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"At night, hearing the ghosts wail for the creation of writing, Tsang Chieh looked up with his four eyes at the pointed rays of the star Wen Chang, Lord of Literature. Inspired, Tsang Chieh looked down to see the footprints of the birds and animals. He watched the shadows cast by trees and vegetation. He saw the patterns of tortoise shell markings. Observing the forms of nature, Tsang Chieh copied them by scratching onto sticks of smoothed bamboo. These were the first Chinese pictograms."

This is the legend of how Chinese writing developed, according to the historian Chang Yen-Yuan in A.D. 847. Chinese writing can be traced back to the fifth millenium B.C., from which archaeologists have discovered hieroglyphs on ceramic shards. Most of these hieroglyphs were simply pictures of nature. For instance, the character for river has three wavy lines adjacent to each other, and the character for horse is complete with a mane and four legs. These pictures later would serve as a basis for the construction of more complex ideas, and many modern characters still bear a resemblance to their ancestral forms.


If you are unable to view the Chinese characters in the right column properly through your browser (e.g., you just see stuff like @#!*$`&6ïf%), then you need to download a Chinese language pack from one of the sites below. Please e-mail me if you are having problems; I would like to make this site accessible to as many people as possible.

Character Explanation
TO PITY. The bow radical (弓, gong1) with a an arrow run vertically through it. Normally you'd load an arrow perpendicular to the bow. But in this picture, the arrow is just next to the bow. I won't shoot you, for I pity you.
HORSE (ma3). This character resembles a horse; the top part is the furry mane, and the bottom shows four legs galloping.
TO SHOOT (she4). The right radical represents an arm readying a bow and arrow. The dot in the center is the thumb held against the arrow's tail.
OMEN (zhao3). This is a picture of the cracks made in a tortoise shell during oracle bone divination. In ancient China, oracles answered questions by writing them on tortoise shells, and heating the shells in a fire. Heat would then create crack patterns in the shells. Oracles then predicted answers based on the relationships between the cracks and the characters on the bone.
WINE (jiu3). This is part meaning-meaning compound, part pictogram. The three leftmost strokes are the water radical, and the remaining strokes to the right are the wine radical. The wine radical is a picture of a wine jug. The top part, which looks like the greek letter pi, looks like a cork but probably represents a handle to the jug. The horizontal stroke inside the jug represents the upper surface of the liquid inside!
TO BE LAME (wang1). 人 (ren2) means legs; clearly it looks like two legs. In 尢, we see the same two vertical, hook-like strokes, but now one of the legs is considerably shorter than the other. The horizontal stroke is present to emphasize this unequalness in lengths. Hence, if one of your legs is a lot shorter than the other, you're lame.
MUSIC (yue4). This is a picture of all kinds of music stuffs (bells and so on) resting atop a wooden stand ((g, mu4, is the character for wood).
TO LINE UP / TO ARRANGE (qi2). This is a picture of very neatly arranged hairpins in a lady's hairstyle. Hence, to line up or arrange ^_^

W. Wu, 2002 ©.

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