As an American who lived in Taiwan for five years, I became fascinated with the history of the Chinese characters that I would see on street signs and menus. It’s not often possible to understand the meaning of a character just by looking at it, but some characters have meanings that are related in clever ways to the character’s appearance. Here are some of my favorites:
車: “che”, which means “car”, looks like a chariot with two wheels and an axle, viewed from above.
森林: “senlin”, meaning “forest”, is actually two characters. The first one, “sen”, consists of three “trees” (木, “mu”), and the second character “lin” is made up of two more, so together it’s a lot of trees – in other words, a forest.
休: “xiu”, which means “rest”, has a component that means “person” on the left (by itself it’s written 人, which looks more like a person), and another “tree” on the right. So the whole character is a person resting against a tree.
仙: “xian”, which means “divine”, has the same person component on the left, and the character that means “mountain” (山, “shan”) on the right. The whole character is a person standing on top of a mountain, i.e. a god.
東: “dong”, which means “east”, has the character meaning “sun” (日, “ri”) in the middle of a tree (again, 木, “mu”). Together the character is the sun rising behind a tree, and the sun rises in the east.
And my final favorite is perhaps more funny than clever:
美: “mei”, which means “beautiful”, has the character meaning “sheep” (羊, “yang”) on top, and the character meaning “big” （大, “da”, a person with arms outstretched) on bottom. A big sheep is beautiful, I suppose especially if you’re cooking it for dinner.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of these characters is how they reach through history. We’ll never know the names of the shamans who first drew pictures to represent the concepts they wanted to convey, but when we see the modern characters while walking down a busy street in Taipei, we can still see the original moments of inspiration from thousands of years ago.