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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Art >> Chinese Writing

Chinese Writing Characteristics

By: R Wang

Over the years, Chinese were evolved and developed in the following different ways:


The original written format were found on the markings scratched onto tortoise shells and animal bones, the so-called "oracle bones". These ancient writings were pictures or Pictographs.

Many people tend to think that Chinese characters are all pictographs. Actually, pictographic characters are only one kind of Chinese character, there are only about 600 pictograph characters.

Pictographic Chinese characters are pictures of concrete objects, they are the basic units for forming other Chinese characters.

These are a few examples showing the pictographic characters:

山 Mountain ; 羊 sheep ; 月 moon


As time went on and people needed to express more complex ideas or concepts, pictographs were extended or combined to form ideographs. Ideographs are graphical representations of abstract ideas.

For example:

a sun 日 and a moon 月 together means 'bright' 明

a woman 女 and with a child 子 beside means 'good' 好

The single character ? stands for a tree, two trees together ? refers to a group of trees-grove the character made up of three trees ? means a place full of trees - a forest Phonetic-Semantic Compounds

Over 90% of current Chinese characters are semantic-phonetic compounds.

There are many objects, abstract and ideas that are difficult to express through Pictographs or Ideographs.

For example, 鸟 is the general term for birds, but there are thousands of types of birds in the world, and it is impossible to differentiate each of them by way of pictography or ideography. But this is easily achieved in phonetic-semantic compounds by adding different phonetics to the radical 鸟, e.g. 鸽 ( pigeon ), 鹊 ( crane ), 鸡 ( chicken ) or 鹅 ( goose ).

A phonetic compound consists of a semantic radical and a phonetic radical, the semantic radical indicates its semantic field and the phonetic radical its pronunciation.

The meaning component of the semantic-phonetic compound Chinese character is also called the 'radical'. For example, ' 足 ' is a popular Chinese radical that means 'foot'. The meanings of those characters that contain this radical are related to 'foot' in a certain way.

The phonetic component indicates at least part of the sound. Characters that contain the same phonetic component tend to have similar sounds.

For example, for the character ' 跳' ( jump ), the right part ' 兆' indicates the sound. They share the same vowel.

Phonetic Loans

The phonetic loan is another way of using existing characters. It is an internal borrowing on the basis of pronunciation: a character is used in a new meaning which is expressed by a similar sound in the spoken form. In this way an existing character has acquired a new meaning, but no new character is created.

For example, the character自in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions was originally pictograph and referred to the nose, but it is now used in the sense of "self" as a result of phonetic loan. The character 来 in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions was also a pictograph, referring to the wheat, but is now used in the sense of "come" as a phonetic loan.

About the Author

The goal of Learn Chinese Language Online (LCLO) is to reduce the Mandarin Learning curve, promote and introduce the most efficient way to grasp the broad foundation of Chinese language.