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 semantic component or radical (bùshǒu), 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 semantic component.

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 semantic component 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 mǎhū comes from the Sanskrit मोह (moha) - ignorance. The syllables of mǎhū are usually doubled to make it mǎmahūhu. This is a common way to intensify the meaning of adjectives.

Further information about the Chinese script

Learn Chinese with AIChinese

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:

Chinese pages

Written Chinese: Oracle Bone Script, Simplified characters, Bopomofo, Types of characters, Structure of written Chinese, Evolution of characters, How the Chinese script works, Xiao'erjing, General Chinese

Spoken Chinese: Mandarin, Dungan, Wu, Shanghainese, Wenzhounese, Yue, Cantonese, Weitou, Min, Jian'ou, Taiwanese, Teochew, Fuzhounese, Puxian, Hakka, Xiang, Gan, How many people speak Chinese?

Other Chinese pages: Chinese numbers (數碼) | Chinese classifiers (量詞) | Electronic dictionaries | Chinese links | Books: Chinese characters and calligraphy | Cantonese | Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien and Taiwanese

Semanto-phonetic writing systems

Akkadian Cuneiform, Ancient Egyptian (Demotic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), Chinese, Chữ-nôm, Cuneiform, Japanese, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Naxi, Sawndip (Old Zhuang), Sui, Sumerian Cuneiform, Tangut (Hsihsia)

Other writing systems

Page last modified: 15.03.23


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