Chinese written language

Various styles of .
Various styles of Chinese calligraphy.

The Chinese written language consists of a writing system stretching back nearly 4000 years. Its logographic writing system employs a large number of symbols, known as characters, to represent individual words or morphemes. The writing system is considered to have also been a unifying force for much of Chinese history, transcending differences in spoken language. From the time of the Qin Dynasty onwards, a standard written language (at first Classical Chinese and later Vernacular Chinese) has always been in place to bridge the divergent spoken Chinese dialects.


Written standards

One can classify Chinese writing into the following basic types:

The relationship between the Chinese spoken and written languages is complex. This complexity is compounded by the fact that the numerous variations of spoken Chinese have gone through centuries of evolution since at least the late-Han Dynasty. However, written Chinese has changed much less than the spoken language.

Until the 20th century, most formal Chinese writing was done in wenyan, translated as Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese, which was very different from any of the spoken varieties of Chinese in much the same way that Classical Latin is different from modern Romance languages. Chinese characters that are closer to the spoken language were used to write informal works such as colloquial novels.

Since the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the formal standard for written Chinese was changed to baihua, or Vernacular Chinese, which, while not completely identical to the grammar and vocabulary of modern spoken Mandarin, was based mostly on modern spoken Mandarin. The term standard written Chinese now refers to Vernacular Chinese. Although few new works are now written in classical Chinese, it is still taught in middle and high school and forms part of college entrance examinations. Classical Chinese forms are also sometimes included in written works to give them a highly formal or archaic flavor.

Chinese characters are understood as morphemes that are independent of phonetic change. Thus, although the number one is read as "yi" in Mandarin, "yat" in Cantonese and "tsit" in Hokkien, they derive from a common ancient Chinese word and still share an identical character: 一. Nevertheless, the orthographies of Chinese dialects are not identical. The vocabularies used in the different dialects have also diverged. In addition, while literary vocabulary is often shared among all dialects (at least in orthography; the readings are different), colloquial vocabularies are often different. Colloquially written Chinese usually involves the use of "dialectal characters" which may not be understood in other dialects or characters that are considered archaic in baihua.

The complex interaction between the Chinese written and spoken languages can be illustrated with Cantonese. Cantonese speakers are all taught standard written Chinese in school even though its grammar and vocabulary are based on Mandarin. In most written communication, Cantonese speakers will write in standard written Chinese, so Mandarin speakers typically can read such communication without much difficulty. In addition, every character in standard written Chinese has a corresponding Cantonese pronunciation so all writing can be read aloud in Cantonese, however this is not the same as spoken Cantonese. Colloquially spoken Cantonese features slightly different grammar and vocabulary, which if written down, can be largely unreadable by an untrained Mandarin speaker. Standard written Chinese essentially functions as a different register for Cantonese speakers, because they mostly do not write the way they speak. Standard written Chinese spoken aloud using Cantonese pronunciation (usually with some colloquial words substituted in) serves as an acrolect used in newscasts and other formal contexts.

Written colloquial Cantonese does exist however, and Cantonese is unique among non-Mandarin regional languages in having a widely used written colloquial standard. This is due in part to the fact that Hong Kong, a large Cantonese speaking city, was outside of Chinese control for over a hundred years before the British returned it to the People's Republic of China in 1997. In contrast, the other regional languages do not have such widely used alternative written standards. Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in certain tabloids, online chat rooms, and instant messaging. Even so, Cantonese speakers will use standard written Chinese in most formal written communications.

As with other aspects of the Chinese language, the contrast between different written standards is not sharp and there can be a socially accepted continuum between the written standards. For example, in writing an informal love letter, one may use informal baihua. In writing a newspaper article, the language used is different and begins to include aspects of wenyan. In writing a ceremonial document, one would use even more wenyan. The language used in the ceremonial document may be completely different from that of the love letter, but there is a socially accepted continuum existing between the two. Pure wenyan, however, is rarely used.

Chinese characters

Main articles: Chinese character, Punctuation: East Asian punctuation

The Chinese written language employs the Han characters (漢字/汉字 pinyin hnz), which are named after the Han culture to which they are largely attributed. Chinese characters appear to have originated in the Shang dynasty as pictograms depicting concrete objects. The first examples we have of Chinese characters are inscriptions on oracle bones, which are occasionally sheep scapula but mostly turtle plastrons (lower shells) used for divination purposes. Over the course of the Zhou and Han dynasties, the characters became more and more stylized. Abstract symbols, such as those indicating up and down, and combined characters came into usage. For example, the word "rn" (in pinyin), meaning "person", is a pictogram of a man; "trust" is a combination of "man" and "speech/word". Also, additional components were added so that many characters contain one element that gives (or at least once gave) a fairly good indication of the pronunciation, and another component (the so-called "radical") gives an indication of the general category of meaning to which the character belongs. In the modern Chinese languages, the majority of characters are phonetically based rather than logographically based. An example would be the character for the word 按 n that means "to press down". It contains 安 ān (peace), which serves as its phonetic component, and 手 shǒu (hand), that indicates that the action is frequently one that is done using one's hand. These characters, having both components, constitutes the majority of the Chinese vocabulary.

A number of Chinese characters are derived out of each other; as a result some classical dictionaries contain circular references of words having identical radicals and meanings. However, new meanings have been injected into these redundant words through popular usage. Some words are also "borrowed" (ie. to introduce an additional meaning) because they bear a phonetic resemblance with another thing that has no assigned written character.

Many styles of Chinese calligraphic writing developed over the centuries, such as zhuanshu (篆書, seal-script), caoshu (草書, grass script), lishu (隸書, official script) and kaishu (楷書, standard script).

In Japan and Korea, Han characters were adopted and integrated into their languages and became Kanji and Hanja, respectively. Japan still uses Kanji as an integral part of its writing system; however, Korea's use of Hanja has diminished (it is not used at all in North Korea).

In the field of software and communications internationalization, CJK is a collective term for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, and the rarer CJKV a collective term for the same plus Vietnamese, all of which are double-byte languages, as they have more than 256 characters in their "alphabet". The computerized processing of Chinese characters involves some special issues both in input and character encoding schemes, as the standard 100+ key keyboards of today's computers don't allow input of that many characters with a single key-press.

The Chinese writing system is mostly logographic, i.e., each character expresses a monosyllabic word part, also known as a morpheme. This is helped by the fact that over 90% of Chinese morphemes are monosyllabic. The majority of modern words, however, are multisyllable and multigraphic. Multisyllabic words have a separate logogram for each syllable. Some, but not all, Han characters are ideographs, but most Han Chinese characters have forms that were based on their pronunciation rather than their meanings, so they do not directly express ideas.

Character forms

There are currently two standards for printed Chinese characters. One is Traditional Chinese characters, used in Taiwan. Mainland China and Singapore use the Simplified Chinese characters (developed by the PRC government in the 1950s), which uses simplified forms for many of the more complicated characters. For Hong Kong and Macau, they use mainly the Traditional system, but for many characters, they have adopted the simplified form. Most simplified versions were derived from established, though obscure, historically-established simplifications. In Taiwan, many simplifications are used when characters are handwritten, but in printing traditional characters are the norm. In addition, most Chinese use some personal simplifications.

Simplification process is actually not restricted to Simplified system. In order to computerize Chinese, the authority in Taiwan has tried to "standardize" the glyph of characters being used, to eliminate unnecessary variations. As a result, several characters are combined into one, and some characters have their written form altered to ease the glyph generation process by computing technologies at that time. But these simplification process are rather minor as compared with the effort done by the Mainland government.

External links

Chinese: spoken varieties

Mandarin | Jin | Wu | Hui | Xiang | Gan | Hakka | Yue | Pinghua | Min
Danzhouhua | Shaozhou Tuhua | Xianghua

Subcategories of Min: Min Dong | Min Bei | Min Zhong | Pu Xian | Min Nan | Qiong Wen | Shao Jiang
Note: The above is only one classification scheme among many.
Comprehensive list of Chinese dialects
Official spoken varieties: Standard Mandarin | Standard Cantonese
Historical phonology: Old Chinese | Middle Chinese | Proto-Min | Proto-Mandarin | Haner
Chinese: written varieties
Official written varieties: Classical Chinese | Vernacular Chinese
Other varieties: Written Cantonese
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