A simple explanation of Chinese characters
Adrien Grandemange

This article is a good starting point for understanding how Chinese characters work. However, it is definitely an (over)simplification.

Many Chinese characters have meaning even standalone. In fact, just as some very common English words, a portion of Chinese characters have multiple meanings. For example, 明 can mean:

  • bright/brightness
  • clarity (both literally and figuratively)
  • understanding
  • the “next” time period (e.g. 明天/明日 means tomorrow, 明年 means next year)
  • the Ming dynasty

(Interestingly, while the character 月 means both month and the moon, 明月 only means “bright moon”, not “next month.”)

Furthermore, Chinese have fewer preposition words/characters than English. This means sometimes complex idea can be built into a single phrase and extended, similar to how certain German words are combined to form a single, longer word. It also means when Chinese characters are combined in different orders to form different phrases, each phrase may have different meaning.

For example, 這水瓶 literally means “this (這) water (水) bottle (瓶)”, while 這瓶水 means “this bottle of water”. The focus of the first first phrase was the bottle. The content was not mentioned: for all intents and purposes, the bottle could be empty or contain anything from liquid to gold beads to fresh cut flowers.

The second phrase focused on the water. The container was irrelevant, except it is in a general bottle shape. It could have been a shampoo bottle or cough syrup bottle; all the phrase stated was the bottle was filled with water.

On top of that, there are the phonetic translation of certain foreign terms. For example, while communism is 共產主義 as illustrated in the article, where the characters individually contribute to the meaning, fascism is phonetically translated to 法西斯主義. While 主義, as explained in the original article, means “ideolgy”, the phrase 法西斯 was combined because it is basically a transliteration of the English sounds into Chinese characters. Standalone, each character means:

  • 法 — law/rule, way/method (or France/French, but that in itself is also a transliteration)
  • 西 — west
  • 斯 — given, such, this (this character is seldom used in modern Chinese except for transliteration)

To someone who don’t already know the English word “fascism”, the phrase 法西斯主義 does not convey any meaning except it is some sort of ideology/-ism.

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