Abstract: Portmanteau here refers to an unusual type of Chinese character: a composite of two or more graphs for living words, all of which are to be read (in order) to give the meaning of the word represented by the whole character. It is something different from the conventional notion of the “ideograph” or huìyìzì 會意字, the juxtaposition of graphs representing ideas or objects that contribute abstractly to the overall meaning of the word represented. I have shown elsewhere that characters are read through a process of recognition rather than decipherment, arguing that “complex pictograph” is a better description of the “motivation” (basis of character structure) of many graphs traditionally considered huìyì (Branner 2009). But the portmanteau is a different case. Its components are not abstract; understanding its structure depends on actually reading these components as connected words to form a phrase that defines or denotes the word.
This paper reviews a number of portmanteaux in current use and considers their place in Chinese grammatology. Such characters are of course part of the history of cursive Chinese and seem to have begun to be discussed rather late in the received history of Chinese writing, around the sixth century c.e.; it is doubtful that they could be strictly the same as the huìyì mentioned in the first-century Shuōwén jiězì 說文解字.
In terms of their structure and their relationship to oral words, portmanteaux embody a conception different from most mainstream characters. Their construction is more self-conscious than other character-types, which suggests that they are a later development. Their relationship to oral words is tenuous and tends to change frequently.
[“Portmanteau Characters in Chinese. ” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 131.1: 173–82.]
[“Portmanteau Characters in Chinese. ” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 131.1: 173–82.]: http://brannerchinese.com/publications/Branner_Portmanteau_Characters_in_Chinese.pdf