Abbreviated and nonstandard kanji

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From Nathan Hopson:

I have been reading some handwritten documents from the 1960s and 1970s, and have been reminded that even beyond abbreviations, there were still "nonstandard" kanji in use. I guess this took me off guard mostly because these are school publications.

On the abbreviated side, the most obvious example is:

第 → 㐧

The "nonstandard" kanji that interested me most were these two:
1. 管 → 官 part written as 友+、


2. 食缶 as a single character, but paired with 食 to be 食[食缶]


Neither of these kanji appear in Unicode as far as I can tell, which is interesting.

Is there a similar situation in Chinese?

When I was on expeditions to Eastern Central Asia (ECA, aka Xinjiang), I often encountered such nonstandard writings.  Two very common ones were:

Xīnjiāng 新江 for 新疆 (the name of the province)

wǔdǎo 午蹈 for 舞蹈 ("dance")

From the beginning of the Chinese script till today, there have always been alternate and variant writings of the Chinese characters.  I will mention just a few:

Mawangdui manuscripts (and other archeologically recovered texts from the early Han and Warring States periods), where we find many characters, including dào 道 and dé 德 ("the Way" and "integrity; virtue"), written in diverse ways).

Dunhuang manuscripts, from the medieval period, which we've talked about many times on Language Log, are full of such nonstandard characters.  You can find massive documentation of them by looking under works like Dūnhuáng súzì pǔ 敦煌俗字譜 (repertoire of Dunhuang popular characters).

Lexical works such as Lóngkān shǒujiàn 龍龕手鑒 ("The Handy Mirror in the Dragon Niche"; 997 AD), which are full of thousands of such unusual forms of characters, many of which are known to have occurred only once in history.

See the numerous Language Log posts that document Chinese restaurant shorthand.


And how many different ways was Shakespeare's name written?


Selected readings


  1. Adam said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 9:36 am

    There is something in Chinese classroom that might be relevant: When I was in middle school, since we had to take a ton of notes in art classes (politics and history in particular), most of the time, the students would use some nonstandard abbreviations for our notes. For instance, 中国特色社会主义 is written as one character with 中 on the top and 义 at the bottom. Similarly, 资本主义 might be written as 次 on the top and 义 at the bottom; 社会主义 might be written as 礻 + 义. None of these "characters" are in Unicode as far as I can tell. But they are somehow comprehensible among students.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 11:00 am


    Thanks very much for bringing up your experience with classroom usage.

    In "Polysyllabic characters revisited" (6/18/15) and in the comments thereto, there are many more such polysyllabic characters mentioned and discussed. Many of the comments are excellent and very helpful, especially those by Eidolon and leoboiko (including a number of Japanese examples). A few of the comments are tendentious and trollish, but you can simply ignore them.

    During the Yan'an Period (1935-1947) and the early part of the PRC, such characters were quite numerous, appearing in newspapers and magazines.

    In this post, I mention the characters for "library", "socialism", "kilowatt", etc., some of which were preserved in dictionaries, even into the 80s and 90s (I didn't pay attention to them after that). I also cite an extremely abbreviated character for "bodhisattva" which was very common at Dunhuang during the Tang period.

  3. Chris Button said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 11:05 pm

    Given that the topic has moved on from polymorphic to polysyllabic characters, it might be worth also mentioning polyphonic characters as a third category,.

    As with polymorphic and polysyllabic characters, they too go all the way back to the oracle bones (e.g. 西/甾 came up on Llog recently). It seems to be isolated instances (I don’t think the Boodberg/Boltz idea that entire phonetic series could come out of them is at all tenable), but they did exist—however haphazardly.

    Lots of flexibility in the script!

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 18, 2023 @ 1:33 pm

    re: (1), what is "食器保管機"? A kitchen cabinet? :D and several of these characters are funky…

    concerning nonstandard orthographic variants in Chinese, which should be distinguished from homophonic replacement (like using the character for jiang1 'river' 江 to write jiang1 'border region' 疆 and countless others), yeah tons and one can now check e.g. the (Taiwan) M.O.E.'s Yitizi Zidian 異體字字典 online — where the character "管" is associated with ten "variant forms" (a totally normal amount); one of those shown kinda looks like the kanji above but in this case no page image is available so hard to say.

    re: (2), the left-hand piece of the character doesn't look like "食" at least in this image, but it's pretty inscrutable…

    More generally, don't remember the comments in the "Polysyllabic characters" thread… it is definitely constructive to reserve the word "characters" insofar as possible for written elements and talk about such cases rather as instances of characters used to represent multisyllabic words, phrases or what have you. This is tendentious-seeming from a traditionalist POV ("we all know what we are talking about," etc.), but achieves "名正言順" wrt writing system vs. language.

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