Origin of Chinese charactersEdit
You might wonder why you have to bother with the origin of Chinese characters if you are merely learning the Chinese written language. However, Chinese characters are less like most Western languages, where words are formed by spelling, and pronunciations can easily be read from the letters. However the meaning and sound of some Chinese characters can be guessed from their similarity to other characters once you begin to understand how the system works. Most Chinese characters are composed from about 200 basic radicals put together to make a single character. The following are some examples:
河(river,in ancient times it refers particularly the Yellow River)
So, you can see, even the most useful words are as complicated as puzzles.
However, the Chinese characters can be systematic and easier to understand if you know why they will be written like that. That brings you back to the origin of Chinese characters, which is the only link and classification between Chinese characters.
The Chinese characters are actually originated from six different origins. They are 象形(pictograms),指事(simple indicatives),會意(compound indicatives),形聲(phono-semantic compounds)(,轉注(derived characters) and 假借(borrowed characters).
象形 (xiàng xíng, Pictograms)Edit
Pictograms is the oldest origin of Chinese characters. Words originated from pictograms are actually simple pictures of the objects. For example, 人(man) is a simple picture of a man's side-view.
Another example is the word 女(female), which is a simple picture of a woman sitting in the traditional Chinese posture in ancient times.
So, as you can see, understanding these characters is not that difficult, once you know their origin, you can remember it quite well. Try to imagine the picture of a man's side-view if you forgot how to write 人. The same goes for the other characters with this origin.
指事 (zhǐ shì, Simple indicatives)Edit
Ancient Chinese people can easily draw things out to create words. But how about abstract ideas like "up" or "down"? That explains one weakness of pictograms: you can only express things that have an actual form. This is where simple indicatives come in handy. Words originated from simple indicatives usually consist of two parts: a picture just like pictograms, and an indicator which indicates the abstract meaning applied on that picture. The character 上(up,above) is an example which realizes the abstract meaning of "above" to "things above the ground".
Be careful that these two words don't mean only things above/below the ground. They "use the ground as an example", thus meaning "up/above" and "down/below" respectively.
會意 (huì yì, Compound indicatives)Edit
Compound indicatives is another type of Chinese characters which combines two or more characters to express a certain meaning.
The character 男(male) is a typical example. It consists of the character 田 and 力. 田 means farm or field; and 力 means force. By combining the meaning of 田 and 力, we can draw the meaning of this word: a person working (indicated by 力, force) in the farms(田), which matches exactly as male - they are the working labour in ancient times, and the work required in ancient times was mostly farming.
Another example is 家(home). It consists of a 宀(this is not a character, just a part of the word, representing the roof of the house - imagine it), and a 豕(pig). Keeping pigs in the home is an important matter of ancient Chinese people, as it provides them food and milk, in ancient times where they rely on farming. This way we can draw the meaning of this word: the place(宀) where we keep pigs(豕).
形聲 (xíng shēng, Phono-semantic compounds)Edit
If all Chinese characters originated from the above three methods, then it would be extremely hard to memorize the characters, as each of them would be completely different in shape. Fortunately, over 90% of the Chinese character originated from phono-semantic compounds, which is far more systematic. Phono-semantic compounds characters consists of two parts: 形符 (the "semantic" element), indicating the general meaning of that character; and 聲符 (the "phonetic" element), indicating the pronunciation of that character. Look at the remaining two characters from the above example:
河(river) consists of 氵and 可. 氵is the semantic element, and it itself means "water", so, we can deduce that the character 河 is related with water. 可 is the phonetic element, and it itself means "can" (modal verb), but we don't have to mind that. The pronunciation of 河 and 可 are ho4 and ho2 in Cantonese respectively; and hé and kĕ in Mandarin. So, you can see, their pronunciations are similar. So, to understand this word, we can first quickly recall its meaning from the sematic element, 氵, that it is related to water. That helps a lot to recall your memory about its meaning: river. The next part is the pronunciation. The phonetic element, 可, gives you a general idea about how it should sound like. Usually the sound will not be the same, but at least in most cases the phonetic elements gives you a general idea of the rhyme of the word: for 河, "o" in Cantonese and "e" in Mandarin. That should help you recall the pronunciation of the word.
The other example, 花(flower), works the same way. Note that this time the characters is divided vertically into two parts, unlike 河, which is horizontally divided. Yet this is not a problem. We can still find the semantic element, 艹, which means "grass", and is used to represent plants. The phonetic element is 化, which is pronounced fa3 in Cantonese, and huà in Mandarin. Comparing to that of 花, which is fa1 in Cantonese and huā in Mandarin respectively, we can see the same similarities. Thus we can know the meaning of 花, flower, and the pronunciation easily.
Many learners could find it hard to learn Chinese because everything is memorizing. But by this method we can simplify the problem a lot. Remember, over 90% of the Chinese characters originate from phono-sematic compounds.
轉注 (zhuǎn zhù, Derived characters), 假借 (jiǎ jiè, Borrowed characters)Edit
These two are not origin of characters, but about the way ancient Chinese use characters.
Derived characters refers to pairs of words that share the same etymological root, usually with similar (or same) meaning in the very first, yet is now used to denote different meanings.
The characters 老 lǎo (old) and 考 kǎo (a test) is a pair of derived characters, both originating from a common etymological root, and both meant "old" in the very first. Yet now a part of each character is changed to express different meanings. The pronunciations has also changed for the pair.
Borrowed characters refers to characters that was "borrowed" to express a new meaning differing from the original one. This is usually due to the few number of characters in ancient China. When people had new ideas to express, yet cannot find a corresponding word, they might just use an exisiting one to express the new idea. As for the original meaning, sometimes it was expressed in the same character along with the borrowed meaning, and sometimes a new character was created to substitute it.
The character 自 (self) was originally a pictogram of the nose, thus denotes the meaning "nose". However, it was later borrowed to express the meaning of "self". Nowadays this character retain only the new meaning "self". As a side note, the character 鼻 (nose) was created later on to express the meaning "nose".