Jump to content
Learn Chinese in China

Chinese Character Meanings


Recommended Posts

This question might be simple. I'm wondering where I can find the meanings of the characters. What do the radicals come together to represent? For instance, I sat down with a someone to discuss the one 武 which means military involving "stop" and "spear," and come together to mean end war. Ha, sometimes I wonder if they're just talking about defensive maneuvers, or something. I don't know. Anyway, that's one of the few I could find. I wonder if there's something out there with descriptions.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

IMHO the best advice I could give is learn what the radicals mean and then use a dictionary to get meaning, some dictionaries will tell you what the component parts of the character are and how it has come to its present day meaning and usage.

You don't say if you are learning Chinese or why you want to know, but the question you have asked makes me want to say this is basically learning Chinese. Its not easy to just do what you asked without going into in some depth.

Good luck :)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Also, Chinese-Characters.org and Yellow Bridge. I know another very convenient one, täglichchinesisch, but it's in German.

It's worth noting though that some of those etymologies are disputed, because, when the eldest and influential etymologies were written around 1900ish(? <- please correct me on this), the Oracle Bones hadn't yet been found, so there has been a lot of new research since, and still is going on.

So when you deal with Chinese Characters, finding contraditing information - and upset followers of author X accusing author Z to be "worthless" - is part of the deal :wink:

If you like real paper books, "Empire of living Symbols" by Swedish Author Cecilia Lindqvist is very nice. You will find new editions in book stores, but also plenty of previous editions available 2nd hand.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have to agree with Ruben von Zwack the Empire of living Symbols" by Swedish Author Cecilia Lindqvist is very good. I have read it several times and still dip into it for info.

One of the "classic" books is Chinese Characters by Wieger reprinted by Dover. This really goes into some depth but was written about 100 years ago.

Fun with Chinese characters - The Straits Times Collection Vol. 1,2 +3 is more modern and is very informative and entertaining.

I also use WenLin on the PC this is very good and has a lot of information and but it takes a bit of getting used to but once you get it sorted it is very useful.There is a lot of stuff out there but as Ruben says there is a lot of contradiction and therefore I usually read as much as I can and then come to my own conclusions based on the majority.

Best of luck

Link to comment
Share on other sites

- Real etymologies are sometimes very long stories of successive deformation (and subject to contradictory interpretations).

- You can understand very different concepts with the same radicals, it's hard to decide what it once "meant", it requires a lot of historical context. Like 武.

- Many parts are just phonetics compounds, with no meaning at all.

For me, finding the "meaning" of a character is a bit something else. It's rather using the knowledge you have of a character (bits of etymology, phonetics, stories, visual interpretation) to make it something effective and intuitive.

For example, the following books are full of "more or less false but very useful etymologies"

* "A graphic compendium of chinese characters"



* Remembering the hanzis. I don't like heisig made-up stories too much, but i like the idea to attribute a name even to the smallest parts, that are not real "radicals" from the 214 list.

And also in french :

* L'écriture chinoise : signification originelle des caractères http://www.librairie...2842795559.html

*Les idéogrammes sino-japonais http://www.you-feng....no_japonais.php

For each character, I just try to remember the story i like best. :mrgreen:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This question of degree between subjective sense and objective etymology is really obsessing me a bit. :mrgreen:

I've just wanted to check 武 with the links cited here. Like most people maybe, I remembered 武 as stop+weapons. But in more consensual etymology it seems to be the opposite. Because, if most the time means "stop" it was used there as "to arrive at".


English Senses For (英文):

wu3 force / military / warlike / martial / footprints / steps / the length of half a pace / the string of an ancient hat / to inherit / a Chinese family name

"Remnant Primitive, to walk 止 with a weapon 戈 - military"

止 : to stop / to desist / to still / to rest in / to stay / deportment / to detain / to prohibit / to come to / to arrive at / still / calm / stagnant / only


"Mnemonic : A person on foot carrying a weapon "

"Shuowen makes a reference to King Zhuang of Chu in discussing this character "

(apparently a violent king, not the stop-weapons kind).http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Zhuang_of_Chu


Associative Compound.


on the move


Link to comment
Share on other sites

For those who can read Chinese, or who can just appreciate the pictures, Michaelyus linked to HanZiYuan.com on another thread. That site seems to have the best character explanations I have encountered, including a little bit about word development, which is something I have wanted for a long time.

The entry for 武 is here, which basically explains the character as being composed of a foot and a traditional pole weapon, meaning more or less "to proceed to do battle."

One thing I just noticed about the development of this character is how the elements were actually combined. I think when I first learned the character, I read that the last stroke of 戈 was shifted to the top "to make room" for 止. I now see that 戈 was not actually disassmbled and rearranged. It's just that the horizontal and left falling stroke have been modified to accommodate 止 at the bottom.

For me, finding the "meaning" of a character is a bit something else. It's rather using the knowledge you have of a character (bits of etymology, phonetics, stories, visual interpretation) to make it something effective and intuitive.

I agree with this philosophy, In addition I use a little knowledge of historical linguistics to account for some sound changes. I also speculate about spoken etymologies to help me remember pronunciations. For instance, I see that 服罪 (plead guilty/admit guilt) is also written 伏罪. That oral correspondence cements for me that 服 original meant something like "to (make) bow in submission" or "submit/obey," and I assume that 服 and 伏 originally represented the same spoken word.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...


Another case of "pick the best-fitting story" : I can’t remember where, but I learned the character as «  the hands of the teacher / dispersing the clouds of ignorance / of the child ».

Here's what I found with the above links :


* Hands writing characters above which teach the child below.



* Hands reaching down to interact in a building (now ) with students


* A child arranging couting rods (or count chips) under a roof.

http://www.worldcat.org/title/chinese-characters/oclc/465058837« Chinese characters » by Nina Train Choa 


* Hands constructing a school (+double crosses as vocal component, if I understand correctly)


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...