Synesthesia and Chinese characters

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Leo Fransella asks:

I'm curious to know whether, in your years studying and teaching written Chinese, you've ever come across synaesthesia as applied to Chinese characters (zi) or words (ci)?

The most common form of synaesthesia (~1% of people, I think) involves the systematic assignment of colours to letters, numbers or (sometimes) whole words. I have this 'grapheme-colour' quite strongly: when I hear a phone number or see a number written on a page, for example, I automatically sense it as bands of colour. Much the same for words: it literally bothers me when I don't know how to spell someone's name, as their associated colours can be so different (Catherine is bluey-green with a dash of red; Kathryn is green-yellow). Sounds a bit loopy to people who don't do this, but it's a very useful mnemonic trick when learning French vocab or Latin verb conjugations and noun declensions.

As far as I know, though, most of the research on synaesthesia has involved subjects who use the Latin alphabet – not sinograms. (Julia Simner, a researcher at Edinburgh University, is one name that comes up when I do some googling, but I've only seen a couple of short summaries of her research.)

For what it's worth, I found that synaesthesia did help when learning Chinese characters, but in a rather trivial way: individual characters took on the hues of the associated pinyin. (Tones had no impact on colour, unhelpfully.) This was helpful for the many characters with a single reading: having learnt that 词 is pronounced ci, 词 would take on the sky light blue-and-white colouring of ci and make it much easier to guess the reading the next time I saw it. This seemed to help when juggling very different readings as well (e.g. the second character in yinhang 'bank' vs. jinxing 'proceed' – hang is yellowy-green whereas xing is gold-white). In these cases, the colour of the individual character was a helpful prompt to how it was pronounced.

(Japanese played havoc with all this: the onyomi readings are rarely the same colours (in my mind) as the pinyin readings, and the kunyomi readings are almost never the same. And there are many more [common] readings per kanji in any case. On the other hand, hiragana and katakana came every naturally because the relationship between the kana and the colours is fixed: ka is green, ki is green-white, ku is green-beige, ko is green-black etc.)

Anyway, the 'non-trivial' Chinese synaesthesia that I had in mind is for synaesthetes who grow up using Chinese characters to systematically assign colours / brightness to components of zi – primarily the radicals, but potentially also the recurring sound elements such as 良 also in 娘 and 養 etc. This would surely make new characters much more memorable for people with this type of synaesthesia. Have you come across this phenomenon, either among native users or students learning Chinese as a second language?

I personally do not recall having this kind of synesthetic reaction to Chinese characters, and probably not to letters of the alphabet either, though I certainly do experience synesthesia from individual words, poetry, prose, music, scenery, clothing textures and colors, painting, statues, etc.  Though I do not experience such reactions from Chinese characters or parts of Chinese characters and not from individual letters of the alphabet, some mystic symbols like Om ॐ do occasion synesthesia for me.

On the other hand, I do feel synesthesia when observing various types of Chinese calligraphy, but that is probably because I consider them more as art than as text.

Nor have I heard of others experiencing such synesthetic sensations from looking at Chinese characters or components of Chinese characters.  You are the first person I have ever encountered who has described this phenomenon to me.

The one research paper on synaesthesia and Chinese characters that I know about is this:

Hung, Wan-Yu, Simner, Julia, Shillcock, Richard and Eagleman, David M (2014) Synaesthesia in Chinese characters: the role of radical function and position. Consciousness and Cognition, 24 (1). pp. 38-48. ISSN 1053-8100

It is available from Sussex Research Online:

Here's the abstract:

Grapheme-colour synaesthetes experience unusual colour percepts when they encounter letters and/or digits. Studies of English-speaking grapheme-colour synaesthetes have shown that synaesthetic colours are sometimes triggered by rule- based linguistic mechanisms (e.g., B might be blue). In contrast, little is known about synaesthesia in logographic languages such as Chinese. The current study shows the mechanisms by which synaesthetic speakers of Chinese colour their language. One hypothesis is that Chinese characters might be coloured by their constituent morphological units, known as radicals, and we tested this by eliciting synaesthetic colours for characters while manipulating features of the radicals within them. We found that both the function (semantic vs. phonetic) and position (left vs. right) of radicals influenced the nature of the synaesthetic colour generated. Our data show that in Chinese, as in English, synaesthetic colours are influenced by systematic rules, rather than by random associations, and that these rules are based on existing psycholinguistic mechanisms of language processing.

Here are the first few sentences of the first paragraph of the Introduction:

Synaesthesia is an inherited condition, in which stimuli are experienced with unusual secondary sensations. For example, synaesthetes might experience colours in addition to sounds when listening to music (Ward, Huckstep, & Tsakanikos, 2006), or they might feel tactile sensations on the hand triggered by the flavours of food in the mouth (Cytowic & Eagleman, 2009). Around 80-90% of known synaesthesias involve colour triggered by language (Simner et al. 2006); for example, in grapheme-colour synaesthesia, sensations of colour are triggered by letters or digits.

And here is the final paragraph of the paper:

In summary, we have shown that the colour of left-right compound characters is significantly closer to certain radical types over others, according to their function and position. Although we found no evidence that competition influenced the colouring of compounds, we did find that compounds were overall darker and more saturated than their constituent radicals. Chinese orthography presents uniquely interesting challenges to psycholinguists wishing to understand the visual, phonological and semantic processing occurring in reading, and the literature ingenious demonstrations of the roles of the different constituents of Chinese orthography. We have shown that synaesthesic data can provide rich, new insights into this issue. Our study provides the first picture of what may be the underlying factors in the synaesthetic colouring of Chinese compound characters.

It will be interesting to see if any Language Log readers experience synesthesia when looking at Chinese characters or character components, or from looking at other types of scripts.


  1. SRP said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 10:39 pm

    I studied arabic for a year, over the course of one summer semester and the two regular semesters. Over that time period, I watched (literally, ha) as my synesthesia gradually attached itself to the arabic characters. For the most part, the characters are the colors of their latin equivalents, e.g. ب is the same blue as b, ج is the same dark red as j. The color for each arabic character clusters around the dot or dots (or little lines, if I'm looking at something handwritten), rather than suffusing the whole character as in english.

    There are some interesting exceptions to this. The arabic ك is purple for k only in its connected forms, e.g. الكتاب. In its standalone and end-position form, ك takes on the colors of its components, the dark teal of ل (L) and the bright yellow of the little s-shape. Of course that s-shape is also used for ي – which should be grey for y, but is primarily yellow for s.

    Finally, the numbers in arabic were a total pain in the derriere. Some matched their latin equivalents: ١ ٢ ٣, for instance. However I started to run into trouble with ٤ ٥ ٧ ٨, which all look similar to english letters and numbers, and tried to take their colors from that. Not good, and hard to explain to a teacher when you keep numbering homework exercises wrong.

  2. anya said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 12:13 am

    Victor, could you please expand on your synaesthesia triggered by Chinese calligraphy?

    G. M. Hopkins concept of inscape may be tangentially connected to Mr. Fransella's question. Unfortunately, Hopkins never defined it (but here's an article:; after reading some of his letters and diaries, I've come to think it must refer to something like the landscape within the boundaries of a word's sensory correlate).

  3. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 5:41 am

    This reminds me an observation by Katherine Ye (cf ), that basically a writing system is nothing else than organized synaesthesia. It might explain why synaesthesia is most common with written characters.

  4. Joke said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 7:50 am

    When I started learning Cyrillic, I noticed that the letter я, that had the same brown colour as R before I knew Russian, changed its colour to the pink associated with A when I learned its correct pronunciation (ya).
    Now I'm learning the Arabic script. I don't really see the colours for Arabic letters yet, only after I figure out their equivalent in the Latin alphabet. I wonder if that will change when I learn them better.
    Btw, I don't really experience colours for letters that don't have a clear Latin counterpart, like ж or ч.

    I never studied enough Chinese to experience character synaestesia, but pin yin colours naturally, as it uses the letters I know.

  5. E.T. said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 9:48 am

    I don't believe I experience this phenomenon in general, but the tone-based character coloring in Pleco has certainly made me associate certain tones with certain colors, also outside of the context of the dictionary.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 10:23 am


    The quality of certain calligraphic strokes (and the whole characters they compose) may make me feel the same sort of sensations that I experience when watching dance movements. Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theater has capitalized on this kind of synesthesia by blending the two art forms together.

  7. Ray said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 11:00 am

    I totally have synesthesia, for letters, numerals, and words. but I also have definite "spatial" associations — the positions of the letters of the alphabet, and the numerals in our number system, are fixed in my mind's eye along clear linear paths that zig-zag right and left, ascend and descend up and down, and I can mentally turn these winding structures around and around any way I want, to view them from different angles.

    I had never considered synesthesia in terms of calligraphic characters, which is pretty awesome to consider, but I now wonder if anyone has experienced fixed spatial mental pictures for these characters, either as isolated strokes or combinations of strokes.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

    Frédéric Grosshans: This reminds me an observation by Katherine Ye (cf ), that basically a writing system is nothing else than organized synaesthesia.

    Katharine Ye credits the comment to the physicist Frank Wilczek. I must say my experience of synesthesia is very different from my experience of reading and writing. I do see in my mind's eye, the same place as synesthesia colors, whatever I hear or read about, so in that way all language resembles synesthesia for me.

  9. Craig said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

    I'm curious whether multilingual synesthetes experience the same colors for numbers if they're in another language. For example, is 5 (five) the same color as 5 (fünf) or 5 (cinq) or 5 (五). Is it different for 5 五 (ㄨ) vs. 5 五 (ご)?

  10. Lars (not the regular) said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

    When Mr. Fransella writes that tones make no difference I wonder, is this the case whether tones are represented as diacritics or as numbers?

  11. Lazar said,

    March 11, 2017 @ 6:56 am

    I have weak synesthesia, in that I associate each letter and numeral with a color in my mind's eye, but I don't see those colors on the page or screen when reading things. For non-Latin scripts, I only get it insofar as their letters resemble Latin ones – though maybe I'll make new associations if I engage with them more.

    And for me, words follow a strict first-letter rule: antidisestablishmentarianism is red because a is red.

  12. Debra MacLaughlan Dumes said,

    March 11, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

    I have synesthesia that's stronger for colors than for letters, but English text still includes color assignments. I can read Russian but the Cyrillic letters are not as vividly colored as in English. I also studied classical Greek, Middle and Late Egyptian (hieroglyphs and cursive hieratic), and Coptic. None of the ancient letter forms have any color, not even in transliteration. Not sure what to make of this.

  13. Debra MacLaughlan Dumes said,

    March 11, 2017 @ 3:34 pm

    Sorry, I should have said "stronger for numbers rather than letters." Makes more sense this way.

  14. Sally said,

    March 12, 2017 @ 1:52 am

    I'm bilingual in English and Chinese and, like Ray, I have an internal spatial "maps" of things like the English alphabet, the days of the week, the days and months of the year, and a numeric staircase. Sadly, this has never applied to Chinese characters or served in defense of character amnesia (alas).

    I will say that I do have a preference for characters with strokes that bisect other strokes. I find pleasure in writing characters like 找 and the top half of 春. But a character like 蓝,where most of the strokes meet at the end (if at all), feels … aggravating.

  15. Stephen Politzer-Ahles said,

    March 13, 2017 @ 5:29 am

    Mok et al. (2015, ICPhS Proceedings)

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