Linguistically, Chinese words are categorized as one of six types: pictogram, ideogram, semantic combination, extended meaning, phonetic borrowing, and semantic-phonetic combination. Pictograms are literal representations of living things and inanimate objects. The character for “broom” (fu-帚) is a conventionalized diagram of a ceremonial broom. Ideograms are characters that symbolize an idea or action, since it is possible to discern a disposition from the character’s appearance. The words for “up” (shang-上) and “down” (xia-下) show an upward pull and a downward push. New characters can result from an arrangement of pictograms and ideograms. For example, the word for “return” (gui-歸) is a combination of “broom” (帚), the word “stop” (zhi-止) and a diagram that represents the meat offering given out before the troops’ departure. In this way, “return” not only describes an action, but also becomes synonymous with ritual. Furthermore, there are groups of characters that have different configurations and pronunciation but share a common semantic root. These words, by extension of a common symbol, also share a similar logic of meaning. When “broom” (帚) is used as a symbolic root, words such as “clean” (sao-掃) or “soak” (jin-浸) expand their meaning to describe both the tools used and the ritual context from which they stem. Some characters evolve when the sound of one word is applied to another without consideration for meaning. “Righteousness” (yi-義) is a homophone of the word for “meaning” (yi-意). A word relies on one component to indicate sound and another to symbolize meaning. The word “ant” (yi-蟻) combines “righteousness” (yi-義), the phonetic root, with a diagram that means insect. Characters in European languages are phonetic symbols, insofar as sound carries meaning. Chinese, on the other hand, condenses sound and meaning into a visual construction. This is of historical significance:

The fact that Chinese characters not only developed from but retained through time their pictorial / diagrammatic forms indicates just how central the element of visual form is in the Chinese character.

Thus the language has retained its visual format. It is important to write correctly and legibly, but historically, it was paramount that one also wrote beautifully.

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