Unit 2: Getting to know the basic types of Chinese characters

A Pre-class Mini Game

In the following, there will be showing four pictures of the Hieroglyphic Chinese Characters which were created and used by ancient Chinese people, carefully look at them, related the prior knowledge to how Chinese Characters first come into being, and then guess the meaning of each Hieroglypic Character.

日.gif 月.gif 云.gif 雨.gif

You can go back to Unit 1 to review the development of the Chinese Characters' procedure, and then put down your answers with the number 1 through 4 in the discussion space

And Now look at the chart which shows the correct meaning of those four characters and the detailed process of how each of them has evolved over the past thousands of years.


Pictographic Chinese Characters

As the name of Pictogram Chinese Characters indicate, that those characters are originally used and created by ancient Chinese people who did not have the concepts of writing system at that time therefore they used simple picture-like labels as the indications of the meaning of concrete objects. Although pictograms occupy only a small portion of the Chinese characters, they are of the significant importance of being the basic foundation of the series of later evolvement and development of Chinese characters.

The modern Chinese characters have already been standardized, simplified and stylized to make them easier for read and write, therefore you can see that there might be very big difference between the root label and the current character, however, if you know clearly about how they have been changed during thousands of years, it is not only interesting to see their changing through time but also easier to remember their meanings.

Now let us look at these two original pictographic examples first:

川1.gif 鸟1.gif

It is not hard to see that the first pictograph has the meaning of a winding and floating river, while the second one indicates a bird. And with the basic understanding of the original meaning, now let us see the main changes had happened to those two characters in order to get a whole detailed concept of their evolvement through time.

  • 川1.gifArrow.jpg川3.gifArrow.jpg川4.gif

Oracle Bone Script ——----------------—→ Seal Script ——---------------------—→Clerical Script

  • 鸟1.gifArrow.jpg鸟2.gifArrow.jpg鸟3.gif

Oracle Bone Script ——----------------—→ Seal Script ——---------------------—→Clerical Script

(The last one is basically what it looks like nowadays in Modern Chinese.)

From the two different examples which are both belong to pictographic characters we can see that, 川’s form almost remains the same, while 鸟’s form is changed a lot at the different period.

Do It Yourself Time


Traditionally, learning how to write Chinese characters are nothing but to repeatly practicing them by writing them on draft sheets, however, now in this section, I want all of you to discover as much pictographic Chinese characters as possible, the first few examples and related webpages which you can use to find out a lot of information will be provided below, you will need to list their pinyin (the pronunciation of a Chinese character) and the meaning of a particular character first, and then post the different forms which had major changes through time, DO NOT post the repeated one, but you can definitely correct the mistakes if there is anything wrong with the existing ones.

The useful websites:

Online English Chinese Dictionary
Chinese Dictionary (You can mainly find the pictures of characters at different times on this website.)
Basic Chinese Characters' Pronunciation and Strokes Order

By all the related resources you have got, now start to explore more and post your findings in the section DIY Time for Pictographic Characters

Ideographic Chinese Characters

Ideographic characters are formed based on pictographic Chinese characters, they are also called simple indicatives or simple ideographs, these characters either modify existing pictographs iconically, or are direct iconic illustrations., which in other words means something cannot be simply described by a concrete object but need to have some indication. I will list two different kinds of ideographic Chinese characters here, one type of them is completely indication, and another type need to combine pictographic Chinese characters at the same time to make a new meaning:

  • 上1.gifArrow.jpg上2.gifArrow.jpg上3.gif

Oracle Bone Script ——----------------—→ Seal Script ——---------------------—→Clerical Scrip

Is there any concrete objects we can use to describe the meaning of “above, beyond, or higher”? No, this is a ideological concepts which we need to use more complicated signs to describe it. Therefore, the ancient Chinese people came up with the idea that put down a short dot above a comparatively longer line to indicate the meaning of being above, beyond or higher than some other stuff.

Before we view the second example, we need to know its radical part which is a pictographic character at first:


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——--------------------—→Clerical Scrip

The original one looks like a Chinese traditional sword or knife, which is long and usually carried by tying it beside one's waist. So what if we add a small dot on it, what does it mean then?


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——--------------------—→Clerical Scrip

Do you get the meaning of this one? Right! It means the edge of any sharp stuff, sword or knife, particularly indicates knife, because this character comes into being based on the character 刀.

Do It Yourself Time


You will find a lot of very interesting ideogrammatic Chinese characters and how amazing they are of being contained the indication by combining different radicals together.
Please continue using the webpage resources you used to use in the previous section, you will still need to have the detailed information of each character you find, i.e. pronunciation, strokes order, meaning and forms in different stages, at last put your findings in the DIY Time for Ideographic Chinese Characters

Ideogrammic Compound Chinese Characters

Similar to ideographic characters, ideogrammic compounds are also formed based on the basic pictographic characters, they can be Translated literally as logical aggregates or associative compounds, these characters symbolically combine pictograms or ideograms to create a third character. Why do we use “a third character” here? Because the name of this type of characters indicates that they are the combination of at least two different other independent characters, which means even a ideogrammic character is divided into parts, each part will still be a complete character, and this is the difference from the ideographic characters.

  • Now let us see two pictographic characters first:


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——-------------------—→Clerical Scrip


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——-------------------—→Clerical Scrip

These are too very simple pictographic characters, the first one means people or person (there are no plura form in Chinese.), and the second one means wood, and now let us see what happened when they were put together:


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——-------------------—→Clerical Scrip

So what does it mean by a person leaning against a wood? Right! The answer is to have a rest.

  • Are you ready for a more interesting thing? Do you want to know what happen when each of them are put together with oneself?


Seal Script ——---------------------—→Clerical Scrip

Two people stay together? What does it mean? It means "to follow".


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——-------------------—→Clerical Scrip


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——-------------------—→Clerical Scrip

More and more woods together? The first 林 means usually a small forest, and the second 森 means a very big forest where full of trees.

Do It Yourself Time

Direction: So far you've known more and more different types of Chinese characters, use as many prior knowledge you have as possible, also never forget to use the online resources, and you will still need to have the detailed information of each character you find, i.e. pronunciation, strokes order, meaning and forms in different stages, at last put your findings in the DIY Time for Ideogrammatic Compond Chinese Characters.

Phono-Semanic Compond Chinese Characters

In modern Chinese characters, phono-sementic compounds characters occupy the biggest portion among all, they can also be called semantic-phonetic compounds or pictophonetic compounds. As those names indicate, we know that these characters are mostly composed of two parts: one part represents the general meaning of a character and this part is usually a pictographic character, another part is an existing character pronounced approximately as the new target character.

Let us have a pictographic character as one part first:


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——-------------------—→Clerical Scrip

This character means water from ancient time until now.


Oracle Bone Script ——-------------—→ Seal Script ——-------------------—→Clerical Scrip

The other part "可" pronounces like "ke", and by putting "水" as another part indicating that the character has a semantic connection with wate, a new word which means "a small river" came into being with the pronunciation of "he" which sounds like the "可" part.

PAY ATTENTION here that always remember this type of character are consist of two part, only one part contains the meaning, and another part merely suggests the pronunciation.

Do It Yourself Time


  • Because the numorous amount of this type of Characters, and a lot of them have lost their original meanings and sounds after thousands of years, therefore you do not need to list as many examples as you have done in the previous sections. And continue using the webpage resources you used to use in the previous section, you will still need to have the detailed information of each character you find, i.e. pronunciation, strokes order, meaning and forms in different stages, at last put your findings in the DIY Time for Phono-semantic Compond Chinese Characters.

Unit 3: Major Difficulties in Writing Chinese Characters