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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:

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:

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

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.

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.


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


Chinese Etymology - shows all known forms for each character (including horse): - shows modern and some ancient forms of characters:

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