Simple Characters

Chinese characters can be analyzed into one or more components 部件[bù jiàn]. The simplest case is those characters of only one component, i.e., 獨體字[dú tǐ zì] simple characters.

These early-formed characters were made to represent the syllable in speech directly using the outward appearance of the things that they stand for. For example, as shown in Figure below, the ancient forms of the characters 日([rì], sun), 木([mù], tree ), 末([mò], tip), and 米([mǐ] rice) came from the drawings of the sun, a tree, a tree with a marking on the tip of a branch and some rice respectively.

  日[sun]          木[tree]             末[tip]                米[rice]

  魚[fish]        鹿[deer]             萬[scorpion]      龍[dragon]

 The ancient and present forms of some simple characters

Apparently some of the simple characters may look like having more than one components, for example, the characters 魚([yú], fish) (as +田+灬). 鹿([lù], deer)(as 广+ +比), 萬([wàn], scorpion)(as 艹+禺) and 龍([lóng], dragon) (as 立+月+). But in fact each one of these characters as a whole is a complete picture representing its own meaning. For example, the four dots in 魚 denotes the tail of a fish and therefore is not the same as the component 灬 in the character 烈([liè], intense fire) which is a variant of the component 火([huǒ], fire). This is similar to the case that the “-er” in the English words “smaller” and “easier” is a comparative inflection but the apparently the same “-er” at the end of “beer” is not. Since these characters cannot be further decomposed, they should be analyzed as a single component (See Figure below).

 Simple character                 Simple character

日                                         魚

 Analysis of simple characters 日 and 魚

  Notice that these simple characters now do not necessarily have only one meaning. For example, in addition to [sun], the meaning of the character 日 has been extended (i.e., 引申[yǐn shēn]) to [day], for example, the 日 in 每日([měi rì], everyday). Moreover, some of these characters have also been borrowed (i.e., 假借[jiǎ jiè]) to take on another meaning that sounds similar or the same in speech. For example, other than [rice], the character 米[mǐ] is also used as the unit of length [meter] that sounds close to [mǐ] as in 100 米[100m]. Nonetheless, throughout this chapter, I will only focus on the meaning of a character as it was created, for example, the [sun] but not the [day] of 日. This is because only through this meaning, we can make sense of why the characters were composed as they are.