Chinoy Living, Community, Speak, Stories

The Rich, Nature-Centered History of Many Chinese Characters

Author’s note: Looking back at how things came to be is important. Last November, I published an article entitled “OPINION: Young Chinoys ought to still know and speak Chinese.” Allow me now to delve a little deeper into that! 


“A plate of bacon doesn’t just appear on your table.” 

That’s a quote I often say. What does it imply? For one, it implies hard work — something delicious and tasty or a reward should be worked for. For another, it means many things are usually involved in the process. From the farmer who raised the pig to the grocery employee, that plate of bacon went through many people and processes. Third, it implies that all things must have had an origin, a specific set of circumstances from which they evolved from

Using this view from an academic perspective, the languages we know and speak today are far from what they were thousands of years ago. (Think of “Where art thou, Romeo?” versus “Where are you, Romeo?”) 

Chinese characters, which billions of people read and write today, are no different. Chinese characters have constantly evolved over numerous millennia. A significant part of that evolution are pictographs and images.

Here are some examples: 

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The modern Chinese character for “person” comes from the figure of a human being leaning left. Notice how the picture image has become more “character-like” and “official” in its modern form.

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The picture image of the modern character for the word, “bird,” looks like a bird facing the right. It seems to be preparing to take off and fly.

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Brown University in Rhode Island in the US offers us a unique look at the origins of the Chinese character lóng 龙 or dragon. The original picture image on the left likely came from drawings on oracle bones dating back more than 1,000 years before Jesus Christ’s birth. The one on the right likely came from bronze inscriptions. Notice the similar tail-like characteristic.

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For other Chinese characters, notice another uniting factor: common, everyday items, experiences, and sceneries.

Similarly, when we look at many of these Chinese characters in a deeper way, we also recognize their rich history. They tell us about how observant the ancient Chinese were of their surroundings and of nature. They used their keen observation to their advantage, communications wise. And even now, their influence pervades.

And so, how do we move forward from here? Given our increasingly Westernized world where many, including myself to be quite honest, speak English as a main language, is the appreciation of Chinese characters still relevant? Definitely. 

Appreciating Chinese characters means not just memorizing each stroke and each dot that has to be filled. It also means recognizing their ancient origins, how they came to be in the first place: through the keen observations and creativity of the ancient Chinese.


The author of this article: 

An accomplished young Chinese Filipino writer and media personality, Aaron S. Medina is associated with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Ateneo de Manila University Chinese Studies Program, the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, and CHiNOY TV. He has a passion for truth, justice, and Pokémon, too! Follow him on Facebook:

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