The Evolution of Chinese Characters

     The Chinese characters seen nowadays didn’t always look the same way. Some of these words began as pictograms, but slowly evolved over a long period of time. In modern times, there are 47,035 documented Chinese characters in total. Studies have shown that out of those 47,035 characters, many magazines, newspapers, and people in general only use 3,500 basic characters. While some see this language as complicated and hard to learn, I find that it might be a little easier when you can visualize the origin of the words since the words usually look exactly like their definitions.  

     These pictographs were believed to first have appeared during the Late Neolithic Age and around the same time when Egyptians and the Sumerians existed, but only the Chinese characters still exist to this day. The words began as etchings about 6,000 years ago and became a more prominent part of ancient Chinese culture. They etched these pictograms everywhere, including pottery and earthenware.

     The most sophisticated and recognizable forms of Chinese characters were dated back to the Shang Dynasty. During this time, people took the drawings and shaped them to make them look a little simpler and different. The first type of Chinese writing was called the Oracle Bone Inscriptions. This script was etched onto turtle shells and animal bones, then heated to form the cracks that resemble the character. There were many other forms of ancient Chinese writing developed in the years after, but there were only six more that were considered main forms of script. They were known as following: Bronze Inscriptions, Small Seal Characters, Official Script, Regular Script, Cursive Writing, Grass Stroke Characters, and Freehand Cursive.

Here are a few examples of what I have been talking about this whole entire piece.


This character to the left means car. The brown colored drawing is the origin of the Chinese word, and depicts a cart from above. You can kind of see the resemblance between the two, can’t you?



This character on the right side has the meaning of moon, which you can tell by the picture next to it. The drawing shows a crescent shaped moon, which has highly valued back then.



There are 35 comments

  1. Preethi Sridhar

    I feel like this is a really cool article to read about! I finally know how how some of the characters started out and how it ended up being the characters that we write today. I’ve always wanted to know what the characters looked like when they were first created and how they came up with the stories behind it. For instance the evolution of the word “moon” used to look like a moon while now it is this: 月. This article was very interesting and very well written.

  2. Stephanie Arzanipour

    Reading this article was very fascinating! I enjoyed learning the background of all of the characters. It is truly amazing to see how the Chinese writing system has grown and improved. For example, the pictographs really enable you to see why a certain character was formed and written that way. Moreover, the pictographs were also a great addition to the writing piece since it really helped me visualize what the author was talking about. I would love to learn more!

  3. Ashley Kwak

    I really enjoyed reading about how Chinese characters derived from pictures and symbols! Very interesting and it’s fascinating how pictures and symbols were able to create so many characters!

  4. Logan C

    What a great article! I learned so much about the pictographic nature and origin of Chinese characters. In retrospect, I can start to see how many of the Chinese characters look like what they are supposed to mean.

  5. Tiffany C

    Wow! I was very surprised to see that there are over 47,000 characters in the Chinese language. I’m now curious to know what the other characters mean, since only 3,500 characters are used today. I loved how you incorporated the pictographs into this article; it really showed how similar the characters and images are. Also, it was interesting to see how the characters have evolved over the years. Great job with this article!

  6. Nathan Davis

    This article was so interesting. I never really thought about the history of Chinese characters but it turns out that it is actually pretty fascinating.

  7. Nicholas Yum

    Wonderful article, Hitomi! The evolution of Chinese characters is quite interesting. The origin of each character may have been as simple as a sketch of its real-life counterpart, but over time each character receives little alterations that add up. The Chinese language sure is unique!

  8. Kelly M.

    Such an interesting and intriguing topic! It’s amazing to see how the characters of today have evolved over time. Wonderful use of imagery.

  9. Dylan S.

    It is amazing to read about the vast history of all of the characters that we use to this day. I’m also in shock how we only use 3,500 of the 47,035 characters that are known to us, and why people don’t maybe use the other ones more. I feel like porovudibg examples at the end was a good was to further develop your article! Thanks for sharing Hitomi!??

  10. Juliann L

    Your article was very informing. I like how you included the photos to prove your point. The history of the characters that you included was very interesting. Great article!

  11. Jeff Bao

    Amazing article Hitomi! The history of the Chinese character is very interesting and fascinating to me. Great use of the images as well! Well done!

  12. Stephanie Cen

    I really appreciate this article. It really explained the origin of some characters and the history. This article was informative and interesting.

  13. Matthew L.

    What a unique and interesting article Hitomi! I did not know that there were so many relationships between Chinese characters and their actual design. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Jeffrey Zhang

    Great Article. I can’t believe how many character there actually are. It amazes me that we only use about 3500 basic characters. You explained the evolution of characters so well. Great Job!

  15. Maya Yu

    Great job on the article! I found it really fascinating learning about the origins of Chinese characters and how they progressed to become modern day symbols. Keep up the great work.

  16. Larry D

    Great job on writing this article! It was very interesting to learn about the origins of Chinese characters and the transformations to its modern day form. Keep up the great work.

  17. Jye Shang

    What an amazing article! I feel closer to China’s origins. I feel that understanding the evolution of Chinese characters will help me learn the Chinese language. Thanks!

  18. Nikki W

    Wow! This article was very interesting to read! I enjoyed learning about the evolution of Chinese characters. This has made me even more interested in learning the language.

  19. Eric Wang

    This is such an interesting article, I really enjoyed reading this and this gave me such a good history about Chinese characters, I finally knew the revolution of the characters that I never knew about!

  20. Ashley Lu

    It was interesting to know how the Chinese language came from pictures. I did not know that Chinese characters had such a long history

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