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Hanzi 漢字


The Chinese writing system is known as hànzì in Mandarin Chinese. The writing have been called characters, pictographs, pictograms, ideograms, ideographs, logograms, logographs, glyphs etc. In these pages, they shall be called hanzi or characters.

History of Hanzi

In 1899, archaeological excavations at AnYang (安陽) in northern HeNan province (河南) unearthed artifacts dating back to the late Shang Dynasty (商朝) (sometime between the reign of 盤庚 Pan2 Geng1 to the last Shang King, 帝辛 Di4 Xin1 (called 紂 Zhou4) 1401-1122 BCE). These were inscribed marks on tortoise shells or animal bones. The inscriptions 龜甲獸骨文字 (gui1jia3 shou4gu3 wen2zi4) are now commonly known as Jia3gu3wen2 甲骨文 in the Chinese literature. Due the nature of the texts found, mainly divinations, they became known as the Oracle Bone scripts in the West. Of the 3000 or so characters found, around 2400 have been deciphered as ancient precursors of modern day hanzi.

The form of the characters changed with time. After Shang had been defeated, the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) was established, and the early writing was continued. They gradually became formalised by the reign of Xuan1 Wang2 (宣王 827-782 BCE) into the Great Seal script (Da4Zhuan4 大篆).

In parallel with this evolution of Chinese characters, were those inscriptions found on early bronzes. The characters from bells and incense burners are known as Jin1wen2 (金文) where jin1 referred to the metal. Their forms came to resemble DaZhuan in the later bronzes.

A long period of instability occured from 771 BC until the end of the Zhou Dynasty, and with it came the rise of regionalism. During this time, many variant characters became established in the states of the Zhou Confederation. The end of the Zhou was marked by warfare.

China became unfied in 221 BCE under one ruler, Qin2 Shi3 Huang2 Di4 (秦始皇帝). There then occured a period of reform, which affected weights and measures, and the written language amongst other things. It was undertaken by the Qin Emperor's prime minister, Li Si (李斯 ). Through historical commentaries, it is known that Li Si categorised around 3,300 characters and systemised the way characters were written, in the style now refered to as Xiao3Zhuan4 (小篆) or Small Seal Script. All characters which did not conform to those found in the pre-unification Qin state were abolised. All future writing was to be based upon the XiaoZhuan standard. This work, however, has been lost and only known through historical commentaries.

It is interesting to note the growth of the number of characters in the few hundred intervening years until Xu3 Shen4 (許愼) began his work, Shuo1Wen2 Jie3Zi4 (説文解字), in 100 ACE and later published in 121 ACE. It categorised 9353 Small Seal characters under 540 'radicals', which provided the meaning and also indicated which forms were variants. Thus, it can be said that it is the first true Chinese dictionary.

Following Qin came the Early Han Dynasty (漢朝 206 BCE - 9 ADE). Chinese characters saw a more development and replacement of the Small Seal Characters. The new form is known as LiShu (隸書) or Scribe Characters. They were easier to write and their dimensional proportions was roughly rectangular, wider horizontally than vertically.

The Lishu form further progressed into the regular script or Kaishu (楷書) style. The regular script has remained the standard written style of writing for publication and writing official documents until recently, a time span of about 2000 years.

We also note that various calligraphic styles came out of the use of the brushpen. It provided a means of cursive writing which abbreviated the complex kaishu forms into flowing lines, curves, dots of various degrees of thicknesses. The abbreviated forms were used besides the convential characters with no special distinction due to their popularity.

Writing Reform - Wenzi Gaige

Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty (淸朝 1644-1911) and early Republican (民國) era of China's history, there was push towards modernisation and language reform. There were many proponents of replacing the cumbersome hanzi writing system with alphabetic or phonemic scripts. Others felt that the script could be maintained, but have drastic changes to simplify them. The turbulent first half of the twentieth century did see some modernisation of writing. There were many phonemic scripts being used, such at latinxua sin wenz, guanhua zimu, and gwoyeu romatzyh. In 1935, the Nationalist Government proposed 324 simplified characters but due to opposition, they were withdrawn. It was the first time that attention was drawn to the standardisation of simplified characters.

When China was declared The People's Republic of China (Zhong1Hua2 Ren2Min2 Gong4He2 Guo2 中華人民共和國) in 1949, a process of rebuilding a devastated country also brought the chance for language reform.

The National Script Reform Congress (Zhong1guo2 Wen2zi4 Gai3ge2 Wei3yuan2hui4 中國文字改革委員會) met in 1955 to discuss the issue, and in 1956, it put out a directive to promote the teaching of Pu3tong1hua4 (普通話 the common language), the use of this language in society, a dictionary of the common language, and also the introduction of standardised simplified characters. In January 1956, the official anouncement of the Chinese Character Simplification Scheme (Han4zi4 Jian3hua4 Fang1an4 漢字簡化方案) was made, and two months later, a set of simplified characters was published containing a number of simplified characters (jian3ti3zi4 簡體字) which had been used unofficially for millenia, and newly created ones also.

The 1956 proposal contained 515 jianti characters. In 1964, it was expanded to number over 2000 simplified hanzi. It was comprised of three main tables of characters.

The first table contained complex characters which when simplified, did not form part of other simplified characters. These numbered 352 characters.

The second table contained two types of simplified characters which were used as components of other simplified characters. The first set contains 132 jianti characters that can stand alone as legitimate simplified hanzi by themselves. The other 14 were simplified components only. Some these in the complex forms were stand alone and meaningful characters, but when simplified, they could only be used as components of other characters.

The last table were simplified characters which had complex components which appeared in second table, and therefore the simplifications were just a matter of transposition of the appropriate parts. This contained a total of 1754 characters.

It is interesting to note that Singapore introduced its own simplified characters. These were on the whole the same as those found on mainland China, but there were a few (~40) characters which differed, and were later abolished. Singapore has taken up the computer character set standard GuoBiao for everyday use instead of traditional characters as found in the Big5 encoding. The Singapore simplifications are discussed later for completeness.

About these pages

These pages will introduce traditional complex character forms (fantizi 繁體字), their variants (yitizi 異體字) and modern simplified forms (jiantizi 簡體字 == 简体字). The characters presented are taken from the 1964 list of simplfications published by the Chinese Character Reform Committee. They form the basis of the majority of simplifications found in the newer hanzi dictionaries.

The use of Unicode enables us to view both traditional characters and simplfied characters from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (CJK) locales in the same document, using one encoding. The only limit is whether the desired characters are available to Unicode 2.1. (We shall limit ourselves in most of these pages to those characters found in the earlier Unicode version 2.1, which contained 20902 characters from the various computer character set standards at the time of its conception).

Next : Hanzi Index

© (c) Copyright Dylan W.H. Sung 2001

This page was created on Sunday 11th February 2001
and last updated on Tuesday 6th March 2001.