Language is a central feature of Chinese civilization. The national language of China today is Mandarin, though there are many different dialects of Chinese that vary widely across the regions. These dialects sound very different when spoken, but there is a single, unified writing system used to write Chinese. This is possible because the writing system of China is "logographic" and not alphabetic. An alphabetic system like the one used to write English uses a set of letters to represent speech sounds. In the logographic system used to write Chinese, each symbol or character represents a word or specific meaning. Some words are formed by combining two or more characters. The Chinese word for "train" (火車) for example, is made up of the words for "fire" (火) and "vehicle" (車). The modern word is actually a short form of the older 火輪車, meaning a "steam locomotive vehicle."
Early in the history of writing, ancient civilizations used pictographs (symbols that are like pictures of physical objects) or ideographs (symbols that represent ideas) as written symbols. These were also used in ancient China, but as Chinese civilization became increasingly sophisticated, they developed a full-fledged logographic writing system. Specialists who study language have developed different ways of categorizing characters. A few examples are given below:
Some of the earliest characters can be considered pictographic. The symbols are stylized pictures of the objects they represent. Early forms of some of these characters can be found carved on bones dating back to the 12th century BC. The character for "sun," for example, shown here, resembles a picture of the sun. Can you see a picture of the sun here?
About 3% of modern Chinese characters are pictographic.
A second group of characters are ideographic. The symbols represent abstract ideas. This character for "three," for example, expresses the idea of the number it represents through an appropriate number of strokes. Can you see the idea of 3 in this character?
Only a small number of modern Chinese characters are ideographic.
Phonetic Compound characters
Many characters are formed by combining a symbol that has meaning with another symbol that represents a speech sound. This character for "vegetable," for example, combines a radical symbol that represents "plant" with another character that sounds like "tsai," but which alone means "harvest." Adding the "plant" radical to the top of the character lets you know that this symbol means "vegetable" and not "harvest."
The majority of Chinese characters, about 94%, fall into this category, combining meaning with sound to produce a word.