itself, words like Amerika (kanji: 亜米利加, katakana: アメリカ, meaning: America), karuta (kanji: 歌留多, 加留多, katakana: カルタ, meaning: card, letter), and tenpura (kanji: 天婦羅, 天麩羅, katakana: テンプラ, meaning: tempura), although the meanings of the characters used often had no relation to the words themselves. Only some of the old kanji spellings are in common use, like kan (缶, meaning: can). Kanji that are used to only represent the sounds of a word are called ateji (当て字). Because Chinese words have been borrowed from varying dialects at different times, a single character may have several on'yomi in Japanese.
Written Japanese also includes a pair of syllabaries known as kana, derived by simplifying Chinese characters selected to represent syllables of Japanese. The syllabaries differ because they sometimes selected different characters for a syllable, and because they used different strategies to reduce these characters for easy writing: the angular katakana were obtained by selecting a part of each character, while hiragana were derived from the cursive forms of whole characters. Modern Japanese writing uses a composite system, using kanji for word stems, hiragana for inflectional endings and grammatical words, and katakana to transcribe non-Chinese loanwords as well as serve as a method to emphasize native words (similar to how italics are used in Latin-script languages).
Main article: Hanja
In times past, until the 15th century, in Korea, Literary Chinese was the dominant form of written communication prior to the creation of hangul, the Korean alphabet. Much of the vocabulary, especially in the realms of science and sociology, comes directly from Chinese, comparable to Latin or Greek root words in European languages. However, due to the lack of tones in Modern Standard Korean, as the words were imported from Chinese, many dissimilar characters and syllables took on identical pronunciations, and subsequently identical spelling in hangul. Chinese characters are sometimes used to this day for either clarification in a practical manner, or to give a distinguished appearance, as knowledge of Chinese characters is considered by many Koreans a high class attribute and an indispensable part of a classical education. It is also observed that the preference for Chinese characters is treated as being conservative and Confucian.
In South Korea, hanja have become a politically contentious issue, with some urging a "purification" of the national language and culture by abandoning their use. Efforts to re-extend Hanja education to elementary schools in the were met with generally negative reaction from the public and from teachers' organizations.
In South Korea, educational policy on characters has swung back and forth, often swayed by education ministers' personal opinions. At present, middle and high school students (grades 7 to 12) are taught 1, characters, albeit with the principal focus on recognition, with the aim of achieving newspaper literacy.
There is a clear trend toward the exclusive use of hangul in day-to-day South Korean society. Hanja are still used to some extent, particularly in newspapers, weddings, place names and calligraphy (although it is nowhere near the extent of kanji use in day-to-day Japanese society). Hanja is also extensively used in situations where ambiguity must be avoided, such as academic papers, high-level corporate reports, government documents, and newspapers; this is due to the large number of homonyms that have resulted from extensive borrowing of Chinese words.
The issue of ambiguity is the main hurdle in any effort to "cleanse" the Korean language of Chinese characters. Characters convey meaning visually, while alphabets convey guidance to pronunciation, which in turn hints at meaning. As an example, in Korean dictionaries, the phonetic entry for 기사gisa yields more than 30 different entries. In the past, this ambiguity had been efficiently resolved by parenthetically displaying the associated hanja. While hanja is sometimes used for Sino-Korean vocabulary, native Korean words are rarely, if ever, written in hanja.
When learning how to write hanja, students are taught to memorize the native Korean pronunciation for the hanja's meaning and the Sino-Korean pronunciations (the pronunciation based on the Chinese pronunciation of the characters) for each hanja respectively so that students know what the syllable and meaning is for a particular hanja. For example, the name for the hanja 水 is 물수 (mul-su) in which 물 (mul) is the native Korean pronunciation for "water", while 수 (su) is the Sino-Korean pronunciation of the character. The naming of hanja is similar to if "water" were named "water-aqua", "horse-equus", or "gold-aurum" based on a hybridization of both the English and the Latin names. Other examples include 사람인 (saram-in) for 人 "person/people", 큰대 (keun-dae) for 大 "big/large//great", 작을소 (jakeul-so) for 小 "small/little", 아래하 (arae-ha) for 下 "underneath/below/low", 아비부 (abi-bu) for 父 "father", and 나라이름한 (naraireum-han) for 韓 "Han/Korea".
In North Korea, the hanja system was once completely banned since June due to fears of collapsed containment of the country; during the s, Kim Il Sung had condemned all sorts of foreign languages (even the newly proposed New Korean Orthography). The ban continued into the 21st century. However, a textbook for university history departments containing 3, distinct characters was published in In the s, school children were still expected to learn 2, characters (more than in South Korea or Japan).
After Kim Jong Il, the second ruler of North Korea, died in December , Kim Jong Un stepped up and began mandating the use of Hanja as a source of definition for the Korean language. Currently, it is said that North Korea teaches around 3, Hanja characters to North Korean students, and in some cases, the characters appear within advertisements and newspapers. However, it is also said that the authorities implore students not to use the characters in public. Due to North Korea's strict isolationism, accurate reports about hanja use in North Korea are hard to obtain.
Main article: Okinawan language
Chinese characters are thought to have been first introduced to the Ryukyu Islands in by a Japanese Buddhist monk. After the Okinawan kingdoms became tributaries of Ming China, especially the Ryukyu Kingdom, Classical Chinese was used in court documents, but hiragana was mostly used for popular writing and poetry. After Ryukyu became a vassal of Japan's Satsuma Domain, Chinese characters became more popular, as well as the use of Kanbun. In modern Okinawan, which is labeled as a Japanese dialect by the Japanese government, katakana and hiragana are mostly used to write Okinawan, but Chinese characters are still used.
Main articles: Chữ Nôm, Literary Chinese in Vietnam, and History of writing in Vietnam
In Vietnam, Chinese characters (called Hán tự or Chữ Hán in Vietnamese) are now limited to ceremonial uses, but they were once in widespread use. Until the early 20th century, Literary Chinese was used in Vietnam for all official and scholarly writing.
The oldest writing Chinese materials found in Vietnam is a epigraphy dated , erected by local Sui dynasty officials in Thanh Hoa. Around the 13th century, a script called Chữ Nôm was developed to record folk literature in the Vietnamese language. Similar to Zhuang Sawndip, the Nom script (demotic script) and its characters formed by fusing phonetic and semantic values of Chinese characters that resemble Vietnamese syllables. This process resulted in a highly complex system that was never mastered by more than 5% of the population. The oldest writing Vietnamese Chữ Nôm script written along with Chinese is a Buddhist inscription, dated  In total, about 20, Chinese and Vietnamese epigraphy rubbings throughout Indochina were collected by the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO) library in Hanoi before 
The oldest surviving extant manuscript in Vietnam is a late 15th-century bilingual Buddhist sutra Phật thuyết đại báo phụ mẫu ân trọng kinh, which is currently kept by the EFEO. The manuscript features Chinese texts in larger characters, and Vietnamese translation in smaller characters in Old Vietnamese. Every Sino-Vietnamese book in Vietnam after the Phật thuyết are dated either from 17th century to 20th century, and most are hand-written/copied works, only few are printed texts. The Institute of Hán-Nôm Studies's library in Hanoi had collected and kept 4, Sino-Vietnamese manuscripts in total by 
During French colonization in the late 19th and early 20th century, Literary Chinese fell out of use and Chữ Nôm was gradually replaced with the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet. Currently this alphabet is the main script in Vietnam, but Chinese characters and Chữ Nôm are still used in some activities connected with Vietnamese traditional culture (e.g. calligraphy).
Several minority languages of south and southwest China were formerly written with scripts based on Hanzi but also including many locally created characters. The most extensive is the sawndip script for the Zhuang language of Guangxi which is still used to this day. Other languages written with such scripts include Miao, Yao, Bouyei, Mulam, Kam, Bai and Hani. All these languages are now officially written using Latin-based scripts, while Chinese characters are still used for the Mulam language. Even today for Zhuang, according to survey, the traditional sawndip script has twice as many users as the official Latin script.
The foreign dynasties that ruled northern China between the 10th and 13th centuries developed scripts that were inspired by Hanzi but did not use them directly: the Khitan large script, Khitan small script, Tangut script and Jurchen script. Other scripts in China that borrowed or adapted a few Chinese characters but are otherwise distinct include Geba script, Sui script, Yi script and the Lisu syllabary.
Transcription of foreign languages
Main article: Transcription into Chinese characters
Along with Persian and Arabic, Chinese characters were also used as a foreign script to write the Mongolian language, where characters were used to phonetically transcribe Mongolian sounds. Most notably, the only surviving copies of The Secret History of the Mongols were written in such a manner; the Chinese characters 忙豁侖紐察 脫[卜]察安 (nowadays pronounced "Mánghuōlún niǔchá tuō[bo]cháān" in Chinese) is the rendering of Mongγol-un niγuca tobčiyan, the title in Mongolian.
Hanzi was also used to phonetically transcribe the Manchu language in the Qing dynasty.
According to the Rev. John Gulick: "The inhabitants of other Asiatic nations, who have had occasion to represent the words of their several languages by Chinese characters, have as a rule used unaspirated characters for the sounds, g, d, b. The Muslims from Arabia and Persia have followed this method … The Mongols, Manchu, and Japanese also constantly select unaspirated characters to represent the sounds g, d, b, and j of their languages. These surrounding Asiatic nations, in writing Chinese words in their own alphabets, have uniformly used g, d, b, etc., to represent the unaspirated sounds."
Main articles: Simplified Chinese character and Japanese script reform
Chinese character simplification is the overall reduction of the number of strokes in the regular script of a set of Chinese characters.
Simplification in China
The use of traditional Chinese characters versus simplified Chinese characters varies greatly, and can depend on both the local customs and the medium. Before the official reform, character simplifications were not officially sanctioned and generally adopted vulgar variants and idiosyncratic substitutions. Orthodox variants were mandatory in printed works, while the (unofficial) simplified characters would be used in everyday writing or quick notes. Since the s, and especially with the publication of the list, the People's Republic of China has officially adopted simplified Chinese characters for use in mainland China, while Hong Kong, Macau, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) were not affected by the reform. There is no absolute rule for using either system, and often it is determined by what the target audience understands, as well as the upbringing of the writer.
Although most often associated with the People's Republic of China, character simplification predates the communist victory. Caoshu, cursive written text, are what inspired some simplified characters, and for others, some were already in use in print text, albeit not for most formal works. In the period of Republican China, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government and the intelligentsia, in an effort to greatly reduce functional illiteracy among adults, which was a major concern at the time. Indeed, this desire by the Kuomintang to simplify the Chinese writing system (inherited and implemented by the Communist Party of China after its subsequent abandonment) also nursed aspirations of some for the adoption of a phonetic script based on the Latin script, and spawned such inventions as the Gwoyeu Romatzyh.
The People's Republic of China issued its first round of official character simplifications in two documents, the first in and the second in A second round of character simplifications (known as erjian, or "second round simplified characters") was promulgated in It was poorly received, and in the authorities rescinded the second round completely, while making six revisions to the list, including the restoration of three traditional characters that had been simplified: 叠dié, 覆fù, 像xiàng.
As opposed to the second round, a majority of simplified characters in the first round were drawn from conventional abbreviated forms, or ancient forms. For example, the orthodox character 來lái ("come") was written as 来 in the clerical script (隶书 / 隸書, lìshū) of the Han dynasty. This clerical form uses one fewer stroke, and was thus adopted as a simplified form. The character 雲yún ("cloud") was written with the structure 云 in the oracle bone script of the Shang dynasty, and had remained in use later as a phonetic loan in the meaning of "to say" while the 雨radical was added a semantic indicator to disambiguate the two. Simplified Chinese simply merges them.
Simplification in Japan
Main articles: Kanji, Tōyō kanji, Jōyō kanji, and Shinjitai
In the years after World War II, the Japanese government also instituted a series of orthographic reforms. Some characters were given simplified forms called shinjitai (新字体, lit. "new character forms"); the older forms were then labelled the kyūjitai (旧字体, lit. "old character forms"). The number of characters in common use was restricted, and formal lists of characters to be learned during each grade of school were established, first the character tōyō kanji (当用漢字) list in , the character jōyō kanji (常用漢字) list in , and a character reformed version of the jōyō kanji in Many variant forms of characters and obscure alternatives for common characters were officially discouraged. This was done with the goal of facilitating learning for children and simplifying kanji use in literature and periodicals. These are simply guidelines, hence many characters outside these standards are still widely known and commonly used, especially those used for personal and place names (for the latter, see jinmeiyō kanji), as well as for some common words such as "dragon" (竜/龍, tatsu) in which both old and new forms of the character are both acceptable and widely known amongst native Japanese speakers.
Southeast Asian Chinese communities
Singapore underwent three successive rounds of character simplification. These resulted in some simplifications that differed from those used in mainland China. It ultimately adopted the reforms of the People's Republic of China in their entirety as official, and has implemented them in the educational system. However, unlike in China, personal names may still be registered in traditional characters.
Malaysia started teaching a set of simplified characters at schools in , which were also completely identical to the Mainland China simplifications. Chinese newspapers in Malaysia are published in either set of characters, typically with the headlines in traditional Chinese while the body is in simplified Chinese.
Although in both countries the use of simplified characters is universal among the younger Chinese generation, a large majority of the older Chinese literate generation still use the traditional characters. Chinese shop signs are also generally written in traditional characters.
In the Philippines, most Chinese schools and businesses still use the traditional characters and bopomofo, owing from influence from the Republic of China (Taiwan) due to the shared Hokkien heritage. Recently, however, more Chinese schools now use both simplified characters and pinyin. Since most readers of Chinese newspapers in the Philippines belong to the older generation, they are still published largely using traditional characters.
Public and private Chinese signage in the United States and Canada most often use traditional characters. There is some effort to get municipal governments to implement more simplified character signage due to recent immigration from mainland China. Most community newspapers printed in North America are also printed in traditional characters.
Comparisons of traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and Japanese
The following is a comparison of Chinese characters in the Standard Form of National Characters, a common traditional Chinese standard used in Taiwan; the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters, the standard for Mainland Chinese jiantizi (simplified); and the jōyō kanji, the standard for Japanese kanji. Generally, the jōyō kanji are more similar to fantizi (traditional) than jiantizi are to fantizi. "Simplified" refers to having significant differences from the Taiwan standard, not necessarily being a newly created character or a newly performed substitution. The characters in the Hong Kong standard and the Kangxi Dictionary are also known as "Traditional", but are not shown.
|Simplified in mainland China only, not Japan|
(Some radicals were simplified)
|Simplified in Japan, not Mainland China|
(In some cases this represents the adoption
of different variants as standard)
|假||假||仮||false, day off, borrow|
|拜||拜||拝||kowtow, pray to, worship|
|Simplified differently in Mainland China and Japan|
|惡||恶||悪||bad, evil, hate|
Top 67 Chinese Symbol Tattoo Ideas [ Inspiration Guide]
Tattoos that depict symbols make a cool design option for guys who don’t want an over-the-top, flashy look. If you desire something simple, yet more mysterious and exotic youve found it!
When it comes to meaningful and motivational depictions, Chinese symbols simply fit the bill.
Since this distinct script is detailed and pictorial, the is result is rather elegant and minimalistic.
While popular in American, strangely enough, Chinese people rarely get character tattoos. Instead, the trend in China gravitates toward English text. Then why get one as a Westerner? Since the Chinese language embodies ancient knowledge of its rich culture, combining it with modern tattoo principles creates unique skin art.
Each symbol tells a tale of folklore and intriguing history. Additionally, each character with its flowing lines and graceful curves makes for crisp ink designs that stand the test of time. Most Chinese words consist of several characters (one per syllable).
Hanzi is the official written language for Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and for Chinese communities outside the mainland. In order to qualify as literate, you only need to know 4, out of the 47, Hanzi characters. That’s still a lot and a good reason for consulting a reputable source for tattoo designs.
Standard and Mandarin often count as traditional Chinese. While outsiders use the terms interchangeably, they’re not quite the same thing. The former is based on a street version of the Beijing dialect, and the latter is the formal language based on dialects in northern China.
Since this language is so intricate, a simplified version has been introduced to increase cultural literacy. This variety is mostly used in Singapore, Malaysia and the mainland of China. It merely means that simplified Chinese characters have fewer strokes than their traditional counter parts.
How to Choose
Now that you narrowed down the technical aspect, how do you pick a design? Here are some of the most used symbols: family, fire, love, luck, peace, soldier and strength. Choose the meaning first (even if it’s not on this list) and take it from there.
Whatever form you choose, research symbols meticulously. Since these characters have so many varieties, this assures that you don’t end up with a meaningless or even embarrassing tattoo. Get the work done at a reputable shop from someone who specializes in Chinese symbol tattoos and is able to replicate a design flawlessly. That’s because one wrong swoop can render the meaning useless.
This large back piece is a great example of how Chinese characters can be incorporated into an interesting tattoo. In the characters themselves, the black ink is fully saturated, helping the symbols to stand out on the wearer’s pale skin tone, while stylistic flourishes at the top use lighter tones to perfectly recreate the effect of ink applied to paper. This variation in tones as well as the limited use of red ink in the portion at the top, adds to the overall composition and works to create a more interesting and dynamic tattoo, helping this tattoo to stand out from similar designs.
While many of the tattoos that use Chinese characters attempt to mimic the look of handwritten calligraphy, this piece uses a more sterile and rigid script that is reminiscent of fonts from a word processor. The black ink is fully saturated which helps complete the effect of the characters being mechanically printed onto the wearer’s skin. The large size and bold placement ensure that everyone who sees this tattoo will know the importance of the message to the wearer.
This is an interesting piece that serves as a good example of how Chinese characters can be incorporated into a tattoo without necessarily being the sole focus of the design. The ink in the Chinese symbol is fully saturated, creating a stark contrast with the subtle use of white ink for a highlight around the character, as well as the lighter tones in the wings of the dragon. The dragon is also an interesting element in this design: in Chinese culture, these mythical beasts are symbols of power, strength, and luck and this stylized version completes this tattoo and serves as an example of the wide variety of depictions of these legendary creatures.
This is an interesting tattoo that has Chinese characters at its center and incorporates some geometric elements to complete the design. The black ink used in the symbols is fully saturated and helps these dramatic characters to stand out on the wearer’s pale skin tone. The stark black ink also increases the contrast between the Chinese characters and the subtle geometric shapes in the background of the piece. The incorporation of these shapes improves the overall composition of the tattoo and helps to balance out the form of the design and at the same time adds a layer of depth to the piece thanks to the lighter tones and restrained application.
This is an interesting black and gray piece that incorporates Chinese characters into a more macabre tattoo. The use of gray wash shading is consistent and well-applied here, creating a background that provides enough contrast to keep the black symbols from disappearing and at the same time allowing the lighter tones and white in the skull to pop. A level of texture in the skull is also created thanks to this well-applied shading. The line work in this ghoulish soldier’s helmet is clean and consistent helping to complete this unique tattoo.
Here is another great example of a black and gray tattoo that incorporates other traditional Chinese elements into an interesting design. The black ink in the characters is fully saturated, increasing contrast, not only with the wearer’s pale skin tone but also with the lighter gray tones of the bamboo. In China, bamboo is a symbol of beauty and traditionally represents modesty, loyalty, and moral integrity, all important features of Chinese culture. Here, the artist uses expert tone gradation to give the bamboo plant the feeling of hand-painted calligraphy, with the ink bleeding into the paper, creating darker areas as well as portions that are almost translucent.
In this piece, the artist uses black and gray ink to create an interesting design that gives the impression of the characters being carved into stone. The variation in grayscale tones and deliberately inconsistent application give the tattoo the texture of stone, which is completed with the use of fine lines to mimic cracks in the rock. The Chinese characters are created using fully saturated black ink to help them stand out against the gray wash in the rest of the tattoo. The placement on the leg is sure to be seen often, allowing the wearer to show off their appreciation of Chinese culture for all to see.
This is another image that uses black ink to great effect in creating the impression of the brush strokes that are specific to handwritten calligraphy. The artist expertly recreates this effect by breaking up the shapes of the characters, as well as the circle around them, mimicking the shape and application of the Xuan brushes used in this traditional art form. The incorporation of birds—harbingers of joy in Chinese belief— is an interesting addition and works well in this piece to break up the simple composition and add movement to help create a more dynamic tattoo.
Chinese Symbol Tattoo FAQs
What does Nicki Minaj’s tattoo mean?
Chinese characters make for great tattoos thanks to the variety of styles they can be incorporated into and the endless meanings that can be conveyed through their use. Many celebrities choose these interesting symbols for their tattoos as well, Niki Minaj included. Her tattoo, on her outside bicep, is made up of six Chinese characters and is translated as “God is always with you”. It is a clean, black piece and a good example of the style.
10 Beautiful Characters That Will Make You Fall in Love With Chinese
Chinese calligraphy | Shutterstock
Chinese is a logographic writing system, meaning that every character represents a concept, in contrast to an alphabet, where each symbol represents a sound. The tens of thousands of complex Chinese characters that are in use today are the evolved forms of symbols originating as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. Here are 10 examples of traditional Chinese characters and the secrets contained within them.
Meaning: Virtue, Ethics
Older versions of the character for “virtue” combine 彳and the obsolete 悳 (also pronounced dé). The component 彳 means “to walk” or “to travel,” but it can also suggest “behavior” or “comportment.” Meanwhile, 悳 is composed of the word 直 (zhí), meaning “straight”, and 心 (xīn), meaning “heart”. So 彳+ 悳 means “to walk around with a straight-aiming heart” – in other words, to behave virtuously.
A temple pathway | Pixabay
Meaning: Home, Family
The top portion of the character for “home” is 宀, which represents a roof. The bottom part is 豕 (shǐ), an old character for “pig” or “swine.” How did “a pig under a roof” come to mean “home”? In the old days, those who were able to raise pigs were considered well-off, because they had ample food to eat. Thus, the character 家 represents the aspiration of a well-fed household.
A cozy apartment | Pexels
Here, we see the “roof” 宀 radical again, with the character for woman, 女 (nǚ), underneath it, associating peace with femininity, and suggesting that an ideal household is managed by an assiduous woman. (On the flipside, this can also be interpreted as representing the sexist notion that women belong at home!)
A tranquil pier | Pixabay
Early versions of the character for “spring” contained the character 屯 (tún), which represents a soft shoot sprouting from the ground, heralding the coming of spring. The bottom part of this character is 日 (rì), which means “sun,” or in this case, “sunshine.”
Spring crocuses blooming | Pixabay
An ancient form of this character was composed of the components 目 (mù), meaning “eye,” and 爿, which represents a bed. Combined, they referred to “things seen while sleeping.” Over time, the original character was rotated so the 爿 (which became 艹) now sits on top of the 目, and the elements 宀, which means “under a roof,” and 夕(xī), meaning “evening,” were added.
Sleeping kitten | Pexels
Meaning: Gate, Door
This character neatly represents the two sides of a set of double doors, like the front gates used in ancient China to guard the homes of the wealthy.
A pair of Chinese-style gates | Pixabay
Meaning: Perpetual, Forever
The earliest versions of this character meant “to swim with the current,” which is why it’s related to the homonym 泳 (yǒng), “to swim.” It contains the character 水 (shuǐ), “water,” which is derived from the same ancient pictogram that gave rise to the character 川 (chuān), “river.” The modern meaning of 永 comes from the fact that a great river flows on for vast distances – seemingly forever.
Sunrise over a river | Pixabay
The four dash-like strokes in the middle of this character represent raindrops, and the horizontal bar at the top represents the sky. Earlier versions of the character for “rain” consisted simply of this bar with four dashes underneath, but over time it became more complex, eventually transforming into 雨.
Rain | Pexels
The top of this character is a roof, 宀, referring to something that is stored indoors. The bottom component is 貝 (bèi), which in archaic texts means “money” and suggests something valuable. Encapsulated in the middle is the character 珤 (bǎo), an archaic word for “treasure” that can also refer to porcelain or chinaware.
Wooden box | Pixabay
Meaning: Pen, Brush
This character is composed of the archaic character 聿 (yù), which represents a hand grasping a thin, vertical writing brush, with an abbreviated form of the character 竹 (zhú), “bamboo,” from which calligraphic brushes were made in ancient China.
A Chinese calligrapher in action | Shutterstock
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Thinking about getting something new & unique placed on top of your body? Chinese tattoo designs and Chinese symbols will look lovely and can make up for an amazing story. Find your perfect and customized tattoo with one of these 30 options!
What Are Chinese Tattoo Designs?
Chinese tattoo designs can be different tattoos, and they can vary from anything & everything that you imagine. You can go for a Chinese symbol, Chinese saying, as well as your favorite Chinese cartoon or character. You can also go for a song, a quote, or a plant/flower that is specifically linked to the Chinese origin.
Who Should Get Chinese Tattoos?
Chinese tattoos are for men and women, as well as teens who want something cute and sentimental placed on top of their skin. They will suit everyone since they are so universal and easily customizable, perfect for picky people!
Small Chinese Tattoos
1. Chinese Tattoo Symbols Small Forearm Tattoo
Are you a fan of smaller tattoos? Do you usually gravitate toward smaller pieces? This design over your forearm will suit you if you are afraid of the tattooing process and you dislike needles.
Get a Chinese symbol or a sentence that matches your personality and that speaks something personal and unique to your character.
2. Chinese Fish Tattoo
How about a matching tattoo design? This pop of color will suit you if you have a significant other in mind. Koi fish is a common tattoo choice when it comes to Chinese-inspired tattoos.
Koi fish is a symbol of long-lasting and deep love. If you have feelings and you are a genuine person, this matching print will suit you. Ankle placement might be a bit uncomfortable, but the overall design is more than worth it in the end.
3. Chinese Tattoo Ideas Black Tattoo
This geometrical and astrology-inspired Chinese tattoo is for men and women who enjoy sentimental tattoos with a fun story to tell. This ink will look amazing over your forearm and it will not take you too much time to get either.
Black waves and water in general can symbolize your journey as well as your ups and downs. Show everyone what you’re made of and what you’ve been through with this detailed tattoo.
Fun fact: Did you know that China is the most populated country in the world with over billion people?
4. Chinese Flower Tattoo
A pink flower will let others see that you’re into innocent tattoos. This one will symbolize your journey while representing your fundamental and complex soul.
Also Read: 40+ Best Sunflower Tattoo Design Ideas (Meaning and Inspirations)
5. Chinese Letter Tattoos On Back
Back tattoos can have their own history, as well as a fun story to tell. This image will suit guys and girls, as well as someone who wants to show off asymmetrical pieces over their entire back.
You can go for any letters or numbers in the Chinese language that you gravitate to the most. Make your tattoo a sentimental tattoo that has a fun story to tell, unique while being so easy to get.
Did you know that the Chinese New Year’s celebration lasts for 15 days?
Chinese Arm Tattoos
1. Traditional Chinese Tattoo Colorful Ink
How about a detailed and dramatic colorful tattoo? This Chinese-inspired print is colorful as well as flashy. You will enjoy it the best if you’re someone who loves larger and colorful tattoos.
It symbolizes your soul as well as your upbringing. You can tell who you are and what your story is with something as dramatic and colorful. Make sure to have a background story ready to go.
2. Forearm Chinese Tattoo Style
How about some precise and detailed black ink tattoos? This design is a must-have for anyone who is a true perfectionist yet a minimalist and who enjoys gorgeous graphical tattoos.
It represents you as a person, as well as all the layers that you have. It will show others that you’re a complex person and someone who has had a rough journey (which we all have, so don’t worry about it)!
3. Yellow Traditional Chinese Tattoos
You are also probably someone who knows how to act socially and you always go for what you believe in your life. If you are an optimist this can also be an amazing tattoo idea in your case.
Fun fact: There are 12 Chinese zodiac animal signs.
4. Unique Chinese Theme Tattoo
How about a fish-inspired and cute tattoo that you can place over your forearm? This is another feminine and cute design that you will enjoy if you’re a fan of cute and playful tattoos.
Fish symbolizes your free will, overall freedom, as well as a chance to make big moves and move in the right direction (or where the waters take you). Enjoy its symbolism no matter your gender or age!
5. Chinese Tattoos Images Over Arm
Are you a person who is big on signs and their deeper meaning? This Chinese-inspired wave and air symbol are for believers in the outer world and deep connections, perfect for men who work out!
It symbolizes the warrior that is in you, and it tells that you’re always searching for yourself through every journey.
Did you know that China, despite its size, has just one time zone?
Chinese Leg Tattoos
1. Chinese Flower Lotus Tattoo Over Leg
This small lotus flower over your calf is a perfect design for anyone who dislikes feeling pain or discomfort when getting something new placed over their skin. Quick, easy, as well as practical for anyone who enjoys smaller black tattoos.
It shows that you’re a passionate person. This Chinese tattoo is a piece of art that will show your spiritual journey, as well as your feminine and passionate side.
Also Read: 20+ Lotus Flower Tattoo Design Ideas (Meaning and Inspirations)
2. Chinese Dragon Tattoo
How about a dramatic and scary dragon? This is a gorgeous and precise tattoo that you will enjoy if you’re a warrior deep inside. It will suit guys a bit more than girls.
This dragon can show your powerful and determined side. Are you someone who knows how to evolve through every situation and grow from it? If so, show your spiritual side and tough personality with this black ink.
Also Read: 14 Best Dragon Tattoo Designs: Mesopotamian, East Asia Or Europe?
3. Realistic Portrait Chinese Tattoos Images
How about a personalized tattoo? This woman ink is for men who love portraits and larger tattoos. It is a colorful ink that will look dramatic once placed over your calf.
It can show your love for Chinese culture. On the other hand, you can also go with a portrait of someone you truly love or care about in your life, yet give it a unique Chinese twist!
Fun fact: Chinese people are the biggest travelers who spend around $ billion every year!
4. Leg Chinese Tattoo Inspiration
How about a large and noticeable thigh tattoo? This black ink is a masterpiece that you will enjoy if you gravitate toward larger tattoos. Make sure that you book an amazing tattoo artist who knows how to do great and dramatic tattoos.
You will enjoy its meaning since it stands for your levels, your layers, as well as your complex personality. Show that you’re a warrior and a strong-willed individual.
5. Colorful Chinese Fish Tattoo
What do you think about this yin and yang fish symbol? It is a colorful masterpiece that is suitable for men and women. Heads up, however, since finding an amazing tattoo artist is imperative in this case.
Enjoy its colorful print and let the world see your layers. This tattoo will speak different things to different people, and it will show your different sides to the world!
Did you know that the number 4 is associated with death and is rarely mentioned in China? It is an unlucky number.
Chinese Tattoo Designs For Women
1. Chinese Tattoos On Chest For Females Colorful Design
This is a feminine and colorful tattoo that you will like if you’re someone who’s into flower tattoos, as well as Chinese symbols. This design is the perfect side-stomach piece. Heads up, however, since it is a painful placement to go for.
This flower tattoo shows your playful and flirty side. This is the perfect cherry tattoo that you can go for if you’re a strong-minded individual who is a fan of precision and romantic tattoos.
2. Chinese Tattoo Colorful Design Over Stomach
How about a stomach tattoo? This bright pink tattoo is a masterpiece that you will enjoy if you’re a fan of minimalistic tattoos. It will show your bright personality while letting the world see how feminine you are!
It symbolizes your nourishing and determined side. This piece is for girls who are always seeking love and who are reminding themselves that it is vital to love yourself in the process.
3. Chinese Tattoos Down The Spine Black Design
How about a back tattoo? This piece is a time-consuming one to get, but you will enjoy it if you’re a fan of noticeable and larger back tattoos. Find the perfect background that will suit your personality and which will represent your character.
This tattoo shows that you’re always up for some action. Get it if you’re always trying to find yourself in this chaotic world and you’re always up for a new journey!
Fun fact: China grows at an amazing speed. There is a new skyscraper built every five days.
4. Thigh Dragon Chinese Tattoo Black Ink
Are you a fan of leg tattoos? How about this giant thigh piece? It is a sexy tattoo that you will enjoy if you’re a fan of bold placements and larger tattoos. This dragon ink in black is so simple yet straightforward.
It will show that you’re always up for some action and that you’re trying to get through any bad situations with your head held high and up in the air.
5. Flower Inspired Black Chinese Tattoo Over Leg
This is another thigh tattoo that you will enjoy if you’re not afraid of the tattooing process. This ink will take you hours to place, so be equipped with patients before you begin your tattooing process.
It symbolizes your paths and your layers. You will feel like a determined person who knows what she wants from life, so show your side and all of your struggles with one large and gorgeous tattoo.
Did you know that brides in China wear red instead of white? Red is considered a lucky color.
Also Read: 30+ Sexiest Thigh Tattoo Designs For Girls
Chinese Tattoo Sleeve Design
1. Arm & Shoulder Chinese Tattoo
How about a large and colorful sleeve tattoo? This image is for guys who work out and men who are true warriors. Represent yourself and your journey with this masterpiece.
This ink shows your optimistic side. It will also let others know that you’ve had a lot on your mind and that you’ve been trying to grind and find yourself along this process. It will also show that you’re filled with different layers and interesting stories to tell.
2. Black Ink Dragon Chinese Tattoo Over Arm
How about a black and white sleeve? This black ink tattoo is properly shaded and it will suit men who are always trying to come off and appear as dominant individuals in their life. It is a fine yet time-consuming piece to go for, so be prepared.
This dragon will show your mind and its power. Are you someone who knows how to control every situation that is presented to you, and you want to come off as someone who has clear goals in your life? Go with this dramatic Chinese sleeve in that case!
3. Chinese Hand Tattoo Designs
Do you want to spend a couple of hours getting the best tattoo that suits your determined personality? This large and black ink sleeve will suit anyone who is a powerful yet caring person!
This sleeve will tell that you’re often seeking perfection. However, perfection starts with us and is found within every guy or girl who knows how to seek it for long enough. Represent each and every new chapter with this amazing tattoo idea.
Fun fact: Chinese calligraphy is quite common and popular, as well as considered a revered art form.
4. Colorful Sleeve Chinese Tattoo
How about a large and colorful sleeve tattoo? This one is for men who don’t mind spending several hours as well as a lot of their money at a tattoo shop. Colorful tattoos are usually a bit pricier and can be hard to achieve. Go for an amazing tattoo shop that knows how to do details and pays close attention to all the little things.
This tattoo will represent each area that you have had in your life. It will stand for everything good and bad, and who doesnt want that?!
Also Read: Half Sleeve Tattoos For Men: 30+ Best Design Recommendations
5. Wave Inspired Black Chinese Tattoo
Do you work out quite often and you love the gym life? Are you also satisfied with your body and your overall physique? If so, show that with this large black sleeve tattoo. It will tell that you’re someone who knows how to have a good time.
You’re also probably a determined and strong-minded person who is always chasing new and important goals in your life while keeping your standards at their highest!
Did you know that China is the 4th largest country in the world?
Chinese Stomach & Back Tattoos
1. Chest Ape Inspired Chinese Tattoo
How about something a bit different and dramatic? This large ape-inspired piece will suit you! It symbolizes your powerful and strong side, as well as a lot of power due to its unique color combo, as well as because of its unique artsy side.
It is great for men who work out. It is a colorful piece that you will love if you’re a powerful individual and someone who enjoys getting noticed at all times.
2. Chinese Letter Tattoos On Back For Men
Are you a fan of larger and masculine tattoo designs? This back piece with Chinese symbols will look the best on top of men who work out. It is not a difficult tattoo either.
You can show your determined and brave side with this ink. Go for anything that suits your personality and that is unique, as well as sentimental for you.
Fun fact: Chinese were the first to use paper money (this happened about 1, years ago).
3. Dramatic Chinese Symbol For Strength And Love
How about a dramatic and unique warrior tattoo? This is a piece of art that is artsy, as well as gorgeous for people who have masculine back. Show your true intentions and your past with this tattoo.
It screams fun, challenges, as well as rough history. Let this tattoo tell your journey and your true lifestyle path with this ink.
4. Yellow Funky Chinese Tattoo
Do you want a colorful bright yellow Chinese-inspired tattoo? This cute yet scary frog is mysterious and perfect for guys who love funky tattoos. If you gravitate toward funny pieces this tattoo is for you.
Show everyone that you love to have fun and hang around with this yellow ink. It can come off as a confusing piece, but you will also look like a mysterious individual who knows how to have a good time.
5. Chinese Symbol Black Ink Over Chest
If you want a chest Chinese tattoo and you love noticeable prints, how about this black print? Continue adding onto this chest piece as time goes on and let this tattoo tell a story that suits you.
Let everyone see that you are a generous and honest person. This tattoo will tell a lot about you, and let the world see your true side with this unique symbol.
Also Read: Best Chest Tattoos for Men: 70+ Design Ideas ( Updated)
Ready For Your New Chinese Tattoo?
Are you ready to get a new Chinese-inspired tattoo design? Which one image out of these 30 different kinds was your favorite? Are you a fan of smaller or larger tattoos, and do you enjoy noticeable or hidden placements? Either way it may be, let us know your top pick, we would love to know!
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