Are the Chinese characters really pictorial?

There is a discussion Here. What is your opinion? Please see the link and come back to give your insight. To be specific so that the question would be able to survive, please provide some good examples with your answer.

The real question behind the issue is that "Is it possible to have a language that is really pictorial or ideograph without any sound indication?"

  • 1
    May be: 一二三日月山田人口土木水火门弓
    – PdotWang
    Feb 16, 2015 at 17:15
  • 2
    I highly recommend the book Visual Speech. It makes a compelling argument that there have never been any non-phonetic full writing systems. The author was the late sinologist John DeFrancis. Feb 17, 2015 at 6:07

4 Answers 4


No. Chinese writing certainly has an early origin in logograms, but so does the Latin alphabet we use – the "A" is actually an ox head, tilted 90 degrees, and borrowed from the first Sumerian cuneiform script.

Since classical times, only a few percent of the Chinese language retains such logograms, while the vast majority (+90%) of characters are phonetic compounds, essentially a rather large and fuzzy alphabet with functional elements as hinting.

几 might be a table, but 叽, 饥 and 肌 haven't got much to do with a table, but are used phonetically.


For so many things there are so many pure theoretical models like pictorial language, micro kernel operating systems or complete democracy. But in reality what works better are often hybrids.

Chinese sure has its pictorial aspect but it also uses many other approaches since its comes a long way to what it is today.

As @倪阔乐 pointed out, latin letters also have pictorial origins, but I don't think Indo-European languages count as pictorial languages since the letter doesn't carry meaning today even though its form was inspired by things in reality. Where Chinese characters commonly do (but not always) although some of those pictorial components have gone through heavy revisions.

For example, when I was reaching for another question, the one about left and right, if found out the top part of 左 and 右 comes from the shape of hand which used to be the same symbol of 又. The 工 and 口 are added later and the top parts were revised.

So it seems to me the question about whether or not Chinese is pictorial really depends on your definition of being pictorial. It is pictorial if you consider whether or not the construction of the character or basic meaning unit of the language have a visual root connect to its meaning. It is not if you consider whether or not if it is as pictorial as ancient Egyptian.


The answer from user4452 is inaccurate based on the example is come from simplified Chinese.

Using the same object as in user4452 example "a table" but tune into tradition Chinese writing and Cantonese.

Writing: 枱 Pronounced: Toi4 Meaning: table or desk

In the writing there is Wood (木) on the left and something on top of a box which almost perfectly reflect the structure of a traditional wooden table.

Without knowledge of traditional Chinese writing, it is very hard to understand how the writing works. It is nothing political but a simple fact.

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    Normally, Simplified Chinese shouldn't be used to discuss character structure, but in this case, user4452's example is still valid, because the concept of phonetic components hasn't been discarded in Simplified Chinese. Even in Traditional Chinese, 几 is only phonetic in 飢 and 肌. The same concept even applies to 枱, which itself is a variant of several other characters. The orthodox character for the meaning table is 檯 (which is PRC's Traditional form of 台 for this meaning, and 枱 is not found in 教育部重編國語辭典修訂本), and 台 is phonetic in 枱. Sep 1, 2020 at 18:02

My answer is YES, but only for Traditional Chinese.

look at these video



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_NCdH5BscE . . .

and so on.

The path of from picture to word is only presented in the Traditional Chinese.

If you are learning it and you have a teacher, you can ask it "how this word came from".

Teacher may told you the story. This is the fastest way to learn Chinese.

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