Recently a friend of mine from Australia recently confided that while he likes learning Chinese, he still fails to see the utility of characters. “I still don’t see why they just don’t use pinyin,” he said with a shrug.

I began to explain why characters are, in fact, useful, beginning with the sheer number of cognates in the Chinese language. The relative paucity of different pinyin combinations would make reading a Chinese text in the system maddening and difficult.

Hell, I could go on all day with this; better you refer to bloggers with better command of Chinese than yours truly.

But here’s an aspect of characters that I would miss would they been discarded; their aesthetic beauty. I was thinking the other day of compiling a list of my favorite characters and words, and came up with a few:

1. 雨林 “rainforest”. What better illustration of a rainforest can you think of?

2. 图书馆 “library”. I love the character “tu”, particularly in calligraphy. With “shu”, I picture the character as a stack of books, while “guan” indicates “house” pretty clearly.

3. 凸凹 “convex/concave”- this one is just brilliant.

What are some of your favorite characters/words?

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. I’d argue that writing (modern vernacular) Chinese in Pinyin is absolutely possible — I’ve seen it done in a couple of journals — but let’s face it; if there were ever a time for a language reform on that scale, it would’ve been the 50s, not now. Whether or not it’d be desirable is a different story altogether.

    Favorite characters: I’ve got a few, but your mention of ‘图书馆’ made me think of 圕, a single character invented in 1914 by the library scientist 杜定友, who decided that it was too much hassle to write out 圖書館 all the time. So he stuck 書 inside 口 to create a new character, pronounced – wait for it – túshūguǎn. That’s right – a polysyllabic character. How cool is that?

  2. I like 巨大. The 巨 looks to me like a birds-eye-view of someone with their arms out, showing off the size of ‘the fish that got away’. Totally emphasizing beyond 大 and into ‘huge’.

    Speaking of 凸, I had a good laugh when a friend texted me this a while back: (- -)凸
    Good stuff

  3. 圕 is not bad, though i’m not sure i’d know how to text that one. i tend to like the boxed in ones, 回 being particularly enjoyable.

    also rather like 藏 cáng/zàng for being complex and common.

    least fav: 龘 tā, “the appearance of a dragon walking”. really anything organised like 品 pisses me off, but tā takes the cake for sheer absurdity in meaning.

  4. Funny post. I think “snow” 雪 looks like a snowflake…so that helps to remind me…

    When I was studying Chinese I really liked “can” of “canting” 餐厅 mainly because it was so hard to write. The challenge maybe…

  5. Totally recommend Remembering the Simplified (or traditional) Hanzi which might be coming out at the end of the year – what’s funny about that system is that you can learn one essential meaning of the most common 3000 characters without knowing a word of Chinese.

    Imagine if we all learned an esperanto of sorts based on some form of characters – they would allow you to communicate with anyone who learned the system.

  6. Have you ever seen this? It was actually published in a Beijing newspaper in response to the government wanting to Westernize (and move only to pinyin). Story goes that the author made a great point and this is one of the reasons the push was abandoned.

    Granted, the pinyin is missing tonal marks, but still, the point is very obvious. I am convinced you can only become truly fluent if you can read Chinese because so many words can be mistaken for other words.

    I don’t have any favorite characters yet. I’m just happy to remember ANY of them!

  7. It’s just not true that pinyin wouldn’t work for Mandarin. It would. This page has lots of examples of Mandarin written in pinyin — they are very comprehensible. They’re perhaps a little more difficult to read than the same texts in Hanzi, but that’s not because pinyin doesn’t work as an orthography, but rather because you’re not as fluent in reading it.

    It’s important that the pinyin be properly split at word boundaries (which, granted, involves some guesswork) because that reduces the problem of the homophones considerably.

    As for favorite characters, I’m with Ryan that 肏 cào (”enter the meat”) is hands-down the best. I also like any of the number of ones involving the “尸 shī body” radical, like 屎, 尿, 屄, 屌 (guess I’m into potty humor). And I just recently learned about 囧 jiǒng

  8. 囚-a guy in a box, great
    好,a guy and a girl, that’s “good”
    藥-happy grass
    件-well, it’s a guy and a cow, must be a “thing”
    印- just looks like “Ed”,
    安,nothing more like peace and quiet than a woman indoors,
    纔,the only character that makes me somewhat glad for simplified characters.

  9. 纔 is an obsolete variant character. People that use full form characters write 才, even in official and formal documents. I sometimes wonder if this silly myth about character use is spread by some conspiracy of the CCP, Hanban, and PRC Chinese teachers, or if they have just never read materials published in traditional characters or gone to karaoke…

  10. before i could read many characters, 印 drove me freaking nuts for looking like Ed (or Ep). i hated it with every ounce of me just for looking like something that i knew it couldn’t possibly be.

  11. I’ve always been a big fan of 噩. As a singular character it’s full of meaning and totally memorable. Wenlin has this to say about it:

    An older form is 咢, from 吅 and 亏. “Beat the drum, give alarm; startle, startling — the first form (咢) has 屰 below in the seal, now deformed: to attack with 吅 great shouts; second form (噩) is a modern corruption” –Karlgren (1923). Etymologically the same word as 愕 è as in 愕然 èrán ‘astounded’. Compare 恶 è ‘evil’.

    Not sure if that helps me decode the meaning of its elements though. simply says: King 王 and clamor (the four 口s).

    Regardless, it’s pretty cool as an ideograph.

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