With continual use dating back more than 3,000 years, Chinese is one of the oldest writing systems in the world. However, it is not considered to be a true alphabet in the western sense, but instead is described as both a pictographic and phonetic style of writing based on the use of numerous characters. Traditionally, the characters are broken down into six basic types, which are used to create word concepts and ideas.
The Most Common Type of Character
Even though many linguists believe that the oldest Chinese characters are based on a pictorial style that represents a real object; today, the majority of Chinese characters contain both a visual and phonetic element. When placed together the two separate characters are read as one idea that has a distinct pronunciation and meaning. These characters are described by linguists as having a semantic element (called a radical) that is combined with a phonetic element.
Called “xingsheng” by the Chinese, these kind of characters are the most common in the Chinese language and are able to express many different ideas of a similar nature. For example, the concept of water is represented by one simple visual character, consisting of three horizontal pen strokes. To portray a river, lake, stream or tide, using Chinese characters, the writer combines the pictographic image for water with one of the many phonetic modifiers. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, about 75 percent of all Chinese words are constructed in this manner.
Among the six groups of characters, the most basic and simplest type of symbol is the character that is derived from an actual image. Called “xiangxing” in Chinese, these characters physically resemble the idea that they portray. One of the most common examples cited is the character that represents a tree. This tall, narrow symbol with a pointed top actually looks like a tree. The sun and moon are also represented by “xiangxing” characters.
Characters in a small second group convey meaning through visual concepts. Called “zhishìzì” in Chinese, these characters depict ideas like up and down through modified visual suggestions. Linguists have characterized this group of characters as ideograms.
When two or more “xiangxing” characters are combined into one inclusive character, the result is called “huiyi” in Chinese. To see how these types of Chinese words are formed it is necessary to go back to the simple tree character. Put two of these symbols next to each other and you have the word for grove, and with three tree characters in a group, the concept of a forest is expressed. This word grouping is referred to as ideogramic compounds and accounts for approximately 10 percent of Chinese words.
The last two types of characters are called “zhuanzhu” and “jiajie”. The first category consists of characters that are modified in a small way to represent a similar, yet distinct concept, while the second term is used to describe identical characters that have multiple meanings. The use of these two kinds of characters is infrequent.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online: Characteristics of Chinese Writing