Chinese Stories in English
In English we use the expression "Chinese characters" to refer to the symbols that the Chinese people use to write their language. It could also refer to "eccentric Chinese people", of course, but I'll save that topic for another time.
The characters started out as pictographs more than 3,000 years ago. Over the centuries they've been stylized and simplified so much that they can no longer be considered pictographs, but with a little imagination you can still see the underlying picture in some of them. For example, the character for "human" or "person" [人] is a depiction of the creature that walks on two legs. And a box with a line through the middle [中] means, quite logically, "middle". (It can also mean "China" – you know, "the Middle Kingdom").
Knowing a bit about Chinese culture can make the pictures more intelligible. Take the word for "home" or, by extension, "family" [家]. It's a stylized drawing of a pig with two ears, a snout, four legs and a squiggly tail [豕], placed under a roof [宀]. In English, home is where the heart is, but in China it's where the family raises its porker. You know the truth of that if you've ever visited a rural village here.
You have to be careful not to read too much into the picture, though. That same roof [宀] with a woman [女] under it means "peace" or "safe" [安]. If that strikes you as the Chinese equivalent of "barefoot and pregnant", remember that the character was created thousands of years ago and may not reflect the views of contemporary Chinese males.
With but few exceptions, each character has its own meaning and can reasonably be viewed as a separate "word". We use a few characters like this in English, too ("&", for example) but in English you can choose to write the words out using the alphabet if you'd like. In Chinese, normally only the characters are used.
Although characters may include a phonetic element, they are essentially independent of pronunciation, like the Arabic numerals we use in English. For instance, the character "2" might be pronounced "two", or "deux", or "zwei", etc., and the reader has no way of knowing which is correct except by context and background knowledge. Similarly, the character人 noted above could be written as part of an English sentence, in which case it would be pronounced "person"! (I used to use Chinese characters as a kind of shorthand when taking notes in classes and meetings. For some reason, no one ever wanted to borrow my notes.)
The Chinese consider the separation of pronunciation from meaning to be one of the main benefits of using characters. No matter how many mutually unintelligible languages or dialects the Chinese might speak, they use the same characters and can therefore communicate in writing. Arguably, the characters are an important part of the glue that holds the nation together.
There are obvious disadvantages to using characters, though, the most obvious being that there are so many of them. If you're like me, you have problems with English spelling, like trying to remember the difference between "course" and "coarse". Try to imagine facing that difficulty with almost every single word you right.
Since many Chinese "words" are combinations of two or more characters (like bed+spread=bedspread in English) you don't need to memorize a new character for every word in the language. Still, one has to memorize between 3,000 and 4,000 characters to be considered literate, and 3,000-plus characters is a lot of memorizing. Therefore, if you want to learn to read Chinese, it's helpful to look for mnemonic devices to lighten the load.
One popular device is to make up stories based on whatever images you see in the characters. (The following pseudo-etymologies are intended for amusement only, and probably have nothing to do with the true derivation of the characters. There's a more serious discussion of the subject here.)
For example, if you take the character for "person" (人) and draw a line through it like this (大), it means "big". I see it as a picture of a fisherman with his arms spread out, saying "You should've seen the one that got away!"
Now take the character for "big" (大) and draw a line over it like this (天). It's the same person with his arms outstretched, but now his attention is focused on "heaven" or the "sky" above him – he's praying that that big fish doesn't get away next time.
Or, instead of a line above the guy, put a dot between his legs (太). That means "extremely" or "overly", and you can imagine the guy with his arms outstretched, bragging about…. Well, I'll let you use your imagination.
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