The second major type of character, the ideograph, has two sub-groups: the simple and the complex. Below are ?ve simple ideographs: the numbers one, two, and three; and two words that can be interpreted, by extension, from “up” and “down” to “on” and “under;” “up from” or “up to” and “down from” or “down to;” and “superior” and “inferior.”
As you might imagine, there are relatively few simple ideographs: it is very hard to draw an elegant image to suggest an abstraction or the action inherent in a verb. Below are examples of the type called compound ideographs, whose invention extended the writing system beyond the pictographic. The compound ideograph attempts to communicate an idea by parataxis: pointing toward meaning by juxtaposing visual images. Parataxis, important to character construction, is also a major structural feature of Chinese lyric poetry.
Beginning from the left in the line above, a character made up of two trees together (in the same square space on the page allotted by the writing system to every character, no matter how complex or how simple) make a “grove,” and three a “forest.” Sun and moon together mean not a full day (as bright students often suggest), but “brightness.” Sun above the line of the horizon means “dawn” rather than “dusk.” Woman and child together make a wonderfully earthy and fundamental word for “good,” while a human (restylized for the sake of combination) standing beside the number two makes a nice abstraction: Confucius’s “compassion” or “benevolence.” An ear and a gate mean “to hear.” The last character looks a lot like that for “sun,” but notice that the horizontals are longer and the verticals shorter. It is a juxtaposition of tongue and mouth and means “to speak”—-the verb in all those famous “the master says” passages in the Chinese classics.