Following the question below about 认识 and 知道 and coobit's analyses of the characters, I am wondering, if a character contains a meaning part and a phonetic part, is there complete separation of the 2, or does the phonetic part also contribute in some way to the meaning?

Someone once must have written each character for the first time. I often wonder how they came to the decision to draw them that way. What thoughts went through their minds? They presumably already had a sound for the word, a spoken word, they just had to find a way of representing that sound.

  • cf. Yip Po-Ching, The Chinese Lexicon,p.40: meaningful elements in the character also used as phonetic: 抓-扌juxtaposed with 爪,忘 - 心 juxtaposed with 亡, 湾- 氵 juxtaposed with 弯,艉- 舟 juxtaposed with 尾
    – user6065
    Commented Dec 25, 2016 at 3:51

3 Answers 3


According to 六書 : six categories of Chinese Characters (象形,指事,形聲,會意,轉注,假借)

四、形聲 phonogram

a. [meaning + phonic] combination character (with original forms of both components intact)

b. 形聲 (Phonogram) express both meaning and phonic. Different from 會意 (associative compounds) which can only express meaning.


三、會意 (associative compounds):

c. associative compounds including phonic component:

Example: '婢' = '女'(female)+ '卑'(humble); '卑' is also the phonic component

The character 婢 belong to one type of 會意字, which both components contribute meanings to the character, and one of the components is also the phonic component.

My conclusion is, phonic part in 形聲字 (Phonogram) may or may not contribute meaning. For example: 江(river) =(river + 工 phonic); 聞 (listen) = (ear on the door with 門 phonic)

If one of the two meaningful parts in 會意字 (associative compounds) does contribute phonic element to the character, then it is a type c 會意字='會意形聲字'(associative compounds including phonic component)


Take for example classical character 講 = 言(talk) + 冓 (a strucutre/scaffold from bamboo twigs).enter image description here

So, the meaning is "talk+structure", thus a structured talk which is "a lecture". You see that 講 doen't have a phonetic information since 冓 sounds as "gou". It is written today as 讲, which is 言+井(A square well).

enter image description here

井 was added as a phonetics (it is spelled as "jing"), but it is not only a phonetic component. It is also a simplification of scaffold image

enter image description here

so it has nothing to do with a meaning of "a well". You can see that 井 still looks like a scaffold/structure.

  • coobit wrote: "It is written today as 讲, which is 言+井(a square well)."-- It is meaningless to try to learn from the structure of a simplified character with one component so heavily damaged after simplification. 冓 in 講 was the phonic component when the character was created. Even today, 講 in Cantonese is still a good example of 形聲字, and Cantonese is closer to ancient Chinese than Mandarin.
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 13:46
  • I admit, the model presented by me (井) is a bit of a strech, but it's a good strech nontheless. :)
    – coobit
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 13:58
  • zhongwen.com says 井 shows a field divided up into plots, with a well in the middle, whereas 冓 shows the wooden structure of a building made by those marvellous old Chinese carpenters!
    – Gangosa
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 10:20
  • There are many scholar who study etymology and all of them have their own theories about evolution of characters. 井 as a well makes no sence for this character, but as a simplified depiction of a bamboo scaffold around the building (ie structure) makes sence.
    – coobit
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 11:16

In short, yes, the phonetic part may or may not contribute to meaning. But let me put this more precise. I understand that Western readers must have been bewildered by the strange history of Chinese characters. There has been so much misconceptions that I cannot resist to add several remarks.


char := Chinese character
p(*) := pronunciation of *
m(*) := meaning of *
x ~ y := x is close or related to y
x ~/~ y := x is not apparently close or related to y

Consider char AB consisting of char A and char B sticking together (vertically or horizontally, or stuck in the middle). For our purpose, let char AB be an 形聲 (xíng shēng / Phono-semantic character) char. Without loss of generosity, let char A be the phonetic part, and char B be the semantic part. By our assumption,

p(AB) ~ p(A) ... ... (a)
m(AB) ~ m(B) ... ... (b)

Logically, in our setting, there are these possibilities: (Examples follow shortly)

m(AB) ~ m(A) ... ... (c)
m(AB) ~/~ m(A) ... ... (d)

Before seeing some examples, we naturally wonder, why did this happen? How was the accepted form of AB be agreed on, in the Chinese-using community? And how did these consensus arrive among them at all? You might picture that (along evolution of time):

  • Suppose p(A) = P and m(B) = M
  • It was intended that a new char X be created with m(X) = M' and p(X) = P', with P' ~ P and M ~ M', but either it happens that m(A) ~ M' (case c) or m(A) ~/~ M' (case d).
  • Then elders of the tribe or government officials (??) gathered, to decided how X is written.
  • They decided X = AB.
  • They announced the decision, and citizens (??) happily accepted.

The process is not only strange-sounding but in fact, wrong. There are two ways how it happened.

The first version is 假借 (borrowed homophone). This corresponds to case d above.

  • A concept M' with sound P' had already been established in spoken Chinese, but no corresponding char existed.
  • Someone (unlikely a she in the patriarchal society) wanted to write down a char X with m(X) = M' and p(X) = P'.
  • He made great effort to find a char A with P = p(A) ~ P', but N = m(A) ~/~ M' in general.
  • He wrote A, intending m(A) = M' and p(A) =P'.
  • From now on, m(A) = N or m(A) = M', depending on context. A is thus overloaded.
  • Since so much confusion eventually arose, people started to add another char B with M = m(B) ~ M', that is to say, to coin AB, replacing the second meaning of A. (But Q = p(B) ~/~ P' in general.)
  • Thus, p(AB) = P' and m(AB) = M'.


莫(Oracle), a picture of setting sun among woods, means "evening". It was borrowed to be the homophone 莫 "not", so 日 "sun" (a circle with a dot showing the Sun) was concatenated to it, becoming "暮".

父(Oracle), a picture of a sharp tool, means an ax. It was borrowed to be the homophone 父 "father", so 斤 "a small ax" (a picture of a sharp tool) was concatenated to it, become "斧".

Another version is 引申 (figurative meaning). This corresponds to case c above.

  • A new concept M' was gradually formed, calling for written expression yet to exist.
  • There was the first person who wished to write some X with m(X) = M'.
  • He made great effort to find a char A with N = m(A) ~ M'.
  • He wrote A, intending m(A) = M', while p(A) =P, as was before.
  • Since so much confusion eventually arise, people started to add another char B with M = m(B) ~ M', and to coin AB, replacing the second meaning of A. (But Q = p(B) ~/~ P' in general.)
  • Phonology has changed so much that p(AB) = P' ~/~ P = p(A), no longer same, and people do not remember how it was created.


冓(Oracle), a picture of a pile of crossed wood sticks, means "to connect, to join". It gave rise to figurative meaning "to talk", so 言 "speech" (a picture of a woodwind instrument) was concatenated to it, becoming "講".

卑(Oracle), a person standing, holding a tablet or plaque, means probably a servant job (modern sense: inferior, bad). It gave rise to a related and more peculiar sense "maidservant", so 女 "woman" (a picture of a dancing person) was concatenated to it, becoming "婢".

It hardly (if ever) was the case that X = AB came into existence without the intermediate stage of borrowed homophone or figurative meaning. Everything becomes reasonable, doesn't it!

ref.: Some of them comes from my memory, sorry. Some books I once borrowed or read are not at hand, but I cite one book I have, 許進雄《簡明中國文字學》(台灣新北市:學海出版社,2000).

  • I wouldn't be surprised if the 金 part in 釜 was originally a pictograph of a pot ; and the 斤 part in 斧 was originally pictograph of an ax.
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 10:05
  • It seems less likely so to me, because the picture 父 is undoubtedly an axe. How do you explain an ax is a father by no other means? Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 10:10
  • Just learned in an old TV. show 字裡尋根. The host confirmed the origin of 父 was a pictograph holding an axe, since it was a father's job to use the axe in ancient time, the hand holding an axe in the family had to be the father's" and that's why 父 means "father". But for the tool/weapon 斧 itself, the 斤 part was actually a pictograph of sharp knife, indicate the character 斧(axe) is related to sharp tool or weapon, different from 父(a hand holding an axe= father)
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 12:06
  • @Tang Ho Thank you for more information. I am not philology expert, but this is my guess. The word for father is almost invariably starting with *p-, and it is reasonable to say the pronunciation of 父 came out first. Then I suspect that it was a coincidence that 父 and 斧 were homophones, in which case 斧 must have been borrowed from 父. Lastly, 甲骨文 might vary, and the shape was often not fixed. Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 9:59

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