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Compound ideograph : a contested category in studies of the Chinese writing system

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posted on 13.01.2017, 00:25 by Chen, Zhiqun
This eleven-chapter thesis is a study of the category compound ideograph, one of the six categories that have been used to classify Chinese characters since the second century CE. It is traditionally defined as the combination of two or more extant characters, mostly pictographs, to form a compound character, representing a meaning different from the meanings represented by its components. Since the late 1930s, this category has been the subject of ongoing debate in Western scholarship. The thesis begins with the origin of the term, ‘compound ideograph’ and the development of the Chinese writing system in its formative stages. This is followed by an examination of two Western views of the compound ideograph, that of Creel 1936, 1939 and the opposing view of Boodberg 1937, 1940 and his student Boltz 1986, 1996, 1999, 2003. The study demonstrates that neither Creel nor Boodberg and Boltz succeed in offering a persuasive explanation of the formation of characters traditionally categorized as compound ideographs, no matter whether they are unconditional supporters of the category compound ideograph like Creel, or total deniers of the existence of the category like Boodberg and Boltz. The next two chapters, through case studies of some frequently cited examples of compound ideographs such as míng明 (bright), are devoted to the study of the different factors that have influenced the development of the Chinese writing system, including linguistic factors and more importantly, extra-linguistic factors such as orthographic reform and the physical requirements of certain writing implements, which have hitherto been largely ignored. The thesis goes on in Chapters 7 and 8 to demonstrate that a large percentage of the traditionally defined compound ideographs should be reclassified as complex pictographs since they were formed in the same way as pictographs: a simple depiction of the best example, with distinctive features highlighted. This conclusion is reached through examination of the characters traditionally defined as pictographs and compound ideographs; a comparison of these characters with pictographs in Egyptian Hieroglyphs, together with a study of Qiu Xigui 2000’s subcategory of compound ideographs. Based on a diachronic study of groups of traditionally defined compound ideographs and semantic-phonetic compounds in Chapters 9 and 10, the compound ideograph is defined as a compound character that was formed as a result of undergoing two or three different stages of modification, with one part serving as a semantic determinative, and the other part retaining the function of a pictograph or complex pictograph, which originally represented a meaning identical to that of the later compound ideograph. In order to describe the formation of these characters, a three-stage theory, together with two principles, is proposed in this thesis. These principles are the principle of distinction, the constraint of one graph for one word in a writing system, and the principle of analogy, which requires graphs representing meanings belonging to the same semantic field to have a common semantic determinative to indicate their common property.


Principal supervisor

Keith Allan

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Languages, Cultures and Linguistics


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts