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Characters which lool like what they mean - true pictographs

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I've been asked by a friend back in the UK to send her some Chinese characters which really look a bit like what they mean. For some school project - she is a teacher.

My mind has gone blank. Must be the cold.

I've come up with 串, 山, and 伞

Any other suggestions?


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I'm sorry but I can't see any resemblence whatsover between 象 or 鹿 and their meanings.

And I'm sure a class of primary school students in England won't either.

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人, 馬, 鳥

象 looks somewhat like an elephant when you turn it on its side. A head with a big nose, three legs, a tail and something nondescript on its back.

Less exact, but might still work:

口, 手

And of course 一, 二, 三

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Chuck a few random ones into the mix as well, just so they don't end up with any illusions . . .

Little Jonny: So, Miss, Chinese characters look like what they mean, yeah?

Miss: Yes, that's right.

Little Jonny, pointing at 圆:So what's that one, the one made up almost entirely of right angles and straight lines?

Miss: Why, that means 'round' of course . . .

You could probably get a few words out of them as well. 女人, 火山,雨伞, 人口,

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耳...? :oops:

大 (someone stretching out their hands as faaaar as they can)

電 (在田野下雨,然后突然一下出现了一个闪电)

I guess some of these are a stretch... but hopefully can be used if you're in need of a few extra :mrgreen:

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  • 4 weeks later...

This has long been a very interesting topic in the study of the "structure of Chinese characters". However, posed in the context of hanzi (漢字), which is principally based on the more "squarish" kaishu (楷書) with more horizontal and vertical lines than the earlier "freer flowing, rounder" 篆字, examples are harder to come by. As has already been pointed out, with a slight stretch of imagination, we may be said to have the following pictographs:

I've come up with 串' date=' 山, ...


with 串 (linked, tied together with a string), 山 (mountain, with three "hills").

Like 串 (linked), 中 (middle) also has a "stick" (stroke) right down the middle.

日' date='月, ...


with 日 (sun, which used to be round with a centered dot in place of the middle, horizontal stroke) and 月 (moon, which also used to have a round profile indicating a crescent moon).

明 (bright) is what you get when you put 日 (sun) and 月 (moon) side by side.

晶 (crystal, something dazzling) is represented by "stacking" three suns together.

口' date=' 人, ...


with 口 (mouth, opening), 人 (man/woman standing).

A "larger" square 囗 , pronounced "wei2", actually means "enclosing". From this larger square enclosing a 人, we get 囚 (inmate, "walled-in person").


with 田 (field' date=' rice paddy),旦 (dawn, sun above the horizon),竹 (bamboo).

Doubling 火 (fire) gives 炎 (flames).

艸 (grass) and 田 (field) together give 苗 (sprout), when you have germination (sprouts, growth) on the field.

An archaic (and simplified) form of 彊 (boundary, demarcation) actually consists only of the right-hand side of this character, which shows three isolated horizontal lines (strokes) that (serve as "fence" to) mark the boundary between two fields 田.


with 凹 (concave, indented), 凸 (convex, protruding)

大 (someone stretching out their hands as faaaar as they can)' date='

木, ..., 林, 森


with 大 (big), 木 (wood), 林 (woods), 森 (forest), 众 (crowd, simplified form).

Like 人 (man/woman standing) and 众 ("three is a crowd"), the juxtaposition of two 人 is the older (or simplified) form of a word meaning "following, or from" (pictured as one person following another).

爪 (claw)

川 (stream, river); an older form of 水 (water) looks a lot like 川 (stream, river), but with the left and right strokes broken in the middle and all three parts wavy (or wave-like).

You can still see the "stream" in the word 災 (disaster, when you have the combination of "flood water" 川 and "fire" 火).

Tripling the 火 (fire) gives 焱 (cinders from a fire).

焚 (burn, kindle) has the 火 (fire) under the 林 (woods).

井 (well, for drawing water);

丼 (the sound something, like a stone, makes when dropped into a well.

Many other characters already cited by others have corresponding, older forms in 篆字 or earlier that can be traced and better presented as pictographs.

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丼 (the sound something, like a stone, makes when dropped into a well.)
If I hadn't already learned this one reads dong4 I would now finally know. Remains the question of why this is the word for baked rice with meat in a pot.
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I think this is Japanese (well I learnt the character when I studied Japanese). And I don't know that dong4 is the Chinese pronunciation (the japanese pronunciation is don / donburi). And to me the character is always a picture of a box of rice with a preserved plum (ume/梅) in the middle.

Like this -


PS - found some more information here -

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is Chinese and is pronounced dǎn.

However, as it represents a sound, can it be a true pictograph? What does a sound look like?

Similarly, two fires together do not look like flames to me nor do three fires look like cinders.

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As a matter of fact,

Chinese characters which really look a bit like what they mean (pictographic characters) take small portion in current Chinese. But of course they are really very important as they explains how the written Chinese language began its existance.

the characters in current Chinese look less like the things they represent comparared to the traditional ones, not to say the ancient ones. Some have already become diffult to correlate without help of the ancient equivelance.

So, I'd say that if we consider a Chinese charactor a picture of what it means, then the ancient character was an impressionistic paiting while current charater an abstractionist one. Current one is more difficult to correlate.

For examples,

人—— 女 —— 母 where 人 stands for human being, ancient character indicates that the man still can't stand straigh upright then.

女 is variation of 人, still a picture of human being but with noticeable breasts and kneeling. the kneeling indicates lower social status ---- according to which we can also assume that the character "女" is created after the transition from the matriarchal society to the patriarchal society;

in addition to that

母 again is variation of 女, with the breasts looks much more significant to indicate they were milking.

it is difficult to understand with current Chinese characters, but with ancient ones you feel easy.


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丼 is Chinese and is pronounced dǎn.
Then this might be another Taiwan/China one, because here they most definitely read it dong4. Perhaps they just borrowed the Japanese pronounciation don.

As far as I know it's indeed a dish from Japan. As it's very tasty (when made well), I've eaten it quite a lot, and it is what I wrote. But perhaps the 丼 I know & like is a more developed version of the one in Skylee's picture.

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That picture is just what the character 丼 reminds me of. :D In modern sense, it is indeed a japanese dish (or similar dishes like 親子丼, which is if you think about it a bit disgusting as it means parent/chicken and child/egg cooked together :mrgreen:) that Lu describes.

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