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IDEOGRAMS


This is an ongoing list of awesome ideogrammatic characters that I've studied, and it's probably the best webpage in this section. Although unfortunately most Chinese characters no longer have such meaningful constructions (90% of all Chinese today consists of sound-meaning compounds, rather than meaning-meaning compounds), there are still quite a few that do, and they're fun to know about. Enjoy :)

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Character Explanation
BEAUTIFUL (mei3). 羊 (sheep, yang2) + 大 (big, da4) = 美 (beautiful). If the sheep is big, it will be beautiful. Plumpness in women was often considered beautiful.
AUTUMN (qiu1). In old China, after the grain was harvested, unusable stalks were leftover and had to be burned. This process occurred during autumn. Hence, 禾 (grain, he2) + 火 (fire, huo4) = 秋 (autumn)
CONCUBINE (qie4). A concubine is an inferior wife. Polygamy was once widely practiced in China, resulting in such titles as 1st wife, 2nd wife, 3rd wife, 4th wife ... etc. Anyone who wasn't the first wife was inferior. When 1st wife walked by, a concubine would have to stand up in respect. Hence, 立 (stand, li4) + 女 (woman, nu3) = 妾 (concubine)
NATION (guo2). mouth 口 (kou3) + earth/village + lance 戈 (ge1) + surround 囗 (wei2) = nation 國. Interpretation: To have a nation, one requires a language, a people, a means of defense, and a boundary line. Too cool. The radical representing earth here has been corrupted to the character for "one". b can also mean "dagger-axe". Contrast with simplified version of nation, which just has a king inside a boundary line. Communism vs. British monarchy?
LAKE (hu2). Moving from left to right, we see three radicals: water, sheet, and moon. Interpretation: a lake is like a sheet of water. Because a lake is still, you can see the moon reflected of its surface.
EAST (dong1). This is actually the tree radical ( 木 , mu4) superimposed by the sun radical ( 日, re4). It's a picture of the sun rising through the branches of a tree. And the sun rises in the EAST!
TIRED (lei4). In old China, men's work usually consisted of plowing the fields (田, tian2), whereas women's work usually involved the farming of silk (糸, mi4). (Techincally called sericulture.) Put men's work and women's work together, you get everybody's work ... and everybody's tired ... ^_^
GOOD (hao3). It's good when a woman has a child. Hence, 女 (woman, nu3) + 子 (child, zi3) = 好 (good)
TO SLEEP (shui4). 目 (mu4) is eye. 垂 (chui2) was originally a picture of a tree with drooping leaves. Concatenate: when your eyes droop, you're gonna sleep. ~_~
TO TAX (shui4). 禾 (grain, he2) + 兌 (to hand over, dui4). Peasants in old China traditionally paid their taxes in grain. Hand over the grain.
STRAIGHT (zhi2). The written form of this character usually has just a straight line at the bottom, unlike the printed form shown at left with a 90 degree angle in the bottom line. Examining the character's components from top to bottom, we see "ten" (十 shi2), "eyes" (目 mu4), and then a straight line. Interpretation: if a line is straight, then ten eyes can look at it and agree that it is indeed straight.
TO EXAMINE (xiang1). At left is the wood radical (木 mu4), and at right is the eye character (目 mu4). Putting the two together is supposed to show someone studying a tree or piece of wood with his eye; a carpenter checking material. Hence, "to examine."
TO THINK (xiang3). Here we see the character for "to examine" (相, xiang1) over "heart" (心, xin1). In many Chinese characters, the heart means "mind". Hence, to think is to examine in the mind.
TO STUDY (xue2). At the bottom, we see the character for child (子, zi3), and at top, we see two crisscrosses surrounded by gate-like structures. The child is the student. The gate-like structures (臼, jiu4), which today represent the character for "mortar", were once pictures of hands guiding the student to write the crisscross characters properly!
TO TEACH (jiao1). Upper-left: "old" (老 , lao3). Bottom-left: "child" (子 , zi3). Right: "knock" (pu3), which is actually a picture of a guy holding a stick. The child is the student, and the stick basher represents the discipline necessary for learning. The character for "old" used to be the same crisscross seen in the character for "to study", since the criss-cross was the character the child was being taught. Hence, the characters for studying and teaching used to be the same. Now, the "old" character might be there to describe the age of the disciplinarian with respect to the student.
NAME (ming2). Top character is "dusk" (夕 , xi1), a drawing of the moon. Bottom is "mouth" (口, kou3). Dusk is the darker stage of twilight. When in darkness, you can't see others, so you have to use your mouth, to call them by name.
TO KNOW (zhi1). Left is "arrow" (失 , shi3), right is "mouth" (口, kou3). When you have knowledge, your mouth is sharp and far-reaching, like an arrow.
[A FAMILY/CONSTELLATION NAME] (lou2). I don't understand this character fully, but the information that I have been able to find about it is rather disturbing so I'm listing it here. The top part used to be 毋 (wu2), which means "don't!" and apparently is a picture of a woman shackled in iron chains. Under 毋, there was 中 (zhong1), meaning "center"; under 毋 , there was 女 (nu3), meaning "woman". "center" + "woman" = women's quarters. Put a woman in chains atop the quarters, and the total meaning became "to tether" and "to drag". Now this character is just a name, but I'm guessing its origins are in the enslavement of women, perhaps as sexual objects.
DISPOSITION/SEX (xing4). At left, heart (心 , xin1) is here to represent some permanent quality of a person. The character at right means birth (生u, sheng1). Hence, your disposition and your sex are qualities that are set from birth.
GENERATION (shi4). This is actually three instances of the numeral ten (十, shi4) superimposed upon each other. The vertical stroke on the left is bent for the sake of stylistic design. Three tens = thirty years = a generation!
KNIGHT (shi4). This character means knight; you can see two of these guys always next to the king in a chinese chess game. This simple character is actually composed of two numbers: ten (十, shi4) over one ( 一, yi1). A knight could organize ten things into one for his lord. So knights had to be smart too :)
TO GRAB, TO CATCH IN HUNTING (huo4). Ignore the leftmost character (dog, quan3), which is there just for reclarification. From top to bottom: ++ (grass, cao3), 隹 (bird, zhui1), 又 (right hand, you4). Interpretation: The grass either represents the crest of the bird, or it means that the bird is hidden inside the grass. The hand catches the bird. Hence, to grab, or catch in hunting.
HISTORY, HISTORIAN (shi3). The bottom part of this character used to be 又 (you4), meaning right hand. It still resembles 又 a bit. The hand is holding a box, which represents a case containing the bamboo slips on which history is written! It thus follows that the character for civil servant, 吏 (li4), looks very similar to the character for history. Recording the life of an empire was a central task for the most important of civil servants.
TO STRING UP (guan4). 貝 (bei4) is a picture of a cowrie shell, a small yellowish-white kind of shell that was an ancient form of Chinese currency. (Sidenote: These shells were also used as currency in other countries, such as West Africa.) 貫 is a picture of two cowrie shells strung together with a string, the same way Chinese coins today are sometimes strung together (many Chinese coins have holes in their centers, like donuts). The form of the top cowrie shell is corrupted.
JADE (yu4). The three horizontal strokes are discs of jade, and the vertical stroke is a string on which the discs are strung together! Note this character is very similar to 王 (wang2), which means king. The dot in 玉 was probably added to distinguish between the two. At one time in Chinese history, jade stone was reserved only for kings. It was considered priceless because it was rare, long-lasting, and beautiful. Another interpretation of the jade character is that each of the horizontal strokes represent Heaven, the Earth, and Mankind. This interpretation is probably plausible because jade stone was believed to be a supernatural messenger between each of these three elements; many religious totems were carved out of jade. Confucius even stated that jade had 11 virtues, including wisdom, generosity, and even politeness. Yeah, a polite rock. Whatever.
TO FIGHT (dou4). The old form of this character was a picture of two men duking it out. This modern form, however, can be explained as two kings (king = 王 wang2) confined to a very small space. Thus they fight. ^_^
TO PASS THROUGH (li4). The two strokes which look like a long-division symbol are the radical for slope, and inside the slope, we see two grains 禾 (he2), and underneath them, the toe radical 止 (zhi3, which is actually a picture of a foot). In rural China, the main routes of passage in many places are roads on the dikes that crisscross the rice paddies. Thus, "slope" corresponds to the road, and the "grain" represents the paddies. "Toe" is there for reclarification, indicating that the character has something to do with travel or transportation.
ARMS / WEAPONS OF WAR (rong2). 戈 at right is the character for lance, or "dagger-axe". The remaining crisscross strokes at the left are supposed to represent armor. Hence, armor + lance = weapons of war.
THIEF (zei2). On the left-hand side we have the cowrie shell 貝 (bei4), an ancient form of Chinese money. On the right-hand side is 戎 (rong2), meaning "weapons of war"; the right-hand side actually used to be 刀 (knife, dao1), but the gist of the following interpretation remains the same. The man who acquires his money by using violent methods is a thief!
WIND (feng1). Another typical sound-meaning compound, but this one has some cool meaning interpretation, even if it doesn't make sense to me. 凡 (fan2, common) gives sound. And the bug radical 虫 (chong2) actually gives the meaning. Comes from some kind of spooky proverb: "Where the wind stirs, the bugs breed." Like many other chinese characters, 風 has many other meanings, including "news" and "rumor". However, notice that all of these alternative meanings travel as fast as the wind.
VULGAR, COMMON (su2). At left is the side-form of the radical for man (人 ren2). At right we have 谷 (gu3), a pictogram that means "valley". Put them together and we have a man from the mountain country. A hillbilly. Hence, vulgar, coarse, tasteless, perhaps uncivilized.
PEACEFUL (an1). This is a very famous and cool meaning-meaning compound. We see the character for woman, 女 (nu3), underneath a roof. "One woman under your roof means peace." As opposed to many women, or perhaps zero.
VILLAGE (li3). This is the field character, 田 (tian2), on top of the earth character, 土 (tu3). "Where there's land near fields, you build a village."
HOME (jia1). This is a pig 豕 (shi3) under a roof. Having a pig in your house was considered a symbol of wealth in old China.
KINDNESS/HUMANENESS (ren2). The characters for person 人 (ren2) and two 二 (er4) are believed to have descended from the same ancestral character. The explanation for this meaning-meaning compound is philosophical. The two suggests "another" person, an "other" person. Kindness is the most important virtue to express toward other people.

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