Chinese characters are pictograms. Who created them? A popular belief from as early as the Warring States period (fifth–third centuries BCE) has it that the Chinese characters were created by Cangjie, a legendary scribe under the Yellow Emperor. However, modern scholars believe that Chinese characters originated in primitive drawings and were formed as a result of gradual contribution made by ancient people over a number of generations.

The earliest Chinese characters evolved from the inscribed symbols on earthenware from the late Dawenkou period (ca. 4,800 years ago). The Shang and Zhou dynasties, dating from 3,400 to 2,700 years ago, are considered the “age of oracle bone and bronze scripts.” The characters inscribed on turtle shells or animal bones for the purpose of divination are known as jiaguwen, while inscriptions on bronze vessels are called jinwen. From the Warring States period to the Wei and Jin periods (fifth century BCE–fifth century CE), the characters were mainly written on long, narrow slips of bamboo or wood; these are referred to as jianshu. Writing on silk is known as boshu.

Chinese characters were formed on a set of rules which were classified by ancient scholars into six categories: xiangxing (pictographs), zhishi (ideograms), huiyi (compound ideographs), xingsheng (phonetic loan characters), zhuanzhu (phono-semantic compound characters), and jiajie (derivative characters). For example, the character自 in the oracle bone script was written in the shape of a nose with two nostrils and it initially meant “nose.” Only later did it develop into the meaning of “self.” Early people knew that dogs have a remarkable sense of smell and know how to distinguish smells. The character 臭 (to smell) was then formed by combining 自 (nose) and 犬 (dog).

Chinese characters reached maturity in the third century BCE. Writing before the Qin dynasty was generally referred to as dazhuan (large seal script). After Qin Shihuang unified China in 221 BCE, he ordered his prime minister Li Si (ca. 280–208 BCE) to standardize the characters. Li Si developed standard characters known as xiaozhuan (small seal script) based on the Qin script.

The evolution of Chinese characters went through many changes to their shapes, pronunciation, and meaning. One must refer to “lexicons” of various periods to understand the meaning a character has had at different times. The most renowned lexicon in China is the Shuowen jiezi (Explaining graphs and analyzing characters) written by the Eastern Han dynasty philologist Xu Shen (ca. 58–147) in the second century. It is also one of the earliest classics on philology in China. The book collected over 10,000 Chinese characters and for the first time it systematically explored the evolution of these characters from their origin to their forms just prior to the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220). Xu Shen also created the character radical index, which is still in use today.

The writing of Chinese characters has also evolved throughout the ages. Kaishu (regular script), which emerged between the third and fifth centuries, is characterized as being precisely formed and easily legible. As a consequence, it is still used today. Ancient calligraphers also developed their own varieties of kaishu, such as the Tang dynasty’s Ou script created by Ouyang Xun (557–641), the Yan script by Yan Zhenqing (709–785), and the Liu script by Liu Gongquan (778–865), all of these still serve as calligraphy models for today’s Chinese students.

Chinese characters have undergone a process of simplification throughout history. Since the ancient characters were too complicated to write because of their graphic features, the original idea of simplification was to change their graphic forms into linear ones. Following the technological advancement in printing during the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279), books were published in greater quantities. Popular literature began to prosper, and simplified characters gained wider popularity among the common people. Beginning in the twentieth century, numerous scholars called for the broad dissemination of simplified characters to facilitate education, but the cause did not gain official support until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In 1952, China set up the Research Committee for Chinese Characters Reform to promote the simplification project. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau have continued to use the traditional form of Chinese characters.

How many Chinese characters are there exactly? The Kangxi Dictionary, which was compiled under the order of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722) in the Qing dynasty and completed in 1716, is an extensive dictionary containing 47,035 characters. However, scholars in the 1950s put together a list of the 3,000 most commonly used characters. Once people have mastered these characters, they can read ordinary publications without much difficulty.