Formation and Evolution of Chinese Characters

Chinese characters have evolved from their primitive forms to their modern styles through many phases. The major styles include oracle bone inscriptions, bronze inscriptions during the Western and Eastern Zhou, scripts popular during the Warring States Period, and the seal script characteristic of the Qin Dynasty. These are the archaic forms and styles. Modern styles include theofficial script, regular script. Bronze inscriptions were those marked on bronze objects. Large and small seal scripts are characteristic of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period. After the Qin Dynasty had unified China, and designated the small seal scripts as the standard written script. History has called this the "unification of characters". Regular script appeared later and came to be the popular and standard style of the Chinese written language, and is the one still in use today.As for the running and cursive scripts, both were created for efficiency in writing and as a form of art; they are supplemental to the regular script.

Art of Chinese Characters



Ancient Character Building

The early stages of the development of characters were dominated by pictograms, in which meaning was expressed directly by the
shapes. There are six ancient categories of Chinese characters, sorted according to the way they were created: pictographic characters,
self-explanatory characters, combined-meaning characters, characters adopted to represent homophones, mutually explanatory
characters and pictophonetic characters. 4% of Chinese characters are derived directly from individual pictograms. Of the remaining
96%, some are combined-meaning characters, which are characters combined from multiple parts indicative of meaning. But most
characters are pictophonetics, characters containing two parts where one indicates a general category of meaning and the other
the sound.

Pictograms characters

Pictograms characters derive from pictures, they have been standardized, simplified, and stylized to make them easier to write, and their derivation is therefore not always obvious. Examples include for sun for moon, and ľ for tree.

Pictophonetic characters

This category represents the largest group of characters in modern Chinese. Characters of this sort are composed of two parts: a pictograph, which suggests the general meaning of the character, and a phonetic part, which is derived from a character pronounced in the same way as the word the new character represents.
Examples are (river), (lake), (stream). All these characters have on the left a radical of three dots, which is a simplified pictograph for a water drop, indicating that the character has a semantic connection with water; the right-hand side in each case is a phonetic indicator. There are many such words, for example: ͭ(copper), (roast), (collar).

Self-explanatory characters

Also called a simple indicative, simple ideograph, or ideogram, characters of this sort either add indicators to pictographs to make new meanings, or illustrate abstract concepts directly. For instance, while is a pictogram for "knife", placing an indicator in the knife makes ? an ideogram for "blade". Other common examples are for "up" and for "down". This category is small, as most concepts can be represented by characters in other categories. In Origin of the Chinese Characters, an early Chinese dictionary, there were only 129 words that belong to this category.

Combined-meaning characters

Also translated as associative compounds, characters of this sort combine pictograms to symbolize an abstract concept. For instance, is a pictogram of a tree, and putting two ?together makes ? meaning forest. The character (faith) is a combination of (person) and (word), and means "keeping one's word".

Mutually explanatory characters

A mutually explanatory character is created by adding a radical to an existing character. The radical denotes a meaning and usually defines the category of the word. For instance, (verify) and (old) were once the same character, meaning "elderly person", but detached into two separate words. Characters of this category are rare, so in modern systems this group is often omitted or combined with others.

Characters adopted to represent homophones

Also called phonetic loan characters, this category covers cases where an existing character is used to represent an unrelated word with similar pronunciation. The character meaning "beg or petition" is a good example. The small seal script of the character is a hieroglyph originally meaning "fur" or "hide". It happens to share the same pronunciation with the word "beg". This character was borrowed, and it took on new meanings in such compounds as "to ask for", "to demand", or "to pursue". These words are so popularly used today that the original meaning of the word, "fur" or "hide" has been forgotten. A new word, ? had to be created to mean specifically "fur" or "hide".


Calligraphy, the art of writing Chinese characters, is an art that was developed during the evolution of the Chinese written language. There are four artistic features of Chinese calligraphy - structure, strength, rhythm and spirit. Calligraphy is not merely a writing skill, but becomes a means to perfect one's moral quality.There are numerous styles, or scripts, in which Chinese characters can be written, deriving from various calligraphic and historical models.

The Oracle Bone and Bronze inscriptions being no longer used. The seal script, is now only used in artistic seals. Some calligraphers also work in this style. Scripts that are still used regularly are the Clerical Script of the Qin Dynasty to the Han Dynasty, the Regular Script used for most printing, and the Running Script used for most handwriting. The Cursive Script is not in general use, and is a purely artistic calligraphic style. The basic character shapes are suggested, rather than explicitly realized, and the abbreviations are extreme.