contains the complete
Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary
published by Yale Press and available at Amazon.
Welcome! Alone among modern languages, Chinese integrates both meaning and pronunciation information in its characters. Zhongwen.com deciphers this rich information to help students understand, appreciate and remember Chinese characters, one of humanity's greatest and most enduring cultural achievements. Until recent centuries, China had one of the highest literacy rates in the world and more than half of the world's literature was written in Chinese characters. Due to the central role of calligraphy in Chinese art and the vitality of Chinese civilization, Chinese characters have held a similarly preeminent position in the world's art.
Despite these unparalleled achievements, many people in the last century viewed Chinese characters as inferior to the more purely phonetic writing systems of Western languages. As a result, China nearly decided to abolish characters in the 1950s and even now most Chinese are not taught the rich tradition behind their writing system. This website counters the simplistic myth of character inferiority by translating traditional Chinese character etymologies into English to show how Chinese themselves have used and understood the symbols they created.
While Chinese characters are often thought of as overly complex, in fact they are all derived from a couple hundred simple pictographs and ideographs in ways that are usually quite logical and easy to remember. These wen (or zigen) are the true radicals of Chinese as identified by Xu Shen in his classic Shuowen Jiezi nearly 2000 years ago. Xu Shen also devised the bushou, meaning "section headings", to help organize his dictionary into more manageable parts. With minor changes this bushou system has been the foundation of almost all subsequent Chinese dictionaries. Often mistranslated as "radicals", not all of the bushou are true radicals in that some of them can be further broken down into their component wen. Moreover, many of the true radicals are not included in the list of bushou.
This web site and its associated printed dictionary present a series of zipu or "character genealogies" which show graphically the close interconnections between over 4000 characters according to the Shuowen Jiezi and subsequent research by traditional etymologists. Aided by computerized cross-referencing, these charts allow the dictionary to be organized around Xu Shen's true radicals, avoiding the expediency of arbitrarily dividing the dictionary by bushou. This new zipu system effectively generalizes the bushou system by allowing any character to be found if the viewer knows any part of the character or knows any character which shares the same component. Students can quickly locate characters while also better remembering the relations between characters. It is hoped that other dictionary compilers will also recognize the potential that computerization now offers to fully realize Xu Shen's original project.
Since the zipu are based on traditional etymologies, which themselves are based primarily on the "seal" characters from about 2,200 years ago, this dictionary does not represent the current state of research into character etymologies. In the last century far older characters have been uncovered, allowing modern researchers to go beyond the traditional etymologies and obtain a better understanding of the true history of Chinese characters. As this research is systematized and made available on the web, I will link the character entries into the relevant research. I also hope to link the entries directly into web versions of traditional Chinese sources on etymology. For now almost every character entry includes page references to various printed reference sources on traditional etymology.
Since English understandably does not have a specific word for character etymology relative to word etymology, many English speakers unfamiliar with Chinese terminology mistakenly conflate the two. This site deals only with character etymologies. Characters form the basic unit of meaning in Chinese, but not all characters can stand alone as a word and most Chinese words are formed of two separate characters. For instance "zhongwen", meaning the Chinese language, has two characters as explained above. The etymologies of these words are usually quite obvious as long as the individual characters are known - a feature of Chinese which is probably its greatest strength and cannot be adequately duplicated in a simple phonetic writing system. This website does not discuss these word etymologies but rather helps students understand the less transparent character etymologies which are the object of most traditional research on Chinese etymology.
This site receives about five thousand visitors a day who in total spend about a million hours a year using it.
Copyright 1996-2011 by Rick Harbaugh. I manage this website in my spare time - please excuse any delays in responding to inquiries. I offer no guarantee, express or implied, regarding the accuracy of the information on this site.