Traditionally Chinese characters are divided into six categories
(六書 liùshū "Six Writings"). This classification
is often attributed to Xu Shen's second century dictionary Shuowen Jiezi,
but it has been dated earlier. This page shows four of those categories.
Thought to be the oldest types of characters, pictographs were
originally pictures of things. During the past 5,000 years or so they
have become simplified and stylised.
Ideographs are graphical representations of abstract ideas.
Compound pictographs and ideographs combine one or more pictographs
or ideographs to form new characters. Both component parts contribute
to the meaning of the compound character.
The character for thought was originally a combination
of the characters for brain + heart. In the modern character the brain component
has been replaced by the character for field, which is very similar to the one for brain.
Semantic-phonetic compounds represent around 90% of all existing characters
and consist of two parts: a semantic component or radical which hints at the
meaning of the character, and a phonetic component which gives a clue to the
pronunciation of the character.
Characters containing the same phonetic component may have the same
sound and the same tone, the same sound but a different tone, the same
initial or final sound, or a different sound and a different tone.
Phonetic components are generally a more reliable indication of pronunciation
than semantic components are of meaning.