Chinese writing, basically logographic writing system, one of the world’s great writing systems.
Like Semitic writing in the West, Chinese script was fundamental to the writing systems in the East. Until relatively recently, Chinese writing was more widely in use than alphabetic writing systems, and until the 18th century more than half of the world’s books were written in Chinese, including works of speculative thought, historical writings of a kind, and novels, along with writings on government and law.
It is not known when Chinese writing originated, but it apparently began to develop in the early 2nd millennium BC. The earliest known inscriptions, each of which contains between 10 and 60 characters incised on pieces of bone and tortoiseshell that were used for oracular divination, date from the Shang (or Yin) dynasty (18th–12th century BC), but, by then it was already a highly developed system, essentially similar to its present form. By 1400 BC the script included some 2,500 to 3,000 characters, most of which can be read to this day. Later stages in the development of Chinese writing include the guwen (“ancient figures”) found in inscriptions from the late Shang dynasty (c. 1123 BC) and the early years of the Zhou dynasty that followed. The major script of the Zhou dynasty, which ruled from 1046 to 256 BC, was the dazhuan (“great seal”), also called the Zhou wen (“Zhou script”). By the end of the Zhou dynasty the dazhuan had degenerated to some extent.
Because basic characters or graphs were “motivated”—that is, the graph was made to resemble the object it represented—it was once thought that Chinese writing is ideographic, representing ideas rather than the structures of a language. It is now recognized that the system represents the Chinese language by means of a logographic script. Each graph or character corresponds to one meaningful unit of the language, not directly to a unit of thought.