Reading into Chinese: When Words are Pictures

Ching headBy Qin Sun Stubis

Chinese was my maternal language. Like all little girls and boys growing up there, I was taught how to read and write, one sound and one stroke at a time. Soon enough, I was writing words, sentences, and paragraphs, and talking as if I always had the entire language inside me.

Like most children, I drank in the sounds and meanings with my rice milk. I eagerly took in everything as a natural part of growing up, too young to question why words came the way they did–how they were all square in shape and yet each so very different.

Since I immigrated to the United States almost two and half decades ago, my primary language has shifted from Chinese to English. These days, I almost never use my mother tongue unless I make a call or write to my family and friends across the ocean. When I do have to write in Chinese, I find myself often staring at individual words in awe, fascinated by their intricate compositions as if I were seeing them for the first time.

Chinese characters are not only pleasing to our eyes but inspire our imaginations. 木 (mu or “wood”), for instance, looks like either a pile of wood ready for a campfire on a cold winter night, or a tree extending its limbs and dancing in the wind, while 森林 (senling or  “forest”) gives us an image of trees upon trees, which
is the very definition of a forest.

Known as pictographs, Chinese words originated from pictures. If pictures are indeed “worth a thousand words,” could it be possible that Chinese words are more than just words? Structurally, most of these square-shaped characters consist of several internal parts, each carrying a specific meaning. It would only make sense that when these meanings are combined, words should be able to tell us stories.

The word 男 (nan or “man”), for an example, consists of 田 (tian or “land”) and 力 (li or “physical strength”), giving us a vivid image of a man farming in the fields, while 女 (nu or “woman”), looks more like an abstract drawing of a female body. 囡 (nan or “darling daughter”) physically locks a 女 (nu or a “woman”) inside a compound “口,” referring to the virtue of a female staying home to preserve her purity. 好 (hao or “good”) is a 女 (nu or a “woman”) having a 子 (zi or “son”), while 坏 (huai or “bad”) consists of 土 (tu or “land”) and 不 (bu or “lack of”).

As I carefully explored these simple, everyday words, I felt like being an archaeologist stumbling upon some unexpected relics, brushing away old cobwebs and “time-dust” to reveal some mysterious cultural elements, many of which I thought had only belonged to the generations before my time and had been extinct a long time before.

In some ways, pictographic characters have preserved China’s ancient culture and her history in a unique way. For they, like portals, allow us to take a direct look into her past five thousand years.

Though many of the old Chinese customs and values we excavate are not flattering to this culture, they are there to serve as a poignant reminder of how far this civilization has come.

You can always reach me at

A longtime columnist of ours, Qin lives in Bethesda, MD.

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