The infinitude of Chinese characters

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In response to the previous post, "More completely new sinographs from Hong Kong" (9/8/20), John Rohsenow remarks:

I can see that it would be easy to use these "new" characters on hand-written posters, but how does one do it on line, or in printed form?

One would have to "zao zi", (Lit. 'construct [a] character') out of various component parts, which is doable, but not convenient.

You could create an infinite number of new polysyllabic characters like these and indeed of new monosyllabic characters, but — especially out of context — one could seldom be absolutely certain what they mean, nor how they are to be pronounced.

Fortunately, nearly all of these newly invented characters are strictly one-offs.


Selected readings


  1. cameron said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 10:01 am

    Aside from how they would be interpreted, established characters have input means. They exists in various fonts that can be rendered online by browsers and other apps, and generally treated as text.

    Such novel characters would have to be drawn with graphics software, and included in posts or other media as images, which of course is the point – text scanning bots looking for seditious content wouldn't recognize them as having any content unless reprogrammed to do so.

  2. Keith said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 11:30 am

    Characters like the first of those mentioned in the previous post ("right side of both constituent characters of zhènjìng 鎮靜") could be formed if the Unicode standard had half-width characters with those right-hand constituents, I would think.

    So a half-width 真 plus a half-width 爭 would give "真爭" fitting into the same space as a normal-width character.

  3. John Rohsenow said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 3:00 pm

    Thanks, Keith, that's what I meant. My original comment about 'zao zi'
    was only about 'physically' creating such characters, not about their
    polysyllabicity (??). THAT has long been the subject of what one might call 'character riddles'(字谜 zi4mi2), which Chinese sometimes do for amusement. The example Y R Chao used to give was the (old-style) character for "book' 書 (shu1) inside the rectangular "enclosure' radical 囗 (wei2- sometimes called the '國字框' or "enclosure as in the character guo2 for 'country'"), which was to be read as the 3 syllable compound
    圖書館 (tu2shu1guan3, 'library'), a kind of visual joke. (I have never seen this done with the simplified character for 'book' 书 inside the enclosure, but I/m sure it could and probably has been done.)
    (PS: btw, it is because I don't know how to zao zi myself that I have only described that made-up character, and not shown it here. Perhaps someone more technically sophisticated can do it for me? Thanks!)

  4. John Rohsenow said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 3:10 pm

    PS: This also now reminds me of the artist XU Bing's "BOOK OF THE SKY"
    天書, of which I am sure Victor has written on LL somewhere, in which Xu created hundreds (?) of Chinese looking characters with no meanings. To my knowledge, he did them all my hand, either on paper or by carving wood blocks, as the Chinese did when they first invented movable type. I doubt he could have done it for most of them using the
    computer zao zi features Keith describes above. (See:

  5. ~flow said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 4:52 pm

    @Keith the attempt to provide a compositional method of Chinese characters in printing has a history that spans centuries, first in lead, now in the digital. None of the attempts have brought fourth a practical and aesthetically pleasing solution I'm afraid.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 9:21 pm

    @John Rohsenow

    Xu Bing is mentioned in the second and last of the "Selected readings". I know Xu Bing personally and have visited him at his studio in New York, at shows in Washington DC and Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

    That trisylllabic charcter for "library" may be found in these three places:

    "Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing" (8/2/11)

    "Polysyllabic characters revisited" (6/18/15)

  7. Tom Bishop said,

    September 10, 2020 @ 11:54 am

    The system used for describing and displaying novel sinographs in the ABC Dictionary Series is Wenlin Character Description Language (CDL) — see,, and

    Also see when you have use for an infinitude of character code points.

  8. Chas Belov said,

    September 10, 2020 @ 10:17 pm

    @Victor Mair: I saw Xu Bing's Book of the Sky exhibition at the Asian Art Museum years ago, when it was still in Golden Gate Park, and loved it! Even though my written Chinese at the time (and to this day) is practically nonexistent, perhaps 300 characters at my peak, I was fascinated by the walls and walls displaying these made-up characters.

    @Keith: Alas, that would only help with left-right characters. We would also need half-height characters and a stacked join.

  9. william holmes said,

    September 11, 2020 @ 9:17 am

    In Chapter Seven ("Men of Sodom") of his Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Jonathan Spence discusses then-current homosexual practices at some length, and — referring to Fujian — writes: "The locals had even created a special ideograph to express the closeness and sexual ambiguity of these [same sex] unions, substituting the component meaning 'female' for the component meaning 'physical strength' that was conventionally used in the ideograph for 'male'".
    Has this Ming era character survived, or been brought back, I wonder.

  10. ohwilleke said,

    September 11, 2020 @ 7:27 pm

    The popular culture reference that comes to mind in the character Clary, in the Mortal Instruments series of contemporary fantasy books by Cassandra Claire (e.g. City of Bones). in which characters similar to Chinese characters that are part of the language of Angels hold magical power. The character Clary is unique and powerful because she is the only person still living who has mastered the art of creating novel characters never before used in logogram based script.

    Somehow, creating a new Chinese character seems just as epic and far more formidable than merely coining a new word in spoken language, perhaps simply because I can relate more to verbal innovation than visual innovation, even though even in my own language people do create no logogram symbols with novel meanings now and then, like the symbols for biohazards and for nuclear waste, trademarks and logos, and icons in computer interfaces that don't seem nearly so epic and monumental.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    September 17, 2020 @ 2:11 am

    Try as I might, Ohwilleke, I cannot resolve in my own mind what I think are two completely different usages of the word "character" in your opening paragraph. Am I right in thinking that you are using "character" (a) to denote a rôle, and (b) to denote an ideograph, and that "Clary" is the former while what she has mastered is the art of creating the latter ?

  12. Chas Belov said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 6:34 pm

    Haven't personally encountered "bog standard" or "box standard" before this post. Google ngrams of both shows "box standard" as being around since the 1880's but never majorly catching on, with "bog standard" showing up around 1970 and taking off, at least compared to "box standard" around 1980.

    My totally uneducated guess would be that "bog standard" is an eggcorn of "box standard."

  13. Chas Belov said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 6:35 pm


  14. Chas Belov said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 6:40 pm

    In the list of the top 1000, I got somewhere around 80. The count is approximate, as I probably double-counted items where the same character occurs multiple times in the list with different usages. I recognized a bunch more that I used to know, and even more that I recognized as having seen before even if I didn't know what they meant. At my peak of Chinese study, about 30 years ago, I probably knew 300 ji and not that many more ci.

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