April 02, 2016

Compound pictograms

A compound pictogram is a Chinese character used in Chinese writing, which combines two or more simple pictograms into one character in order to convey a more complex meaning. 看 for instance is a compound pictogram:

Some other examples of compound pictograms include:

投 to throw 
殳 spear

意 idea, opinion 
音 sound
心 heart (the sound of ones heart/soul - idea)

內 inside 
入 to enter
冂 enclosed space

林 forest, grove
木 tree doubled

森 forest
木 tree tripled

Some compound pictograms are simple and easy to understand as the examples above, some are a bit more difficult. This can be due to a number of reasons, the main two being that elements in these compound pictograms are clearly separated (are not fused or distorted) and the original and modern meanings of these characters are the same. 

The original meaning of a given character is however often different from the modern one and since character elements point to its original meaning, the compound character makes no sense. In order to understand it, you need to go one step back and look at what the character used to mean when it was created:

Original meaning: 'to be fond of', later extended to the modern meaning 'good'.
女 woman and 子 son

Original meaning: 'an ancient evening divination/fortune telling ritual performed outside', later extended to the modern meaning 'outside'.
夕 dusk
卜  to perform a divination ritual

Original meaning: 'to increase the intensity of one's voice' extended to the modern meaning 'to increase' in general.
力 force, strength
口 mouth

Original meaning: 'plow, hoe', later extended to the modern meaning 'man, male (the one working with the plow)'.
田 field
力 force (here in it's original meaning 'plow')

Original meaning: 'pig shed', later extended to habitations and houses in general and finally to the modern meaning 'house, family'.
宀 roof (symbol for buildings in general)
豕 pig.

The second problem which makes some compound pictograms difficult to understand is that what once used to be two separate elements in a given character have now fused into one element or are too distorted and not recognizable. Some compound pictograms have visually changed so much since they were created, that it is impossible to tell what they mean or what they are made of just by looking at them. You therefore again need to go back a few steps and look at earlier versions of the same character to understand the modern one.

There are relatively few compound pictograms left. They make up only about 10% of the 1000 most frequent characters. They are however very frequently used and can be seen often. It sometimes takes a little bit more time to understand what they are made of, but knowing this information will make it much easier for you to remember them in the long run.

This series of articles will be an end result of a project which I have been working on for over three and a half years. I will be publishing a book on Chinese characters and wanted to give you a glimpse of what will be inside as well ask you for any comments or suggestions you might have to make the book as enjoyable and useful as possible.

In line with my philosophy of minimalism and effectivisim, the book will be very clean and easy to use, combining the absolutely best modern Chinese character research with the best learner experience.

A lot of time and effort has been put into transforming the complicated research data into easy to understand 'look once, understand immediately' chunks. No clutter, or lumping of information onto the reader. Just an enjoyable learning experience.

For more information and regular updates about this and my other projects feel free to subscribe to my mailing list.


  1. Well, the 出 example is surprising! I always assumed it must be the 山 character repeated, which didn't really make much sense of the meaning of the word for me. Seems like it'll be an interesting book :)

    1. Hello and thank you:) Yes, it was surprising for me too. There are many instances like this with Chinese characters, especially with fused compound pictograms. I really hope for the book to shine some light on obscure Chinese characters and strange character explanations. Very often, even Chinese themselves resort to abstract story-telling when it comes to explaining what individual characters are made of, but when you research their etymology closer, you find that behind 99% of Chinese characters is a very real, non-abstract logic. I would guess the same to be true for the remaining 1%, it's just that we simply don't know that for sure yet, as we don't have enough historical data.

  2. Hi Vladimir,

    Cool article!
    Taking a step back in time and looking into originally what caused a character to be combined in such a way to mean something is indeed often necessary to understand why it's built the way it is.
    I remember when I learned, for instance, that the word 秋 came to mean fall in Chinese because of how the end of summer was the time when the fields were burned (hence the 禾 grain on one side and 火 on the other side) to prepare crops for the next harvest. Once it's explained to you, it makes a lot of sense, but until it's been explained... it can be a little puzzling!That's also why I find Chinese characters so fascinating:)

    I look forward to reading the book on Chinese characters you're preparing, it sounds very promising! A book that really shone light on how some of the characters came to be, for me, is Cyrille Javary's "100 mots pour comprendre le chinois". Not sure if it was translated into English? Are you familiar with it?

    1. Hello Sarah,

      thank you:)

      I have not read the book you mentioned unfortunately.


  3. Thank you for this article! I learn Mandarin for six months and I love it. I hope that one day I'll be as good in Mandarin as you! Greetings from Poland

  4. Thanks Vladimir! This was fun to read. I started studying the characters while living in Kaoshiung. Taiwan back in 1993 and I've been fascinated by them ever since. Looking forward to the book.

    1. Thank you Dimitrios. Hopefully the book will be out this September.