BAI, Zhou: Graphemic Principle of Chinese Writing System and the Approaches of Hanzi Acquisition
Key Words: Chinese writing system, picto-phonetic principle, graphemic principle, approaches of acquiring Hanzi
Since Chinese writing system shifted from Xiaozhuan (小篆，the standard scripts adopted in the Qin Dynasty) into Lishu (隶书，the official scripts current in the Han Dynasty), it has gradually entered into a period of Post picto-phonetic writing system. Although there are still large amount of picto-phonetic characters in modern writing system, most of them have lost their picto-phonetic motivation more or less and can not denote accurately their meaning and pronunciation. Once people feel that they have no faith in the picto-phonetic principle in using characters, they will look for a new principle in the structure of characters. This new principle is the graphemic principle of Chinese writing system.
According to the graphemic principle, Hanzi is purely a symbolic system. In this system, Character is the top rank of the structure; in the middle level is the rank of complements which directly constitute a character; at the bottom is the rank of graphs --- the minimal units of character's construction. Grapheme is a constituent which is analysed from characters from a view of forming characters, and therefore it can be called the distinctive element in the inner structure of characters. The contrast among the graphemes is reflected by the contrast among the graphs or the complements. The graphs that exist in the same grapheme are variations of grapheme, or called "allographs". In addition, graphemes in the Chinese writing system can be classified into two types, the constituent graphemes and the non-constituent graphemes. In this system, the relationship between graphemes is revealed on the syntagmatic relation and the paradigmatic relation.
If we use graphemic principle to analyse the basic 3500 characters in the List of Xiandai Hanyu Changyongzi (现代汉语常用字，the most frequently used Hanzi in Modern Chinese), we can get a limited number of graphemes, that is to say, not more than 200. They are the basic graphs in current Chinese characters and their status are equivalent to the letters in phonographic writing system. Having such a set of basic graphs (or letters) of Hanzi, people needn’t acquire character in isolation one by one. They can learn a set of basic graphs first and then “spell” the character according to a set of combination rules, just like we learn phonographic writing system in European languages. This will thoroughly alter the traditional approaches of acquiring Hanzi, which will not only exert a great influence to teaching Hanzi, but will also promote the study in the areas of Hanzi indexing system, form-encoding characters for computer, and Hanzi systematization.