Are “Chinese” and “Chinese characters” the same meaning?

In our daily life, we often say “speak Chinese”, “speak English” and “your Chinese is very good”. In response to this phenomenon, some people put forward their own opinions. They pointed out that “Chinese” is used for writing, while “Chinese” is used for speaking. Therefore, the use of “speaking Chinese” is wrong. Obviously, they understand that “Chinese” refers to “Chinese characters”, that is, “Chinese characters”, which are used for written expression. So is “Chinese” equivalent to “Chinese characters”?

Meaning of “Chinese”

To find out whether “Chinese” is equivalent to “Chinese characters”, we should make clear what is “Chinese” and what is “Chinese characters”. Let’s first look at the meaning of “Chinese”. “Chinese” is defined on page 548 of the Chinese Dictionary: “Chinese” refers to the abbreviation of Chinese language or literature. It refers to Chinese language and literature. From the interpretation given in the Great Chinese Dictionary, “Chinese” refers not only to “Chinese characters”, but to Chinese “language” and “characters” or Chinese “language” and “literature”. After understanding the definition of “Chinese” given in the Chinese Dictionary, let’s look at the explanation of the word “Chinese” given in other reference books. The explanation given in the Dictionary (revised edition) is similar to that in the Chinese Dictionary: Chinese refers specifically to the language and characters of the Han people. The Dictionary also points out that Chinese refers to the most common language and writing of the Chinese people.

From the explanation of “Chinese” in the reference book above, it can be concluded that “Chinese” consists of two parts, one is the “language” part, and the other is the “character” or “literature” part, that is, Chinese has two parts: “writing system” and “pronunciation system”. Therefore, it is wrong to say that “Chinese” is equivalent to “Chinese characters”, which completely ignores the Chinese pronunciation system, that is, the “language” part.

Meaning of “Chinese Characters”

Modern Chinese (the fifth edition of the revised edition) gives an explanation of “characters” and “Chinese characters”. Character is a writing symbol system that records language and is the most important auxiliary communication tool. Chinese characters are the writing symbol system recording Chinese. Modern Chinese is not a reference book, so the explanation given is relatively simple. However, it can be seen that Chinese characters emphasize two things, one is to record Chinese, the other is to write a symbol system. If you want to call it Chinese characters, one of these two things is indispensable. Then look at how the Dictionary (revised edition) explains Chinese characters: Chinese characters are traditional characters used to record Chinese. Pictophonetic characters account for the vast majority. Various fonts such as oracle bone inscriptions, bronze inscriptions, seal characters, official script, cursive script and regular script have been developed in the past dynasties. Besides the function of recording language, Chinese characters are highly artistic. In more than 3000 years of history, it has had a profound impact on the languages of Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. It is also called “Chinese character” and “Chinese character”. We can conclude that Chinese characters are used to record Chinese, which is a writing symbol system.


To sum up, “Chinese” and “Chinese characters” are not the same concept, and there is no problem with the use of “speaking Chinese”. “Chinese” can include two parts: “language” and “character”, while “Chinese character” has only “character”, so we cannot simply equate “Chinese” with “Chinese character”. And whether “Chinese” means “language” or “character” requires specific analysis in combination with specific context. For example, in the phrase “speak Chinese”, “speak” means “speak with your mouth”, so what can be said is naturally language, so we can easily understand that “speak Chinese” in “speak Chinese” refers to the language part of Chinese; In “writing Chinese”, “writing” must mean “writing”, so the words are naturally matched with writing; In the phrase “learning Chinese”, the object of learning can be Chinese, Chinese characters, Chinese and Chinese characters.



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