Chinese Writing

Understanding the issues raised in this book presents two types of linguistic challenges. On the one hand, many of us steeped in the conventions of alphabetic writing tend to overlook the impact the alphabet has had on Western culture. Literate Westerners especially, who regard alphabetic writing as though it were a part of nature, are unlikely to ponder its cognitive and social dimensions and may fail to appreciate the full import of this technology. To understand the alphabet's significance we must rethink assumptions held about writing since childhood.

On the other hand, applying to the East Asian situation what linguists in the alphabetic tradition have learned about writing's role in creativity requires some knowledge of Chinese character-based systems. In this case, the challenge arises not just from naive assumptions about the nature of orthography but also from inadequate or misleading information about Asian languages and writing. Much of what we know, or think we know, about East Asian writing has been shaped by nonspecialists, who are often confused about the nature of these scripts, or by writers with a political agenda eager to manipulate the public's perception of this "unique" form of writing.

This is not to deny the existence of sober-minded scholarship on East Asian orthography.1 It is just that Gresham's Law applies here as in other areas: bad information (or disinformation) has tended to drive out good in forming the lay view of Chinese character-based writing. Accordingly, the present chapter's goal is to provide the reader with enough accurate information about East Asian orthography to grasp the arguments made later in this book about its impact on creativity. The effect, I hope, will not be unlike the relationship between science and fiction, where truth has stranger and more profound implications than myth.

This chapter also provides a context for the case I am making on cognitive grounds against Chinese characters and the syllabic scripts derived from them. It is important to understand that the negative effects of character-based writing are not balanced by any linguistic benefits that accrue to their users. In fact, the argument that Asian orthography inhibits creativity is just one of many reasons why those who use these systems may wish to consider taking the final step toward modernization and replace them with an alphabet of letters.

We begin this chapter by considering Chinese, the first East Asian language to be written and the one with which the greatest variety of myths are associated. One such myth is that Chinese writing is well suited to the language using it. This statement is true only in a trivial sense: there is a mutual dependency between the language and writing, but it is self-generated. Let me be more specific.

As evidence of the appropriateness of this writing to the language, linguists point to the close fit between the monosyllabic structure of most Sinitic morphemes (basic units of linguistic meaning) and the fact that characters each "have" meaning; to Chinese characters' ability to discriminate the language's many homonyms; and to the seven or more mutually unintelligible "dialects" in China that supposedly are unified by the character script. The theoretical basis for this belief is the American structuralists' dictum that writing plays a secondary and comparatively unimportant role in language. The notion that writing, being "mere symbols of symbols," could shape the evolution of a language was incomprehensible.

Were it not for this tendency to downplay the significance of writing, students of East Asian languages might have asked why Chinese morphology, in the standard language at least, is largely monosyllabic. Or why Mandarin and the Sinitic parts of Korean and Japanese tolerate so many homonyms. Or why China finds it hard to unify the "dialects" under one standard, despite the political incentive to do so. If these and other linguistic anomalies were traced to effects the writing system has on the language, then the close "fit" between the two would lose its positive import and be viewed instead in terms of one system (writing) influencing the other (speech). Admitting a dynamic interplay between East Asian writing and speech would also lay the groundwork for accepting alternative orthographies, whose present "unsuitability" would disappear with use.

Chinese characters were not designed to represent Chinese (or any other language) but as icons of physical phenomena. That is, they were pictographic in origin. The early symbol for "tree" looked like a tree, the symbol for "mountain" resembled a mountain, and so on. Given the limits to this approach and, presumably, the inefficiency of trying to create a semiotic system anew when a system of signs -- language -- already existed, Chinese began using written symbols to represent things based on their phonetic contiguity. If the sound of the word for an object represented pictorially by a character was similar to the sound of another object with no written symbol, the character was borrowed to represent it. In time, the character lost its connection with the object it resembled and was perceived as a symbol for that object's word and sound.

In this respect, Chinese writing paralleled the development of writing in the West. The transition from symbol-as-icon to symbol-as-sound was also promoted by the stylization that occurred as "writers" sought to eliminate unnecessary strokes, reducing the visual similarity between symbol and referent. Chinese continued to create new characters by combining two forms to represent a concept that in some sense incorporated both meanings, for example, by linking the symbols for "sun" and "moon" to represent "bright." However, this ideographic technique was overshadowed by the phonetic borrowing described above, which took on a new twist. As the number of referents associated with a symbol increased, Chinese added semantic signs (the so-called radicals or bùshǒu) to indicate which of several meanings was intended. Thus the form pronounced (in Mandarin) means "chess" with the wood radical written to its side, "period of time" with the moon radical appended, and "his, hers, its" with no radical. These semantic-phonetic compounds now make up 85-90 percent of the character inventory.

The earliest known character inscriptions, on shells and bones, date from around 1200 b.c., by which time the conventions for creating characters had been established. Although pictographic and ideographic principles were used in the early stages of the system's development, Chinese by this time had mostly abandoned those techniques in favor of the phonetic approach, which remains the primary means of forming new characters to this day. By doing so, the system acquired an indissoluble link with the spoken language, albeit one that is not evident to casual observers accustomed to alphabetic writing.

The link Chinese characters have with Chinese language is two-fold. On the one hand, most of these block-shaped symbols represent morphemes in Chinese. Morphemes are a language's smallest units of meaningful sound. They mayor may not be words. For example, "hunter" in English is a word composed of two morphemes "hunt" and" -er." The first morpheme is also a word but the second is not, since it cannot stand by itself. Similarly, the word lièrén (hunter) in Chinese consists of two morphemes; liè with the basic meaning of "hunt" and rén with the basic meaning of "person." Whereas rén is also a word able to stand alone, liè is not, since it is always joined with other morphemes (a "bound" form). Morphemes have more diffuse meanings than words, as seen in both the English and Chinese examples.2

Since each morpheme is associated with a sound, characters representing morphemes ipso facto acquire a sound. Hence not only are the characters linked to a specific language by virtue of representing that language's morphemes, they are also in a direct sense representing the language's sounds. The key difference between the way characters represent sounds in Chinese and the way letters represent sounds in English is that Chinese does it holistically. Each character as a whole, or in compound characters through its "phonetic" part (which is or was a whole character itself), portrays a morpheme's sound by convention. There is no discrete modeling of sound in the design of the written symbol. None of the strokes or groups of strokes that make up a character or its phonetic element has a defined relationship to the sound (normally a syllable) or any part of the sound.

Because Chinese characters represent both morphemes and syllables, linguists use the term "morphosyllabic" to identify the system within the taxonomy of world orthographies. Does this mean all Chinese morphemes are made up of one syllable? Not at all. Although this is largely the case in modern standard Mandarin, particularly as it is written, it was not true of the archaic language, nor does it apply to the spoken language in its many varieties. Rather, the monosyllabism of Chinese morphology is an artifact of character-based writing, which imposes a one-to-one relationship on the language's sound, script, and meaningful units. Given the holistic relationship between characters, their meanings, and their sounds, characters as the most conspicuous units in that triad define all legs of the relationship, including the link between sound and meaning -- a link that is reinterpreted in terms of the writing system's requirements.

Studies by Boodberg (1937), Kennedy (1964), and Mair (2001) show that earlier stages of Chinese had many multisyllable morphemes, a fact that was apparent even in the written record. Modern varieties of Chinese such as Shanghainese and Min (Taiwanese), which lack a written standard, retained this feature and may even have expanded it. This is typical of languages the world over. Chinese Mandarin -- written Mandarin especially -- with its monosyllabic morphology is an anomaly even within the Chinese family of languages. There are two ways the character writing system brought this about.

First, there is significant pressure on users to impute meaning to each character of a multi-syllable morpheme, even when the morpheme's one meaning is expressed over all of the syllables. The fact that Chinese feel obliged to assign as many characters to a term as there are syllables in the term is a function of the shift that occurred in the typology of Chinese writing to a phonetic-based system. This change did not, however, nullify the practice of associating a meaning with each character. If two characters in a single term share the same meaning, one character tends to take on the meaning of the whole term. That character is then used alone or in new compound terms with different morphemes, in a de facto validation of the reduction process.

The other way characters impose a monosyllabic morphology on the language is through their high degree of graphic redundancy. Whether one regards syllables or morphemes as the primary targets of representation, we are dealing, in earlier stages of the language at least, with several thousand items, each with a unique symbol. The large number of different symbols entails a commensurate degree of complexity in their forms, more than the complexity that is associated with their sounds. With so much visual information available, there is no need to use all characters of a polysyllabic morpheme if anyone character is distinct enough to convey the meaning of the whole term.

Both practices reinforced the expectation that each graph would have a meaning of its own, besides its monosyllabic pronunciation. It was not so much a case of literate users going back and reanalyzing existing morphemes (although this did and does occur) as it was an ongoing, coevolutionary process. New accretions to the literary language, introduced through writing, were adjusted to conform to the emerging one character = one morpheme paradigm. The process continues today, when single-morpheme polysyllabic foreign expressions, represented at first in Chinese with as many characters as there are syllables in the word, are stripped of all but one syllable-character. New indigenous terms, and even calques based on foreign models, meanwhile are built up deliberately from monosyllabic morphemes, which given their sparse phonetic properties cannot maintain their identity as morphemes without the characters' support. The result is a standard language made up of thousands of single-syllable morphemes.3 Were it not for the written characters, this situation would not exist.

Another effect characters have had on Chinese and the Sinitic parts of other Asian languages is a high incidence of homophony. Since Chinese characters convey a great deal of visual information compared to the phonetic information associated with them, there is no incentive for writers to take a word's sound into account when introducing new vocabulary. Thus a term that is clear when written may make no sense at all when spoken. While this gap between visual and auditory redundancy is less noticeable for everyday terms, the literate lexicon, which accounts for most words in Chinese and all vocabulary shared between East Asian languages, was built with the expectation that terms would be identified visually, not aurally. Accordingly, words are formed from combinations of monosyllabic morphemes that have few distinguishing phonetic characteristics.

The problem is not just with exact homonyms, which number in the thousands, but with near homonyms or paronyms -- words that differ only minimally, by one phonetic feature. Although context and other paralinguistic devices help speakers sort out the differences, readers of texts have fewer extrinsic cues. They depend almost entirely on the graphical information before them. As long as the text is in Chinese characters, phonetic ambiguity is not an issue. But the conflict between the amount of information needed to make a discourse intelligible in speech and the type of information Chinese characters provide tends to create a wider gap between the spoken and written norms than one finds in alphabetic cultures, with cognitive implications that I will discuss in later chapters. Chinese characters, far from resolving the Sinitic homonym problem, in fact created it. Another area where the characters are perversely credited for solving problems they cause is China's so-called "dialect" issue. Although few Chinese would agree with me, the term "Chinese" does not refer to a language but to a group or branch of related languages that have less in common than the Romance languages have with each other. Besides Mandarin spoken in the north, Chinese includes six or seven other major languages used in the remainder of the country and abroad, among which Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Min (which includes Taiwanese) are the most prominent. These "southern" varieties are primary languages for tens of millions of Chinese speakers. For Shanghainese it is closer to 100 million.4 Each has significant differences in phonology, vocabulary, and syntax and all are mutually unintelligible.

In any other context these nonstandard varieties would be regarded as different languages. But in China they are treated as "dialects" (fāngyán) 5 for political expediency and because, with the marginal exception of Cantonese, they lack writing.6 Orthography, besides its tangible effect on the development of a language and on the psychology of its speakers, confers legitimacy on a language and political status on its users. Since the non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese are mostly unwritten, they are portrayed as less than full-fledged languages, even though they qualify as languages by any linguistic measure.

The other factor supporting the lay notion that these languages are dialects is the belief that the writing system transcends their differences. Literate Chinese supposedly are able to read texts based on different varieties of speech when they are written in characters. In a sense this is true. Since characters depict sounds holistically, it matters little whether one reads a character or a series of characters in Mandarin or with the sounds of some other Chinese "dialect." But does this unify China linguistically or does it perpetuate the divisions? Let's look closer at this transdialectal phenomenon.

Since Cantonese, Shanghainese, and other nonstandard varieties differ from Mandarin not just in sound but also in vocabulary and grammar, the characters cannot bridge this gap by themselves, even with their relative neutrality toward sound.7 Much of the core vocabulary of non-Mandarin Chinese has no counterpart in Mandarin and no recognized character representation. Conversely, many Mandarin terms for which characters do exist are foreign to non-Mandarin speakers. The fact that nonstandard speakers can read a text in the standard language simply means that these speakers are bilingual. They have learned written Mandarin as a second language. They know enough vocabulary and grammar to make sense of Mandarin texts, much as I know enough French words and grammar to read that language (without being able to pronounce it convincingly, much less to speak it fluently). If Chinese characters have unified the Chinese languages, then the alphabet has unified French and English.

The characters do allow nonstandard speakers to use their own pronunciations to read Mandarin texts. So instead of acclimating to the national standard, nonstandard speakers reinforce their own speech habits and add to the vitality of their "dialect" by introducing new vocabulary from Mandarin, which they pronounce their own way by analogy. Whether alphabetic scripts should be used to provide China's non-Mandarin speakers with the means to become literate in their own language is a political question outside the scope of the present inquiry. But one thing is certain: since non-Mandarin speakers are forced anyway to learn a second language, it would make more sense from the viewpoint of those promoting unity if this bilingualism were achieved through Mandarin written in the pinyin alphabet.8 The incentive to learn the national standard, including its pronunciation, would be higher than it is today if one's ability to read depended on it. As it is now, nonstandard speakers work their way through standard texts using whatever pronunciation comes naturally, not fully learning Mandarin and not reading their own languages either.

So much for the unity provided by Chinese characters. One can argue that the characters unite China culturally. But the linguistic argument for unity is nonsense. There are -- to put it bluntly -- no absolute advantages to using a character script, not anywhere in the world, and not in China. The only utility characters offer is relief from the distortions their own use created.

On the other hand, their complexity saddled Chinese speakers with a significant handicap, This handicap extends beyond the impediments that are usually cited to encompass serious obstacles to creative thinking. While this thesis, given its import, will remain controversial for some, virtually no one disputes that the number of Chinese characters and their complexity represent heavy burdens on their users.

Estimates of the number of characters vary widely depending on the criteria. The largest dictionaries have upward of 50,000 entries, many of which are variants or have dropped out of use. Calculations based on modern sources yield a figure of about 6,900 characters, 4,500 of which are enough to read most types of materials (Hannas 1997:130-33). Each character, which has on average ten to twelve strokes, is unique and must be learned by itself. Although they can for purposes of pedagogy be broken into recurring components, the components themselves number over 1,000 (850 phonetics and another 200 or so radicals). It is not enough to remember what components a character has, since they are positioned differently with respect to each other depending on the character. And not all characters can be broken down into radical plus phonetic.

The time needed to learn and write Chinese characters is justified by those who favor them by appeals to culture and aesthetics. Linguistically, however, the argument that the characters are intrinsically better suited to the language than an alphabet is empty. This applies not only to their use in China but also to the claim that they "unite" East Asians by allowing them to read one another's languages. If Chinese characters cannot bridge the gap between "dialects" in China, they are even less able to overcome the typological distinctions between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Not only are the languages themselves different. Independent changes made to character shapes in China and Japan have eliminated much of the continuity the system used to have, rendering even the shared Sinitic vocabulary obscure. The transitivity ascribed to characters is just one more myth in the rich inventory of fables associated with Chinese writing.


  1. A short list includes William G. Boltz (1994), John DeFrancis (1977, 1984); Yaeko Sato Habein ( 1984) ; William C. Hannas (1997); Michel Paradis et al. (1985); Young-Key Kim Renaud (1997); Insup Taylor and Martin M. Taylor (1995); and J. Marshal Unger (1987). These books differ on points of interpretation but their reporting of facts is generally reliable.
  2. Liè additionally means "sound of the wind" when reduplicated.
  3. This is not to say that all words are monosyllabic, any more than English words are. Single-syllable morphemes in Chinese Mandarin combine to form polysyllabic words.
  4. The language itself is called and has no common English translation. Shanghainese is its most prestigious dialect.
  5. A proper translation of fāngyán is "topolect," defined as "A set of similar dialects constituting any of the larger distinct regional varieties of a language" (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000).
  6. Cantonese has a minor orthographic tradition carried on locally in signs, informal writing, textbooks, and some newspapers. Lately there have even been several moderately popular novels written in Cantonese. Its texts are largely illegible to Chinese literate only in the standard Mandarin-based script.
  7. Although the characters do not depict sound discretely, substructures loosely associated with certain syllables reappear throughout the corpus with enough regularity for users to exploit. However, sound mergers and splits distributed the re- lationship between phonetic sets (characters with the same substructure) and pronunciation differently by language, further reducing the characters' transitivity across Sinitic languages.
  8. Pinyin is China's official alphabetic notation used in conjunction with (not as a substitute for) character writing. Since the demise of China's writing reform movement some three decades ago, PRC linguists have been careful not to use the term "script" (wénzì) to refer to their national alphabet.