How the Chinese writing system works

The illustrations below of the various ways the character for horse is used in Chinese give you an idea of how the Chinese script works.

Evolution of the character

You can see below how the character for horse has evolved since it first appeared in the Oracle Bone Script during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1400-1200 BC).

Evolution of the character for horse

Further information about the evolution of chinese characters

Basic meaning

The character 马 [馬] is pronounced in Mandarin and máh in Cantonese. It means horse and is also used as a family name.

Usage in compound words

The character is used in horse-related compound words, such as:

  • 马兵 [馬兵] (mǎbīng) - cavalry ("horse soldiers")
  • 马力 [馬力] (mǎlì) - horse power
  • 马上 [馬上] (mǎshàng) - immediately ("on a horse")
  • 马戏团 [馬戲團] (mǎxì tuán) - circus ("horse play group")
  • 马路 [馬路] (mǎlù) - road ("horse road/way/path")
  • 马房 [馬房] (mǎfáng) - stables; stalls ("horse house")
  • 马鬃 [馬鬃] (mǎzōng)- mane ("horse bristle/hair")
  • 马夫 [馬夫] (mǎfū) - groom, stableman ("horse husband/man")
  • 马镫 [馬鐙] (mǎdèng) - stirrup

Radicals and phonetics

About 90% of Chinese characters contain a radical or bùshŏu, which gives you a clue to the meaning of a character, and a phonetic component, which hints at how to pronounce the character. The character for horse is used both as a phonetic compontent and as a radical.

The charcter for horse is used as a phonetic component in the following characters, some of which are only used in compound words, and some of which are rarely used:

  • 妈妈 [媽媽] (māmā) - mother
  • 蚂蚁 [螞蟻] (mǎyǐ) - ant
  • 码 [碼] (mǎ) - measure word for cloth/happenings; number; code
  • 猛犸 [猛獁] (měngmǎ) - mammoth
  • 玛瑙 [瑪瑙] (mǎnǎo) - agate (an ornamental stone consisting of a hard variety of chalcedony)
  • 骂 [罵] (mà) - to curse; scold; swear
  • 杩 [榪] (mà) - headboard
  • 祃 [禡] (mà) - ritual of offering sacrifices to the god of war on the eve of battle
  • 吗 [嗎] (ma) - interrogative particle

The charcter for horse is used as a radical in the following characters:

  • 骠 [騙] (biāo) - white horse; valiant; brave; fast
  • 骥 [驥] (jì) - thoroughbred horse; refined and virtuous
  • 驾 [駕] (jià) - to drive; harness; mount; surname
  • 骆 [駱] (luò) - surname; camel; white horse with black mane
  • 驼 [駝] (tuó) - hump/humpbacked; camel
  • 骆驼 [駱駝] (luòtuo) - camel; llama; blockhead
  • 骗 [騙] (piàn) - to cheat; swindle
  • 憑 (píng) - to reply; depend (variant of 凭)
  • 冯 [馮] (píng) - to gallop; assist (variant of 凭)
  • 骚 [騷] (sāo) - trouble; disturbance; rumpus

Further information about types of Chinese characters.

Usage in the transliteration of foreign words

The character for horse is also used for its phonetic value alone when writing foreign loanwords or the names of foreign people or places.

  • 马达 [馬達] (mǎdá) - motor
  • 马达加斯加 [馬達加斯加] (mǎdájiāsījiā) - Madagascar
  • 马哥孛罗 [馬哥孛羅] (mǎgēbèiluó) - Marco Polo
  • 马虎 [馬虎] (mǎhǔ) - careless; sloppy; negligent; skimpy
  • 马克斯 [馬克斯] (mǎkèsī) - Karl Marx
  • 马莱斯雅 [馬萊斯雅] (mǎláisīyǎ) - Malaysia
  • 马赛克 [馬賽克] (mǎsàikè) - mosaic
  • 玛雅 [瑪雅] (mǎyǎ) - Maya

The few foreign loanwords that exist in Chinese come mainly from English but the word măhū comes from the Sanskrit मोह (moha) - ignorance. The syllables of măhū are usually doubled to make it mămahūhu. This is a common way to intensify the meaning of adjectives.

Chinese Translation
中文翻譯
of names and phrases

Further information about the Chinese script

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Recommended books

Books about Chinese characters and calligraphy
Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Taiwanese and Cantonese language learning materials

Links

Chinese Etymology - shows all known forms for each character (including horse): http://www.internationalscientific.org/CharacterEtymology.aspx

Chinese-Characters.org - shows modern and some ancient forms of characters: http://chinese-characters.org

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