Self Explanatory Chinese Characters (Indicative Characters) 指事字

To my surprise, there does not seem to be a comprehensive list of indicative characters on the internet. Indicative characters are more often called self explanatory characters in English but in Chinese are called indicative characters (指事字). We may also rightly call them ideograms. Indicative characters are abstract symbols, sometimes derived from pictograms, to express an abstract concept graphically. So for example an arrow, a dot. Most numbers are indicative characters because they are an abstract concept. Some of the indicative characters are inversions of other characters. They are self evident. The dots tend to be used to call attention to a particular aspect of a pictogram. Like pictograms, ideograms generally do not have a phonetic clue as to their pronunciation, though some do. Some ideograms are quite abstract others are referenced to pictograms. They are symbols, abstract expressions of an idea graphically represented.

一 one

七 seven

三 three

上 up

下 down

世 world (three generations of ten years each)

中 middle

之 possessive particle

乏 deficiency

九 9

二 2

于 at

五 five

亦 also

八 8

公 public

凶 pit trap disaster

刁diao knife in the mouth as symbol of the idea of wicked

xi a fledgling bird’s wing as a symbol of revision

刃ren4 edge of a blade

勺shao spoon dot is the depression for the food


千 1000

升 rise

叉 fork. dot is the food on it

只 only dots of speech from the mouth

员 employee

四 4

夏 summer (hundreds of people walking about)

太 too much (too big too heavy)

孔 kong

寸 cun inch

小 xiao small 3 dots of sand grains as symbol of small

尤 excellent outstanding; a lame man with an accentuated particularity (he was wounded in war)

尺 one foot long

屯 village, troop outpost; originally a sprout.

左left (work tool in left hand)

幻 huan fantasy

廷ting2 palace courtyard

旦 dan dawn

曰 yue tongue

末 mo tip (of a tree)

本 ben root (tree root)

朱 zhu red bark cambium of a tree, spiral rings of a tree; scarlet, ring.

氐di foundation (the roof of a clan is its foundation)

爻 trigram markings,

牟mou moo

牵qian to pull an animal on a tether, to lead along, to hold hands

犮right (two right hands of two people shaking hands, two hands clasping each other)

甘 gan sweet (sweet food on the tongue)

示 shi vision alter as a symbol of the idea of a divine vision of the divine; two+small=divine visions

臣chen government  minister (ju giant is a component of it; ministers are big and powerful people)

逆 ni contrary opposite backwards. inverted da big as symbol of retreat, backwards, going back.

凹 ao concave

凸 tu convex

习 xi wing of a fledgeling bird as symbol of the idea of revision, review, study

少 few xiao+negation stroke? not small, but few.夕 xi evening star venus or moon as symbol of evening

士 shi master

灭mie disaster


This list is definitely not complete.

The shou wen jiezi claims there are only about 150 indicative characters.