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Are Chinese characters pictographs?

I am currently staying in a small village in Yunnan province inhabited by the Naxi ethnic minority. We are staying in a truly idyllic courtyard house of almost absurd beauty. I’m not sure that this photo gets close to doing it justice, but it may give you a flavour.

What you will certainly not be able to see from the photo is the Naxi script written on the red paper stuck onto the walls and pillars. So below you can see another photo of them, in close up.

It is immediately obvious that these are pictures, though it is not always obvious of exactly what. The Naxi writing system is apparently the last pictographic language in the world according to the tourist literature here, although I can’t find any independent verification of this. Either way, it is comparatively simple. It does not represent the spoken language very closely, but is, I am told by Wikipedia, a mnemonic language – that is it is useful to help you remember the bones of a story, but not the exact, word-for-word content. So pictures of the key events are drawn, leaving the priest to fill in the rest – for example abstract ideas and other thing not easily rendered in pictorial form.

Even in this relatively pure pictographic written form, there are complexities though: for example, the word for “food” is pronounced the same as the word for “sleep” – so the pictogram for “food” is used also to mean “sleep”. This is a good solution to the problem of how to draw “sleep”, but it also requires you to know the Naxi spoken language in order to read the pictures – the pictograms alone are not enough even in this simple written language.

So can Chinese characters be called “pictograms”?

The obvious answer is “no,” mostly they are not – certainly when put side-by-side with the Naxi script, it is obvious that Chinese characters are not nearly so pictorial.

There are some that genuinely look quite like very simplified drawings of what they represent –womanmantree… and a few others. When they were first conceived, many more characters were pictograms, but over the hundreds of years that they have been evolving, some have altered their form, some words have been re-classified and mapped onto different characters with the same sound, some have fallen from use. The whole thing has generally become pretty complicated.

So why does Memrise use drawings to teach you what a character means?

Because our memories like to grab on to images. Characters, when you first see them, look alien and incomprehensible. Having a picture that looks like a particular character and can help you to understand its meaning gives your mind something to grab hold of. Something familiar to pin an understanding of the character to. This helps you to learn what the character means even if it is not etymologically “correct”.

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