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Chinese Characters: More than Pictographs

In the history of human civilizations, writing itself has inarguably been one of the most important technologies in society. Around the globe and throughout history, scholars now believe that systems of writing have been independently invented at least four times: in ancient Sumer sometime between 3400 to 3100 BCE, in Egypt around 3250 to 3200 BCE, in China around 1500 to 1200 BCE, and in Mesoamerica around 900-300 BCE (Clayton, 2019; Fagan, 1996).

Figure 1: Chinese characters.

However, among these examples of the invention of writing, the Chinese writing system is distinctive for both its longevity and the continued use of a logographic writing system as opposed to the phonographic writing systems, such as alphabets, used by the majority of modern languages today. Due to the uniqueness of the Chinese writing system, it is a common misconception that Chinese characters are pictographs or ideographs, but this is very far from true. Chinese writing is not made up of pictorial symbols or graphs that represent ideas; rather, Chinese characters represent words in the Chinese language and a knowledge of Chinese is necessary to read and understand them.

Figure 2: Relics in Yin Ruins Museum of Anyang.

To begin with, the earliest known examples of Chinese writing were discovered in northern China and date back to about 1200 BCE, during the latter part of the Shang Dynasty. These earliest examples were a part of divination rituals that involved inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells, giving them the name ‘oracle bone script’ or jiaguwen (Chen, 2007). Inscriptions on bronze artifacts, ‘bronze script’ or jinwen, also date from the same period (Houston, 2008; Norman, 2012). In addition to other regional and dialectal variations, the Shang Dynasty jinwen later developed into the succeeding Zhou Dynasty jinwen, which eventually gave way to the ‘seal script’ (zhuanshu), a standardized script imposed and popularized by Qin Shihuang, the emperor who reunified China in 221 BCE after a period of war. During the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) and Han Dynasty (207 BCE-220 CE), a secondary script known as ‘clerical script’ (lishu) developed. The classical clerical script of the Han Dynasty, which later became the standard script, was already very closely related to the later ‘standard script’ (kaishu) which is still used today (Norman, 2012).

Figure 3: Development of Chinese characters.

It is important to note that the oracle bone and bronze scripts of the late Shang Dynasty were already a fully developed writing system capable of conveying and recording complex ideas, which means the earliest stages of Chinese writing are not known (Houston, 2008). Despite the lack of archeological evidence of Chinese writing before 1200 BCE, analyzing the oracle bone and bronze scripts help to explain, in part, how the Chinese writing system developed. In fact, by the second century CE, ancient Chinese scholars were already cataloging their writing system. Around the beginning of the second century, Han Dynasty scholar Xu Shen published Shuowen jiezi, a dictionary, and an analysis of Chinese characters that sought to identify and catalog the Chinese writing system.

Many of Xu Shen’s classifications of characters are still used by modern linguists. For example, he began by separating characters into two broad categories: wen, or simple graphs, and zi, or the more complex composite graphs (It is interesting to note that in today’s Modern Standard Chinese, wenzi is one word that means ‘writing’). Xu Shen further divided his categories: the wen characters were divided into xiangxing, characters that were pictographic in origin, and zhishi, characters based on graphs that represented abstract ideas. Characters such as yue (月), and ‘moon’, are included among xiangxing, while characters like Shang (上), ‘up’, and Xia (下), ‘down’, are zhishi (Norman, 2012; Chen, 2008).

The second broad category identified by Xu Shen, zi or composite graphs, make up the majority of Chinese characters. These characters were further organized into the three major groups of huiyi, jiajie, and xingsheng characters. Huiyi (joined meaning) characters combine graphic components with two different meanings to create a new meaning. For example, the xiangxing-style character ren (人) means ‘person’ while the huiyi character cong (从) resembles two people together and means ‘follow’ (Chen, 2007). Jiajie or ‘loan’ characters are phonetic representations of words based on borrowing the graph of a homophone. One of the best examples of a jiajie character is the word for ‘come,’ pronounced lai, which was an ancient homophone with the word for ‘wheat.’ The lai character for “wheat” (来) was therefore used to represent the more abstract but important word ‘come,’ to the extent that the original use of 来for ‘wheat’ disappeared (Norman, 2012). In modern Chinese, ‘wheat’ now uses a different character (麦), while the word ‘come’ still retains the use of the ancient wheat graph (来).

This type of phonetic borrowing was also used in the other ancient writing systems, and in each of them, the rise of phonetic borrowing led to a need for further clarification about the meaning of a written graph. Added markers were then developed to help readers determine how a graph was meant to be interpreted. Evidence of this process of clarification can be found in the ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Mesoamerican/Mayan scripts (Chen, 2007). In Sumerian and Egyptian scripts, these added semantic or phonetic markers, or determinatives, were separate signs written before or after the graph they modified with no individual meaning; this eventually led to more phonetic systems of writing. In contrast, the semantic or phonetic determinatives in Chinese writing were incorporated into the original graph and used to create an entirely new character; Chinese linguist Ping Chen suggests that the creation of new characters highlights an emphasis on clarity over the economy of symbols, as well as a preference for a particular aesthetic (Chen, 2007). These new creations became xingsheng characters, which contain a semantic component and a phonetic component. An example of a xingsheng character identified by Xu Shen is the word for ‘river’ he (河), which contains an element for ‘water’ on the left, and a phonetic element that suggests a different pronunciation on the right (Norman, 2012).

Despite this combination of semantic and phonetic parts to create new xingsheng characters, these still are not pictographs or ideographs as a knowledge of the Chinese language is still required to read them. Additionally, the phonetic components of characters do not necessarily correlate with any specific pronunciation and are instead a means of visual differentiation which hint at or remind the reader of the intended pronunciation.

The history of writing is intriguing and complex, and the history of Chinese characters is no less so. Though other cultural and linguistic factors also contributed to the continued use of a logographic writing system in Chinese, it is clear that Chinese characters are far more complex than a series of pictographs and ideographs. The combination of semantic and phonetic components in Chinese characters has allowed the creation of an incredibly diverse and rich written language that has enjoyed continued use for over three millennia. Meanwhile, the relationship between the Chinese writing system and the various dialects of spoken Chinese is yet another fascinating and multifaceted topic apt for much deeper investigation and discussion.


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Mary Behan

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