The Structure of the Oracle Bone Characters
The structure of the oracle bone characters shows that they are forerunners of modern Chinese script. The characters originated in a number of ways.
Pictographs. From the illustrations in figure 2, we see that some characters were originally pictures. On the left are the oracle bone characters and on the right their modern equivalents. The "primitive" characters on the left were one stage in a long process during which the original pictographs became symbols of script.
Characters depicting abstract concepts. The interpretation of shang, xia, and bing in figure 3 is straightforward. Hao, good, is a picture of a woman holding a child.
Characters formed from a phonetic and a radical. When the need arose for a character whose meaning was difficult to illustrate with simple pictures, the character was often created by borrowing an existing character with the same pronunciation. To this "pronunciation part" (the phonetic) was added a "meaning marker" (the radical) in order to distinguish the new character from the old one. Take, for example, the character cao, grass. It consists of two parts: a phonetic, zao, which means early but was merely borrowed to hint at the pronunciation of the character, and a radical that means plant. The character for river, he, is made from the water radical and a phonetic pronounced ke, If we used characters in English, we might imagine the character for "to read" being made up of a reed symbol (for pronunciation) and the eye radical (to indicate which homophone was intended). The borrowing took place long ago, and sometimes the phonetic is no longer pronounced in exactly the same way as the character that it is part of. Here we have to accept that the pronunciations were once the same. Over 95 percent of all Chinese characters have been formed in this fashion. Figure 4 illustrates two more cases.
Characters borrowed without adding a radical. When a new character was needed, sometimes an old, even obsolete character was invested with the new meaning. The character lai, for example, originally meant a kind of wheat, but because of its pronunciation it was borrowed as the character for the word to come