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Chinese Symbols - Pictures or Letters?

Pictographic symbols in Chinese writing


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Chinese symbols - Writing represents spoken language. Spoken language consists of sounds, while writing is a string of symbols representing those sounds. In Chinese, each symbol stands for an entire word, unlike in alphabetic scripts where a sequence of individual letters signifies the word. This means that, more or less, every word in the Chinese language is written with a different symbol.

The earliest symbols in the development of Chinese writing were pictographic, that is they graphically depicted certain objects. The symbol for the word "dog" was a picture of a dog, the symbol for the word "tiger" was a picture of a tiger, etc. It is important to emphasize, however, that despite their graphic resemblance, these symbols were secondary to the sound value of words in spoken language. Later on, additional symbols were developed mainly on the basis of phonetic similarities between words.

As a curiosity, below are some characters from around VII-III centuries BCE written in a calligraphic style that emphasizes their origin. Below each symbol there is the modern form of the character which evolved from the original pictographic version.

Chinese symbols
(Chinese symbols from left to right)
  1. Ji - chicken.
  2. Yang - sheep. A symbolic representation of a sheep head with horns.
  3. Fu - bat.
  4. Gui - tortoise.
  5. Yu - fish.

Chinese symbols
(Chinese symbols from left to right)
  1. Zhi - to stop. A picture of two feet, one behind the other. The second foot is placed at a right angle indicating that the person has stopped. Compare with the next symbol showing a walking person.
  2. Bu - to walk. Two feet in succession indicating a person walking forward.
  3. Xiang - elephant.
  4. Hu - tiger.
  5. Shi - house. A house with a pointed roof and foundation.

Chinese symbols
(Chinese symbols from left to right)
  1. Xi - rhino.
  2. Lu - deer.
  3. Ma - horse.
  4. Quan - dog.
  5. Qi - banner. A pole with strips in the wind.
Chinese Symbols - Pictures or Letters? Pictographic symbols in Chinese writing


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