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Every language has its own history and characteristics, which can be shown in its characters system. Differing from western alphabets which mainly show pronunciations, Chinese characters are more complicated, both in appearance and significance. The structures of characters – in other words, the reasons why a character is written in a certain way – are also varied. Based on the types of these structures, Chinese linguists divide the characters into several kinds.
Though the basis for the division remains controversial, most traditional linguists agree with the division of characters into six types: pictographs ( 象形字Xiàngxíngzì ), ideographic characters ( 指示字 Zhǐshìzì ) , associative compounds ( 会意字 Huìyìzì ), phono-semantic characters ( 形声字 Xíngshēngzì ), loan characters (假借字 Jiǎjièzì ) and mutually explanatory characters ( 转注字 Zhuǎnzhùzì ). The first four categories are based on the coinage methods, or the structure composition, while the last two refer to usage. This kind of division is called the Six Categories of Chinese Characters ( 六书 Liùshū ). It can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C.–256 B.C.), when the phrase first appeared in an ancient poem related to national education. However, the details of this division were not explained until the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.). The historian Bān Gù (班固 32-92) and the scribe Liú Xīn ( 刘歆 50 B.C.-23A.D.) both listed the categories in their respective writings, just before the linguist Xǔ Shèn (许慎 58-147) gave the clear definition of each classification in his Origin of Chinese Characters (《说文解字》 Shuōwénjiězì ). Two thousand years later, this book is still one of the most authoritative literatures in the study of Chinese characters.
Although, due to the historical changes in Chinese, the Six Categories is no longer at the core of modern lexicographic practice, it is still a basic knowledge for Chinese linguists. Through the process of classification, it is easier to understand the original meaning and usage for each character, as well as the changes of the whole characters system.
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham