It is not known when Chinese writing originated, but it apparently began to develop about 4000 years ago. The earliest graphs were schematic pictures of what they represented; the graph for man resembled a standing figure, that for woman depicted a kneeling figure.
Although it was possible to make up simple signs to represent common objects, many words were not readily picturable. To represent such words the phonographic principle was adopted. A graph that pictured some object was borrowed to write a different word that happened to sound similar. Because of the enormous number of Chinese words that sound the same, to have carried through the phonographic principle would have resulted in a writing system in which many of the words could be read in more than one way. That is, a written character would be extremely ambiguous.
The solution to the problem of character ambiguity, adopted about 213 BCE (during the reign of the first Qin emperor, Shihuangdi), was to distinguish two words having the same sound and represented by the same graph by adding another graph to give a clue to the meaning of the particular word intended. Such complex graphs or characters consist of two parts, one part suggesting the sound, the other part the meaning. The system was then standardized so as to approach the ideal of one distinctive graph representing each morpheme, or unit of meaning, in the language. The limitation is that a language that has thousands of morphemes would require thousands of characters, and, as the characters are formed from simple lines in various orientations and arrangements, they came to possess great complexity.
Not only did the principle of the script change with time, so too did the form of the graphs. The earliest writing consisted of carved inscriptions. Before the beginning of the Christian Era the script came to be written with brush and ink on paper. The result was that the shapes of the graphs lost their pictorial, “motivated” quality. The brushwork allowed a great deal of scope for aesthetic considerations.
The relation between the written Chinese language and its oral form is very different from the analogous relation between written and spoken English. In Chinese many different words are expressed by the identical sound pattern—188 different words are expressed by the syllable /yi/—while each of those words is expressed by a distinctive visual pattern. A piece of written text read orally is often quite incomprehensible to a listener because of the large number of homophones. In conversation, literate Chinese speakers frequently draw characters in the air to distinguish between homophones. Written text, on the other hand, is completely unambiguous. In English, by contrast, writing is often thought of as a reflection, albeit imperfect, of speech.
To make the script easier to read, a system of transcribing Chinese into the Roman alphabet was adopted in 1958 to indicate the sounds of graphs in dictionaries and to supplement graphs on such things as road signs and posters. A second reform simplified the characters by reducing the number of strokes used in writing them. Simplification, however, tends to make the characters more similar in appearance; thus they are more easily confused and the value of the reform is limited. Since the Communist revolution the grammar and vocabulary of modern Mandarin Chinese has served as the standard written language as opposed to other written and spoken Chinese dialects. While a majority of Chinese learn to speak Mandarin in school still for many Chinese the written language is the only universal means of communication between speakers of disparate Chinese dialects or languages. It is similar to writing numerals and yet having them called different names in different languages. In American English if you think about it we also have a common writting system as our common dialect but not so dramatically different from our spoken dialects.
Partially from: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-writing
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