Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China/Chinese Characters

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CHINESE CHARACTERS.

By James B. Wong, B.A., of Nanking University.

TO learn the derivation and meaning of a sufficient number of Chinese characters to enable one to carry on a certain limited correspondence on ordinary topics in the Chinese language is not a formidable task, but to become proficient enough to read all sorts of written, or printed, documents or inscriptions requires years of diligent and patient study.

The derivation of Chinese written characters is a matter of extreme interest to philologists. The characters have undergone innumerable modifications through successive dynasties since the remote age in which they were first devised, and, as a consequence, the Chinese written language of the present day is very different in appearance, construction, and signification, from what it was when the inscriptions upon the innumerable relics of antiquity, such as metal utensils, tripods, stones, &c., that are scattered about so freely in almost every town and village of the Empire, were chiselled by the forgotten craftsmen who wrought them.

It was in the reign of Tai Hao, who is commonly regarded as having been the first Emperor of China, and who, according to the chronicles, died somewhere about the year 2963 B.C., that written characters were invented by Chuang Chi Sze, in obedience to a royal command, which laid upon him the task of devising a series of signs to represent ideas, so that matters of importance could be recorded. Chuang Chi Sze chose as the basis of his system a number of symbols, the shape of which was suggested to him by birds and other creatures. These symbols, to the number of two hundred and fourteen, are still retained in the written language, and are known to the modern student under the name of "radicals." Their form was not fixed all at once but underwent a series of modifications between the years 2953 B.C. and 331 B.C., when they finally took on the aspect which they now wear. It may be interesting to mention, that during that long period, no fewer than five dynasties occupied the throne of China.

In the beginning of the reign of Ching Chi Wang, these symbols were called Hsiang Hsing characters, and the difference between them and the modern Chinese characters will easily be seen by a glance at the following table:—

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During the reign of the Emperor Chi Huang Ti, or Ching Chi Wang, from 331 B.C. to 209 B.C., the appearance and meaning of these characters were finally fixed. All the ancient books, with the exception of certain works on agriculture, medicines, and necromancy, were burnt to ashes at the suggestion of the prime minister, who also caused a great number of literary men—four hundred and sixty, it is said—to be buried alive.

From the inscription engraved on the imperial seal of the Emperor Chi Huang Ti, it is apparent that the characters which prevailed in the dynasty of Ching, were really derived from the original symbols. The imperial seal bore eight characters, as follow:—

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A large number of very ancient Chinese characters have been discovered in the inscriptions on copper and iron cauldrons belonging to the dynasty of Shuang (1766 B.C. to 1154 B.C.). Here are a few examples:

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These are the most ancient Chinese characters of which there is any record; they are contained in books dealing from before the dynasty of Ching.

The ancient Chinese characters are classified by Chinese scholars of the present century, as follow:—

1. Niaotsê, or the imitative symbols derived from the appearance of various kinds of birds.

2. Kotau, or the imitative symbols derived from the appearance of shrimps and frogs.
3. Tachuan, or the characters that were improved by Tai Sze Liu in the reign of Hsuen Wang (827 B.C.), of the dynasty of Chow.
4. Hsiaochuan, or the improved seal characters which were invented in the dynasty of Ching.
5. Tishu, or the documentary characters which were used in the reign of Chi Huang Ti, of Ching dynasty.

The Tishu characters are still used in China and Japan on signboards and monuments.

Through twenty-six dynasties the Chinese characters have been absolutely changed in appearance and largely increased in number.

The modern Chinese characters are forty-one thousand in number, but about one-half of them are obsolete, being found only in ancient Chinese philosophical and poetical works. With a quarter of this number, that is to say, with ten thousand characters, all kinds of essays and writings can be composed, and styles can be varied without limit.

The characters are now arranged in six classes, and under each of these, the supposed number is stated below with information about the origin of the characters and the changes they have undergone.

  1. Imitative symbols like moon.
  2. Indicative symbols like two.
  3. Symbols combining ideas like tear.
  4. Inverted symbols like straight.
  5. Syllabic symbols like a carp.
  6. Metaphoric symbols like heart.

Each of the modern Chinese characters is composed of a "radical" and the "primitive." The radicals, of which we have said there are two hundred and fourteen, are like the alphabet in European languages. No pronunciation of Chinese characters, however, can be indicated. The only way to obtain a knowledge of Chinese characters is to study their meaning and acquire "tones" by memory. Anybody who has forgotten the pronunciation of any Chinese character is obliged to consult a dictionary. Thus, many Chinese scholars would be unable to pronounce the characters which they employ to express their ideas.

Some Chinese characters are very easy to understand, owing to the primitive and radical of which they are formed. For instance, the character is constructed by the radical (sun) and the primitive (moon), the whole word meaning "light." The character is composed of the radical (water) and the primitive (eye), and means "tear."

A large number of new characters have been invented recently by Chinese scholars and business men, in order that the language may become the vehicle of ideas which were unknown in former ages.

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