There are several important classes of Chinese characters, of which only three will be mentioned here. The first is the pictographic character, which indicates its meaning by being a "drawing" of the thing that it is supposed to represent. For instance, see the character "yue" or "moon," which once looked like a crescent moon. The second is the ideographic character, which acts much like the pictograph, but illustrates an idea or concept instead of a thing. For example, see the character "hao," which is comprised of a "wife" and a "son."

There is a general Western conception that Chinese writing is either primitive or immutable, because Chinese relies exclusively on individual pictographic signs, or signs that represent through pictorial representation, as opposed to Western languages which are based on the combination of phonetic signs. This is incorrect. While a portion of Chinese writing is indeed pictographic, and while that same portion constitutes the archaic core of the language, over 90% of the total 50,000 existing characters are actually phonetic compounds. This was also true during the Han dynasty, when the first Chinese dictionary, the Shou wen jiezi was first compiled. A phonetic compound is comprised of a semantic element (or "signific") and a phonetic element (or "phonetic"). The signific denotes the general class of meaning; a "mu" or "wood" would indicate that the character has something to do with tree-like plants. The phonetic would then indicate how the character should sound, limiting the range of pronunciation to a fairly narrow field.

the written vs. the spoken
history of written forms