Three types of Chinese characters constitute more than ninety-nine percent of the writing system.
The ?rst type is the pictograph. The characters listed below are in a printed form that mimics the handwritten script that was stylized and standardized about twenty-two hundred years ago. From left to right, the characters below are “sun,” “moon,” “tree,” “human being,” “female,” “child” (or-—?ne joke———“philosopher”), “ear,” “eye,” “mountain,” and “gate.”
I suspect that for many readers, most if not all of these characters are, even in modern printed form, visually suggestive of the things that they are the words for. If, given the squared-off shapes of modern print, that seems a shaky position, you might note that all educated Chinese in Wang Wei’s time, and most today, are also familiar with the less stylized, more clearly representational, older versions of the characters that were preserved in the scripts used both in the chop (personal seal) and in ceremonial and decora- tive calligraphy. This understanding of the printed form was reinforced, when necessary, by knowledge of the older forms.
Several hundred pictographs are commonly used in the written language, and more than a few of them are quite beautiful, even in their printed forms; but I’ve had to keep the examples to a minimum here and therefore have chosen ones, as you’ll soon see, for reasons having to do with Wang Wei’s poem.