Pictographs and ideographs of both types together comprise ?fteen percent of the nearly ?fty thousand characters included in the largest Chinese dictionaries. The earliest types of characters invented, they name the most obvious and important nouns and verbs of human life, and thus they often occupy a much higher percentage of a given text than one would expect, particularly in poetry.
The phonetic-signi?c compound
The third type of character, the phonetic-signi?c compound, is also important, if not quite as important as its numerical preponderance would seem to predict, and in fact has something very interesting to offer the poet.
As the name implies, the phonetic-signi?c compound gives some indication of both pronunciation (something that pictographs and ideographs do only arbitrarily) and meaning. Its sound-carrying elements can appear independently, as characters with meanings of their own, but in compound characters they merely indicate approximate pronunciation. The signifying elements are generally weak or nonspeci?c. The three characters below illustrate some of the range of information offered in a standard phonetic-signi?c compound.
P0 ( ) consists of a tree element and an element that means “white.” If it meant “white birch,” anyone who knew the meaning of the two elements would recognize it as a compound ideograph, but it means “cypress,” and since cypress trees are not white, we can tell that the character is a phonetic-signi?c: a word for a tree whose name is pronounced “Po.”
K ’u ( ) is among a large number of the type of character that indicates that the people who originally created them Were thinking to provide as many mnemonics as possible for their creations. Its signi?c, “tree,” is very general, but its phonetic, gu ( ), meaning “ancient,” combines with “tree” in the manner of an ideograph: “tree” and “ancient” nicely suggest the character’s basic meaning, “withered.” Thus we end up with a word that is pronounced “ku” and means “withered” and has a supporting mnemonic: a juxtaposition of “ancient” and “tree.”