Hieroglyphics Pictures of nature found on ceramics dating from this period. River is three wavy

~ 5000 B.C. lines; horse has mane and four legs. These pictures would later be a basis for the construction of more complex ideas. In fact, many modern characters still resemble their ancestral forms, thereby connecting China's present to its past.


Preclassical Oracle bone divination introduced. Tortoise shells and oxen shoulder blades are

1500 to 500 B.C. engraved with important questions and their possible answers. Bones then heated by fire, and predictions made based on crack patterns. Divination process elevates Chinese characters and calligraphy to sacred status. Any paper with writing on it was not thrown away, but burned in a Pagoda of Compassionating the Characters.


Classical Transition from pictures to stylized symbols. Introduction of radicals to categorize words by

Bronze Age to Han pronunciation and/or meaning. Monosyllabic language becomes polysyllabic.


Postclassical Six Kinds of Characters * 90% of modern Chinese is meaning-sound compounds

200 AD to Present

Pictographs horse , pity dio, shoot sh , omen zhăo

Symbols up shng, down xi , one , sān , center zhōng

Sound-loans scorpion ten-thousand wn

Meaning-sound* (fish, yǚ) + (to wrap, bāo) = (salted fish, bo)

(words, yn) + (green/blue, qīng) = (invite, qĭng)

(reach, zh) + (knife, dāo) = (to arrive, do)

Meaning-meaning (sheep, yng) + (big, d) = (beautiful mĕi)

(grain, h) + (fire, hu) = (autumn, qiū)

(stand, l) + (woman, nǚ) = (concubine, qi)

mouth + earth + lance + surround = nation gu

More super neat ideograms: good, hurry, sleep, tired, east, lake

Reclarified (tng, front yard) (tng, kings front yard)

(old scorpion char.) (chi, with bug radical)





Simplification: There are about thirteen very different Chinese dialects. If a speaker of one dialect were to write a sentence, a speaker of any other dialect will immediately understand it. Yet if the two tried to communicate orally, they wouldn't understand a thing! (So the Chinese writing system actually allows you to communicate simultaneously in 13 different languages!) To eliminate such illiteracy, a reform movement arose during the early 20th century, resulting in simplified characters, Pinyin, and the adoption of the Beijing dialect as a pronunciation standard.


Influence on Western Thinking: The poetic elegance of Chinese ideograms has inspired many great Western thinkers, from Eisenstein on montage to Leibniz on Calculus. (Leibniz developed much math notation, such as d/dx.) Also, after WWII, there was a proposal to have traffic signs worldwide prepared like Chinese. We can see this effect today everywhere: railroad crossing, men working, loose gravel, slippery when wet, danger of falling rocks. Computer icons are also a modern form of ideography.


William Wu, Hong Yi Cheng / 20 February 2002 / Chinese 1B Section 4



Chinese Pictograms



Aria, Barbara. The Nature of the Chinese Character. New York: Simon, 1991.

Hu, Jixuan; Pangaro, Paul, and Xiaoyun Sun. How Do We Mean? Online. Internet. Pangaro Inc..


Mandarin Profile. Online. Internet. UCLA Language Materials Project. http://www.lmp.ucla.edu/profiles/profm02.htm

The Written Language. May 2001. Online. Internet. The Republic of China Yearbook 2001.


Ying, Li, and William McNaughton. Reading and Writing Chinese. Boston: Turtle, 1999.


For more neat ideograms and etymology, check out http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~wwu/chinese/intro.shtml


William Wu, Hong Yi Cheng / 20 February 2002 / Chinese 1B Section 4