An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Standardization of the script and character variants

Mar 23, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Bones served as the oldest preserved writing material of Chinese culture. This hard surface allowed only simple, With a new writing surface, the bronze inscriptions of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) with their long texts simplified the ideographs, reduced strokes and standardized the characters.

From the mid-Zhou period on, bamboo slips became a widespread writing material. The characters differed from region to region. Most conservative was the writing style used in the state of Qin 秦 which is accordingly called the large (or complicated) seal script (dazhuan 大篆 or zhouwen 籀文), in contrast to the small seal script of the other states (xiaozhuan 小篆). Examples of this ancient style can be seen in the Stone Drum Songs (Shigushi 石鼓詩).

The state of Chu 楚 in the south had a special ductus of the script known from silk inscriptions (boshu 帛書, bowen 帛文) found, for instance, in the early Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) tomb of Mawangdui 馬王堆. With the unification of the empire by the state of Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE)in 221 BCE, the script was standardized. The imperial government of the Qin adopted the small seal script as the national standard. The standardization led to the common structure of Chinese characters as it is known today. It was prescribed which parts of characters – and in which function – were positioned where. Before that, right and left part of characters had often been ad libitum. Extremely complex characters as seen in some older bronze inscriptions were also given up.

The growing bureaucratic nature of the late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) made it necessary to develop a ductus for the Chinese script that could be written quickly. This was the so-called chancery script (lishu 隸書) used for archival documents, while the old complicated script remained in use for seals (hence the name "seal script") and inscriptions that were to last for a long time, like weights and measures, inscriptions in stelae, and so on.

The chancery script abbreviated complex parts, like 辵 to 辶 "to go", 阜 to 阝 "hill" or 邑 to ⻏ "settlement", respectively, and complex characters 㬜 (to 晉), 𥣠 (to 秦), 𣍘 (to 曹) or 萅 (to 春), and standardized the movement of the writing tool, the brush.

In the seal script, curved lines in all directions are very common, but the chancery script only known relatively straight movements of the brush. The chancery script abbreviated the shape of radicals and elements in characters, like the shape of 心 to 忄 "heart" if standing to the left, the shape of 火 to 灬 "fire" if standing below, the shape of 艸 to 艹 "grass" if standing at the top, and so on. Many other characters were thoroughly abbreviated, like 秊 to 年 "year", 𠬻 to 奉 "to lift", 𠦛 to 兵 "weapon, troops", 𠃟 to 也 "a stressing or equalizing particle", and so on.

On the other hand, some oft-used complex characters were not abbreviated, like 鳥 "bird", 爲 "to be, to do, for", 齊 "equal", or 龜 "tortoise" and survive until today.

The abbreviation of characters helps saving the engergy of the wrist when writing long texts. An script easy to write contributed to the distribution of texts, not only of official documents, but also of philosophical writings and private letters. The early chancery script was found a somewhat refined shape in the standard model script (kaishu 楷書), which came into use during the Han period. For an even faster writing, the writing styles xingshu 行書 "running script" and caoshu 草書 "grass script" were invented. The Jin period 晉 (265-420) can be seen as the age when the Chinese script matured in all its aspects.

The Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) was the time when scholars started investigating the origin of Chinese characters, and the first dictionaries were written, of which the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 is the most famous. Chinese scholars speak of early experiments with the script in the field of arts, resulting in the long and famous tradition of calligraphy (shufa 書法 the "art of writing").

Standardization meant that there were "correct" or "orthodox" characters (zhengti zi 正體字) and "wrong" or "alternative" characters (biezi 別字), and "vulgar" forms (suti zi 俗體字). In Taiwan, the traditional "complex" characters (fanti zi 繁體字) are sometimes called "orthodox" characters, while the abbreviated or "simplified" (jianti zi 簡體字) fixed as the standard characters in 1957 and afterwards, are deemed "heterodox". The term zhengti zi was first used in the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) dictionary Ganlu zishu 干祿字書 by Yan Yuansun 顔元孫 (d. 714), and in Wang Renxu's 王仁昫 Kanmiu buque qieyun 刊謬補缺切韻.

In the People's Republic (1949-), some elderly people still make use some non-standard simplified characters that follow the preliminary second simplification set from 1978. Such are 旦 (actually dan "morning") for dan 蛋 "egg", or 歺 (actually a radical meaning "evil" or "sad") for 餐 "meal".

Standard and non-standard writings sometimes have also to do with typesetting and fonts. Modern sets of typesetting are commonly be more compact that traditional ones, like the smooth font SimSun (Songti 宋體) against the serif-loaden font PMingLiU (Mingti 明體).

Figure 1. Examples of typographic character variants
Oft-seen examples of typographic variants (the more modern version standing to the right).

Some characters have two variants if one element is written in another position, like

崑崙 崐崘 name of a mountain
"short; strategy"
"swan, goose"
"time, year"
"herd, flock"

Vulgar forms of Chinese characters have often been used as a model for the simplified characters used by the People's Republic, for instance:

standard form vulgar form official simplified form
"to finish, to exhaust"
"to prepare, to complete"
- "to answer"
- "to search"
"to change"
"to observe, to look for"
"to present to a superior"
"to switch, to alter"
馿 "ass, donkey"

Yet older forms of vulgar variants are already to be found in stone tablet inscriptions from the Northern and Southern dynasties period, as found in Luo Zhenyu's 羅振玉 (1866-1940) glossary Beibiezi 碑別字 (see example).

Figure 2. Examples of character variants in stone inscriptions
Two examples from the variant character dictionary Beibiezi 碑別字, the right showing three variants to the character 東, the left two variants to the character 中. Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉 (1866-1940), author of the dictionary, indicated his sources: the back side of Han Chi's 韓勑 stele from the Han period (韓勑孔廟禮器碑), a Wei-period stele from Chongyang Monastery 崇陽寺 in Zhongyue 中岳, a statue of Jiang Zuan 姜纂 from the Northern Qi period, an inscription of Xia Cheng's 夏承 stele and that of Tang Gongfang 唐公房, both from the Han period.

The increasing amount of characters is not only due to the creation of new characters. The number of characters only slightly increases between the Han and the Sui period 隋 (581-618). A large amount of characters are simply alternative writings (yitizi 異體字), popular or vulgar variants (suzi 俗字 or sutizi 俗體字) or non-standard variants (qizi 奇字). Character variants often originated in different periods of time and were created in different regions. They are mutually exchangeable without altering the meaning of the word.

instead of "bed"
𠮦 instead of "to summon, to order"
𠫹 instead of "alone, solitary"
instead of "to go back, to render"
instead of "measure, standard"
instead of "cypress"
instead of "hanging, pending"
instead of "common, low-ranking"
instead of name of a region or family name
instead of "plow"

Some old examples of character variants are 禮 and 礼 "ritual", 迹 and 蹟 "trace", 祺 and 禥 "fortunate", 达 and 逹 "to succeed, to advance", 貦 and 玩 "to amuse oneself", 羶 and 羴 "frowzy, rank odour", or 難 and 𪅀 (a kind of bird, loan character for "difficult; problems").

The ancient dictionary Shuowen jiezi calls character variants chongwen 重文 "duplex characters", and includes 1,163 of such variants, out out of 9,353 characters in total. This shows the abundance of such double characters even in ancient times. For a lot of characters there was never a standard form established, so that for many words, two different characters can be used, either with a different radical or signifying part, like

ji "hen, chick, cock"
jue "to cheat; strange"
chuo "distant; to surpass"
di "to slander"
谿 xi "creek, valley"
bi "to force, to press on; narrow"
chun "lips"
geng "fishbone; upright"
kao "to ask, to examine, to study"
bei "cup"
ji "trace, footprint"
chi "to command"
qu "to expel, to urge"
du "to observe"
pang "the side, lateral"
fa "standard, rule, law"
zhu "spider"

or with a different phonetic part, like

fu "drum stick"
xiong sound of rushing water
zhi "limbs"
gong an ancient wine vessel
bu "to be afraid of"
chou "to take away, to draw"
cheng "limpid, clear"
mo "to grind; millstone"
鯿 bian "bream" (a kind of fish)
𣐊 kao "evergreen chinquapin"
chui "to beat, to hammer"
ku "trousers"
yun "rhyme"
ti "hoove"
ai "to impede, to obstruct"
ni "familiar, intimate"
kui "to offer food; provisions"
yin "to drink"
lei "tears"
fan "to float, to drift"

or with a partially or wholly different shape, like

ji "trace, footprint"
san "umbrella, parasol"
cun "village"
sheng "residuals, remains"
ye equalization or stress particle
ren "man, person"
wu "not, nothing"
kuai "piece, lump"
ye "wilderness"
sha "to stop, to kill"
ge "individual, personal, each, one"
cha, tu "tea"
zhu "congee"

The demonstrative pronouns zhi 之, shi 是, ci 此, si 斯, zi 茲, and zhe 這 are all loan characters for the same word "this, here".

A lot of double characters were indeed interchangeable (tongyong zi 通用字) even if their mordern pronunciation is very different. Such graphical alternatives were

neng nai "to be able to"
hu yu preposition and question particle
cai cai "material, talent"
cai fang "only then, exactly this"
ji ji "to compile"
qin qin "to catch"
zhi zhi "direct; worth"
gou ju "hook, corner" and "sentence" (a homophone in ancient Chinese)

Some characters were written with a redundant signific or radical that could easily be left out, like

hyperbole sufficient superfluous part meaning
辵 "to walk" "to follow"
𠂢 氵(水) "water" "to send out, to flow"
𣶒 氵(水) "water" "pool, profound"
扌(手) "hand" "to rub, to strip, to smooth out"
攵(攴) "beat" "shabby, worn out"
氵(水) "liquid" "lacquer"
竹 "bamboo" "brush"

Some superfluous characters were only created in order to assimilate characters graphically in words, like

橋樑 "bridge" 梁 means "bridge" 木 in 樑 is superfluous
笤箒 "broom" 帚 means "broom" 竹 in 箒 is superfluous
海浬 "nautic mile" 里 means "mile" 氵(水) in 浬 is superfluous
水菓 "fruits" 果 means "fruit" 艹(艸) in 菓 is superfluous

In different contexts, objects were written with another character, leading to discrimination characters (fenbie zi 分別字), of which some have later adopted a different pronunciation:

wǎn "drawing vehicle" "to draw, to pull"
bǎn "wooden plate", later "printing" "wooden plate"
chēng "to tell, to denominate" chèng "to weigh"
shòu "to receive" "to transmit, to give"
zhī "to know" zhì "wisdom"
qiāng "lance, spear" "metal polearm" or "musket"

Many characters can be interpreted as two words of the same origin (tongyuan zi 同源字), probably in different dialects:

guang "broad" kuang "broad light"
jian "solid" jin "dense"
kong "hole" kong "cavity"
kuan "wide" kuo "ample
gai "to change" geng "to alter"

The abundance of character variants was reduced in the character reforms in the People's Republic during the 1950. In December 1955, the table Di yi pi yitizi zhengli biao 第一批异体字整理表 was issued that fixed the correct form of 810 character variants and claimed the elimination of 1,053 variants.

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