Chinese character -- Pictographs xiang4 xing2 象形

The earliest chinese characters look like the “things” they represent. Like humans, animals and natural objects. They are “picture-like” writing. In Chinese writing there are only 300 or more of these pictographs.

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This small number is hardly surprising since simple pictures can only represent simple things.

But they form the building blocks of Chinese writing.

They are made of “one unit”.

This means, they cannot be divided into two or more characters.

As said before, these earliest Chinese characters look like the shape of the things they stand for.

And they each have are pronounced differently.

So the Chinese character of the sun looks like a sun.


mother looks like a mature female


chicken looks like a this two-legged farm animal


Mountain looks like a peak

And deer looks like well…a running deer, what else?

These pictographs or pictograms take on the most important characteristic of each object they look like:

The trunk of “elephant”

Breasts of “female”

Crescent of “moon”

Tail of “dog”

Horns of “bull”

Even though the original pictographs have evolved into today’s simplified form, it is still possible to see their original forms:

Look at these three modern Chinese characters for umbrella, drawing, and fly (left to right).


Don’t you think they look like an open umbrella, a picture in a frame and a bird with outstretched wings?

Chinese pictographs are really interesting to look at and guess their meaning.

And since they form the basis for all the other Chinese character formations mentioned here, it’s worth getting to know more pictographs!



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Next: The second way of forming Chinese characters