I'm looking at this table of classifying 漢字 into the types 象形文字、指事文字、会意文字、形声文字 (and 転注文字 and 仮借文字, but I'll focus on the first four for now).

I like the idea of 見 "to see" being an "eye" on "legs", and the table agrees and classifies it as 会意文字.

I also like the idea of 光 (and its traditional variant 灮) "to shine" being "fire" on "legs", but the table disagrees and classifies it as 形声文字.

I appreciate that 火 might also play a phonetic part in 光, but can't help think that 火 was at least chosen partly for its meaning, too.

Some of a longish list of other characters, listed as 形声文字, which I'd like to mean more:

花 "a changing grass"
時 "temple bells announcing the time of day"
島 (or 嶋) "a mountain, where only birds live"
雪 "rain/downfall, which you can hold/catch in your hand"

and my all-time favourite 漢字 (if only it were 会意文字):

風 "insects (mosquitoes?) hiding in an enclosure"

Am I imagining meaning where it doesn't exist or is this classification just speculation (or the classification scheme simply too rigid)?

  • 1
    FYI:「儿」is not legs, it plays the same role as「亻」. That is,「亻」is the form of「人」when written on the left side, while「儿」is the form of「人」when written on the bottom.「光」depicts a person「儿・人」carrying a torch (not really a modern component, although as you've seen, it was occasionally replaced with the similar-meaning「火」).
    – dROOOze
    Jan 23 '19 at 11:22

Why don't you post this question in Chinese Language Stack Exchange?

Both 見 and 光 should be 会意. The 儿 parts are actually “人”. 風 is 凡+虫(animals, not insects). For some reasons, consonant endings “-m” and “-ng” in old Chinese were sometimes used interchangeably, so 風 and 凡 were homophones. Similarly 鳳 contains the 凡 part too.

As for 花, 雪, 時, 島, etc. you can of course create poetic explanations, just as explaining かんなづき as 神無き月 rather than 神の月, but I'm afraid it will not be accepted by serious scholars.

花 was originally written as 華, which is a 象形文字.

Generally speaking, 形声 and 会意 are usually more abstract (adjectives, verbs, abstract nouns, etc.) and 象形 is usually more concrete. (name of objects, etc.) There are of course many situations in which its not easy to tell if a character is 会意, 形声 or 象形.

For example, 浅 little depth, 銭 little weight, 贱 little value, 盏 small cup, etc. All of them seem to have the same origin 戋 small.

雪 was originally written as 雨 + 彗(clear, broom, sweep). It can be either 形声 or 会意. 雪 can be used as a verb meaning “to clear”. 雪冤

See wiki 右文説 for more information.

  • I'm less interested in creating poetic explanations, than in understanding the etymology of the character. It seems that the website I linked to in my question classifies 光 as 形声文字, 花 as 形声文字, both of which you claim are inaccurate. Can you suggest a more authoritative source for checking the classification of 漢字?
    – Earthliŋ
    Mar 27 '14 at 17:07
  • 2
    @Earthliŋ, of course, there are a lot, as long as you can read Chinese. :D You can start with the most famous 說文解字 and 康熙字典. I think you can find a lot of online resources (maybe English translations) But be careful, there are a lot of errors in those books. There is also an awesome website. It has a comprehensive introduction to Chinese etymology and a list of references.
    – Yang Muye
    Mar 27 '14 at 17:17
  • That's why I asked for a "more authoritative" resource: to avoid errors. The "awesome website" seems also to be a good source for 甲骨文字. Unfortunately, I don't read Chinese (yet), but thank you for pointing me into some direction =)
    – Earthliŋ
    Mar 27 '14 at 17:41
  • @Earthliŋ, It seems the website gives you quotes from 說文解字 and a short English explanation (at the top right part of the page). If you just want to know the classification, you can do this by finding some keywords e.g. for 雪 it says: 凝雨說物者 從雨 彗聲, there are one “從” and one “聲”, then it is 形声. 见: 視也 從儿 從目 凡見之屬皆從見, there are two “從”s, it's 会意. 人: 天地之性最貴者也此籀文 臂脛 之形 凡人之屬皆從人, there is a “象~之形”. It's 象形, etc.
    – Yang Muye
    Mar 27 '14 at 17:45
  • 2
    @Earthliŋ, even authoritative resource has a lot of errors. Because 甲骨文 hadn't been discovered when those books were written. The theory of 六書 is not a perfect theory, either.
    – Yang Muye
    Mar 27 '14 at 17:57

Fascinating find! The list is breaking apart the 教育漢字 into the six historical groupings identified around the second century. Their relevance to kanji education is disputed in modern times, but scholars like myself find it interesting nonetheless.

You can read about it in great detail on Wikipedia, but here is a quick overview:

  • 象形 Pictographic characters. These are intended to illustrate concrete objects
  • 指事 Ideographic characters. These are combinations of simpler characters intended to convey more complex concepts
  • 会意 Compound Ideographs. These combine characters from the second group to convey still more complex ideas
  • 形声 Phonetic Compounds. By far the largest group; these characters usually consist of a semantic radical (by which it is usually classified) paired with another character that has the intended reading. Since the pairing was typically made several hundred years ago, there is a chance of shift in the relationship between the phonetic compound and the character that provided the reading. Common reasons for this include when both characters were imported into Japanese and shifting patterns in which readings are preferred.

These four groups address the origins of all characters as they were originally conceived and used. The last two groups address what happened to some characters over time as the needs of the Chinese language evolved:

  • 仮借 Phonetic Loans. These characters were borrowed to convey a concept for which there was no existing character. The choice was driven by the fact that the sound associated with the concept happened to match that of the character borrowed. To steal Wiki's example, 來 (modern 来) was originally a pictographic character for "wheat", however it eventually started being used to represent the sound "lai" as in "come"—a usage that persists to the modern day.
  • 転注 Derivative Cognates. Characters that are supposedly of the same origin (e.g. variants as opposed to distinct characters) that eventually diverged to represent completely different concepts (such as 考 and 老, as cited by the article). A disputed and hard-to-grasp grouping.
  • Maybe I should have said so in the question body, but I'm very well aware of the classification. My question (for now) is about a number of characters, which are classified as 形声文字, but which, to my eye, might very well be 会意文字 as well. I asked about the accuracy of the classification and problems associated with it. I'm sure someone will find your explanation useful, but unfortunately it doesn't attempt to answer any of my questions.
    – Earthliŋ
    Mar 27 '14 at 11:25
  • 1
    This is an aside, but I think there is more to the story about 来: As far as I remember 来 was a homophone of 麦, the former being a 象形文字 and the latter a 形声文字 (using 来 as phonetic component and ⼡ "legs" as semantic component, more obvious in their traditional forms 來 and 麥). At some time in history, the usage of 来 and 麦 switched.
    – Earthliŋ
    Mar 27 '14 at 11:43

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