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Let’s Get Abstract With Chinese Ideograms

Simple Chinese Ideograms or Ideographs were the second type of character that were developed after pictographs. Pictographs are characters that look very similar to the word they describe, such as 口 ‘mouth’ and 手 ‘hand’. Ideograms, on the other hand are known as 指事 (zhǐ shì) or ‘indirect characters’ and are often symbolic characters depicting abstract concepts. Meaning, they are difficult to draw or express because they are often not a physical object. 

Most of the time, these characters were developed from pictographs with additional lines and dots to create a new concept.

Below are some of the most common ideograms for you to learn:

Number Ideograms

Some of the simplest Chinese ideograms are numbers. The following characters originally use or used lines to symbolically represent a number.

(yī) one / 1

(èr) two / 2

(sān) three / 3

(sì) four / 4

Directional Ideograms

上 (shàng) on top / upon / above

(shàng) Ideogram and Meaning

Originally, this character was simply a horizontal line with a dot above it. The horizontal line represents the ground and the dot, or later the vertical line, symbolically suggests an ‘up’ direction.

晚上你过来吃晚饭吗?(wǎn shang guò lái chī wǎn fàn ma?) Do you want to come over to have dinner tonight?

(shàng) Bigrams

上 (shàng) bigrams often refer to something being ‘on’ or ‘above’:

上海 (shàng hǎi) Shanghai (lit: on the water)

地上 ( shang) on the floor

上去 (shàng qù) to go up

下 (xià) down / downwards / below

(xià) Ideogram and Meaning

Similarly to 上, the horizontal line suggests the ground and the dot or line below it shows a ‘downward’ direction.

我想下去帮他拿东西。(wǒ xiǎng xià qu bāng tā dōng xi) I want to go downstairs to help her get something.

下 (xià) Bigrams

上 bigrams usually involve something being below or making a downward motion:

下来 (xià lai) to come down

坐下 (zuò xia) sit down

下面 (xià mian) below

Chinese Ideograms Using the ‘Tree’ Radical

Both of these ideograms were developments of the ‘tree’ (mù) radical:

本 (běn) root / origin / classifier for books

(běn) Ideogram and Meaning

This character takes the pictograph character for ‘tree’ and with the addition of a line at the base of the character indicates the ‘root’ of a tree.

这本是你的书。(zhè běn shì de shū) This is your book.

(běn) Bigrams

(běn) bigrams are connected to paper items and suggest ‘origins’:

本报 (běn bào) this newspaper

基本 ( běn) fundamentally / basic

本来 (běn lái) originally

末 (mò) tip / end

(mò) Ideogram and Meaning

This is the reverse of 本 and has an additional stroke at the top of the character to depict the ‘tip’ or ‘end’.

他在周末看了几部恐怖片。(zài zhōu mò kàn le jǐ bù kǒng piàn) He watched several scary movies over the weekend.

末 (mò) Bigrams

末 (mò) bigrams suggesting the ‘end’ of something:

周末 (zhōu mò) weekend (lit: week end)

月末 (yuè mò) end of the month

末期 (mò qī) end (of a period)

Other Chinese Ideographs

刃 (rèn) knife edge

(rèn) Ideogram and Meaning

(rèn) comes from the ‘knife’ character 刀 (dāo) with the addition of a 点 stroke to suggest the ‘edge’ of a knife.

屠夫需利刃。 ( fū xū rèn) A butcher needs sharp blades.

刃 (rèn) Bigrams

刃 (rèn) bigrams are largely associated with knives:

刀刃 (dāo rèn) knife blade

双刃 (shuāng rèn) double-edged blade

利刃 (lì rèn) sharp blade

尺 (chǐ) a Chinese foot (measurement)

(chǐ) Ideogram and Meaning

An additional line on the character for corpse 尸 suggesting the ‘foot’ of a body.

各种外形和尺寸的自行车都有。 ( zhǒng wài xíng hé chǐ cun de xíng chē dōu yǒu) Bikes come in all shapes and sizes.

尺 (chǐ) Bigrams

尺 (chǐ) bigrams are measurement related:

公尺  (gōng chǐ) a meter

尺寸 (chǐ cun) size / measurement

尺子 (chǐ zi) ruler

甘 (gān) sweet / willing

甘 (gān) Ideogram and Meaning

is a combination of the mouth radical 口 and a ‘sweet’ thing in the mouth represented by the additional 一 ‘heng’ stoke.

苦尽甘来。( jìn gān lái) All sufferings have their reward (idiom: bitterness finishes, sweetness begins)

甘 (gān) Bigrams

甘 (gān) bigrams are a mixed bag, but if you’re sweet, you’re willing (?):

不甘 ( gān) unwilling

甘肃 (gān sù) Gansu Province

甘甜 (gān tián) sweet

世 (shì) life / age / generation

世 (shì) Ideogram and Meaning

The origin of this character is not completely known, although it is thought to have come from the character for 30  , which was said to be the length of 1 generation.

他出生于21世纪。(tā chū shēng yú 21 shì jì) He was born in the 21st Century.

世 (shì) Bigrams

世 (shì) bigrams are associated with life and time:

世界 (shì jiè) world

世纪 (shì jì) century

在世 (zài shì) to be alive

血 (xuè) blood

(xuè) Ideogram and Meaning

The original description of this ideogram was a container used to catch the blood of livestock during a sacrifice.

他接受了输血。(tā jiē shòu le shū xuè) He was given a blood transfusion.

血 (xuè) Bigrams

血 (xuè) bigrams are connected to blood:

流血 (liú xuè) to shed blood

血管 (xuè guǎn) vein

血压 (xuè yā) blood pressure

音 (yīn) sound / noise

(yīn) Ideogram and Meaning

The ‘sound’ character shows a ‘tongue’ sticking out of a mouth making a ‘noise’. The character (yán) ‘words’ comes from similar origins, just with one more stroke. The meaning is that ‘words’ are spoken from the heart.

你听见那个怪声音了吗? (tīng jiàn nèi gè guài shēng yīn le ma?) Did you hear that weird noise?

音 (yīn) Bigrams

音 (yīn) bigrams often have something to do with sound:

声音 (shēng yīn) voice / sound

音乐 (yīn yuè) music

录音 (lù yīn) to record sound

寸 (cùn) a unit of length / inch / thumb

寸 (cùn) Ideogram and Meaning

(cùn) shows a hand and a ‘marker’ pointing to the wrist which is approximately an ‘inch’ away.

帮忙量一下这木板的尺寸好吗?(bāng máng liáng xià zhè mù bǎn de chǐ cun hǎo ma?) Can you help me measure the board?

寸 (cùn) Bigrams

寸 (cùn) bigrams often relate to measurements:

尺寸 (chǐ cun) measurement

英寸 (yīng cùn) inch

寸脉 (cùn mài) pulse taken on the wrist

If you have questions or comments, please leave them below!