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Learn to Read with these 20 Chinese Pictographs

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We recently posted an article about the 6 types of Chinese characters and how they came to exist. This follow up post, takes a look at 20 pictograph or pictogram characters found in written Chinese. Although there is a slight explanation for each pictograph, most of the time, you can probably see exactly what the character is meant to be. If in doubt, take a look at the development from bone oracle to the present day for a clue.

Pictographs 象形 (xiàng xíng) also known as ‘image shapes’ are the oldest kind of Chinese character and show mostly natural objects, such as animals in picture form.

If you’re new to learning to read and write Chinese characters, these 20 pictographs might be a good starting point as they more obviously depict meaning!

1.雨 (yǔ) rain

(yǔ) pictograph and meaning

雨 (yǔ) looks like rain falling sideways from the heavens.

好像要下雨hǎo xiàng yào xià yǔ  Looks like rain

雨 (yǔ) bigrams

雨 (yǔ) bigrams are most frequently associated with rain.

下雨 xià to rain / rainy

大雨 heavy rain

雨天 tiān rain day

雨 (yǔ) radical

The 雨 (yǔ) radical is found in ‘rain’ related characters such as:

lòu leak

xuě snow

léi thunder

It also featured in the traditional version of (yún) meaning cloud, .

2. 车 (chē) car / vehicle

(chē) pictograph and meaning

Before the simplification of characters, 车 was more obviously an axle of a vehicle .

The primitive version of 车 has taken many forms to reflect vehicles through time.

这辆车有时无法启动。 (zhè liàng chē yǒu shí wú fǎ qǐ dòng) Sometimes the car doesn’t start.

车 (chē) bigrams

车 (chē) is commonly found in the following bigrams (2-character combinations):

汽车 (qì chē) motor vehicle ‘gas vehicle’

单车 (dān chē) bicycle

开车 (kāi chē) drive car

堵车 ( chē) traffic jam

车 (chē) radical

The 车 (chē) radical is found in the character (hōng) meaning ‘bang’, and derives from the noise of 3 carts, as seen in the traditional character, .

It can also be found in other ‘transportation’ related words such as

 (lún) wheel, (jūn) army, and (lián) connect.

3. 大 (dà) big

(dà) pictograph and meaning

(dà) shows a person with stretched out arms representing something ‘big’.

大家都很喜欢这次活动。( jiā dōu hěn xǐ huan zhè huó dòng) Everyone enjoyed the activity.

(dà) bigrams

It is commonly found in bigrams such as

大人 (dà ren) meaning ‘adult’ literally, a ‘big person’.

大学 ( xué) meaning ‘university’ is ‘big study’. Schools for younger students are 小学 (xiǎo xué) ‘small study’.

大事 ( shì) is ‘important matters’ and the literal translation would be ‘big matters’.

(dà) Radical

大 (dà) can be found as a radical in the simplified version of the character for ‘celebrate’ (qìng). The idea is that there is a ‘big’ event being celebrated ‘under cover’ 广 (guǎng).

4. 木 (mù) tree / wood

(mù) pictograph and meaning

木 (mù) shows a pictograph of a tree, with a trunk, branches and roots.

这地板实木的。(zhè dì bǎn shí mù de) The floor is wood.

木 (mù) bigrams

Bigrams that include the 木 (mù) character will undoubtedly be related to objects made of wood.

木工 ( gōng) carpentry or ‘wood work’

木板 ( bǎn) wooden plank

An interesting use of the pictograph 木 (mù) is 麻木 ( mù) meaning ‘numb’. The use of these characters conjures up an interesting image of a person numb and unable to move, such as tree.

木 (mù) Radical

The 木 (mù) radical can be found in the character for ‘plum’, (lǐ) and (jī) meaning ‘machine’.

You can learn more about the ‘tree’ radical in our article 木字旁: The Tree Radical.

5. 目 (mù) eye

(mù) pictograph and meaning

Although it has since been turned vertically, 目 (mù) is the pictograph for ‘eye’.

你们今年的目标是什么? (nǐ men jīn nián de mù biāo shì shén me) What are your goals for this year?

目 (mù) bigrams

目 (mù) is sometimes found in bigrams relating to sight, but are more frequently found with words concerning more something more indirectly associated with ‘looking’.

目力 (mù lì) eyesight

目标 (mù biāo) aim

目的 (mù dì) purpose / goal

目 (mù) radical

The 目 radical is found in ‘eye’ related characters such as (yǎn) meaning ‘eye’, (méi) meaning ‘eyebrow’, ‘to blink’ and (máng) ‘to be blind’.

6. 电 / 電 (diàn) electricity

(diàn) pictograph and meaning

Originally, the traditional character shows a combination of 电 (diàn) and (yǔ) representing a thunderstorm, with a bolt of lightning hitting the ground. Even the simplified character still looks like a current of electricity.

我只有一张电影票。(wǒ zhǐ yǒu yī zhāng diàn yǐng piào)  I only have one movie ticket.

电 (diàn) bigrams

You can find the 电 (diàn) pictograph in bigrams related to electricity.

电池 (diàn chí) ‘battery’

电话 (diàn huà) ‘phone’

电脑 (diàn nǎo) ‘computer’ or ‘electronic brain’

电梯 (diàn tī) ‘elevator’ ‘electric stairs’

7. 火 (huǒ) fire

(huǒ) pictograph and meaning

火 (huǒ) is a pictograph of fire and is found in bigrams relating to heat and fire.

离火箭升空还有20分钟。(lí huǒ jiàn shēng kōng hái yǒu 20 fēn zhōng) The rocket will launch in 20 minutes.

(huǒ) bigrams

火车 (huǒ chē) a train powered by fire.

火山 (huǒ shān) volcano ‘fire mountain’

火箭 (huǒ jiàn) rocket ‘fire arrow’

火 (huǒ) radical

火 is found in the character for ‘scorching’ which depicts 2 火 radicals stacked on top of each other, (yán). It’s also in the (huī) character which means ‘ashes’ and (zāi), the character for ‘calamity’

Originally, (zāi) included the ‘stream’ radical instead of the 宀 ‘roof’ that replaced it in the simplified character. The combination of fire and the stream indicated that people once regarded these things as causing ‘calamities’ such as floods and fire.

8. 山 (shān) mountain

(shān) pictograph and meaning

The pictograph shows 3 peaks of a mountain.

这河发源于群山之中。(zhè yuán yú qún shān zhī zhōng.) The river’s source is the mountains.

山 (shān) bigrams

山 (shān) appears in the following 2-character combinations:

山谷 (shān gǔ) valley

山崖 (shān yá) cliff

山头 (shān tóu) hilltop

山 (shān) radical

The 山 (shān) radical is found, along with (niǎo) ‘bird, in the character for ‘island’, (dǎo). Other ‘mountainous’ characters that feature 山 (shān), are (xiá) ‘gorge’ and (yán) ‘rock’.

9. 日 (rì) sun

(rì) pictograph and meaning

The sun originally depicted a circle with an eye inside, but was squared off to its modern day pictograph.

祝你生日快乐!(zhù shēng kuài lè) Happy Birthday!

日 (rì) bigrams

日 (rì) is frequently found to represent ‘day’ in many bigrams.

日出 ( chū) sunrise

日光 ( guāng) sunshine

日历 ( lì) calendar

日记 ( jì) diary

日 (rì) radical

(míng) combines the 日 (rì) radical with the moon (yuè) to mean ‘bright’. It also appears in the character for ‘dawn’ (dàn) and ‘early’ morning’ (zǎo).

10. 口 (kǒu) mouth

(kǒu) pictograph and meaning

口 (kǒu) shows an open mouth, although it was originally more curved with a smile.

电影院的出口在左边。 (diàn yǐng yuàn de chū kǒu zài zuǒ bian) The cinema exit is on the left.

(kǒu) bigrams

Many 口 (kǒu) bigrams are associated with ‘mouths’.

口红 (kǒu hóng) lipstick

口渴 (kǒu kě) thirsty

口袋 (kǒu dài) pocket ‘mouth bag’ hehe

口 (kǒu) radical

口 (kǒu) appears in the character for ‘speak’ (yán) and (jiào) meaning ‘to shout.

11. 人 (rén) man / person

(rén) pictograph and meaning

人 (rén) has changed from its original pictograph, but it still looks like a pair of legs.

这女人很漂亮。 (zhè nǚ rén hěn piào liang) The woman is very beautiful.

人 (rén) bigrams

人才 (rén cái) talented person

人格 (rén gé) personality

人工 (rén gōng) man-made / artificial

人 (rén) radical

When 人 (rén) appears as a radical, it is frequently seen on the left side of a character, and looks like this 亻.

(men) pronoun plural marker

(xiū) to rest

(tǐ) body

12. 田 (tián) field

(tián) pictograph and meaning

田 (tián) looks like a pictograph of a field, however it apparently represents the furrows in the forehead of the farmer.

田 (tián) bigrams

农田 (nóng tián) farmland

田野 (tián yě) open country / land

田鸡 (tián jī) frog

田 (tián) radical

田 (tián)  is found in the character for male (nán) alongside (lì) . The ‘strong’ man works in the ‘field’. It’s also found in the character (jiè) meaning ‘boundary’.

13. 心 (xīn) heart

(xīn) pictograph and meaning

Originally, the heart pictograph showed a more graphic heart. It has since been stylized into its modern form.

你心里在想什么? (nǐ xīn li zài xiǎng shén me?) What are you thinking?

心 (xīn) bigrams

中心 (zhōng xīn) center

担心 (dān xīn) worry / anxious

关心 (guān xīn) to be concerned

心 (xīn) radical

The heart radical is found in 2 variations, but is almost always found in characters associated with the heart and mind, as these things are closely related in Chinese culture. The radical is found either on the side 忄 which is known as  竖心旁 (shù xīn páng) or on the bottom of a character, like in the character  (xiǎng).

Some examples of 竖心旁 (shù xīn páng) are (pà) meaning ‘scared’ and 情 meaning ‘feeling’.

You can learn more about the heart radical by reading our article, 心字底: The Heart Radical.

14. 力 (lì) power

(lì) pictograph and meaning

Although 力 (lì) isn’t an obvious pictograph, it represents a forearm bending inwards as though a person were showing off their muscles or ‘strength’.

不同的人有不同的能力。 (bù tóng de rén yǒu bù tóng de néng lì.) Different people have different abilities.

力 (lì) bigrams

力 (lì) are often associated with some kind of power.

努力 (nǔ lì) to work hard

能力 (néng lì) capable

压力 (yā lì) pressure

力 (lì) radical

The 力 (lì) radical is found in characters often relating to strength. For example (nǔ), which has the 力 (lì) radical at the bottom of the character, means ‘to strive’. Other characters containing the 力 (lì) radical are (láo) meaning ‘to toil’ and (zhù) meaning ‘to assist’.

15. 水 (shuǐ) water

水 (shuǐ) pictograph and meaning

The 水 (shuǐ)  pictograph has developed over time, but shows a stream of water with it’s different currents and tributaries.

苹果是一种水果。 (píng guǒ shì yī zhǒng shuǐ guǒ) Apples are a kind of fruit.

水 (shuǐ) bigrams

Bigrams containing 水 (shuǐ) are often associated with water.

水果 (shuǐ guǒ) fruit

水龙头 (shuǐ lóng tóu) tap

水库 (shuǐ kù) dam

水 (shuǐ) radical

In radical form, 水 (shuǐ) is simplified further to 氵known as  三点水 (sān diǎn shuǐ). Examples of characters containing the water radical are (zhī) meaning ‘juice’, (hàn) meaning ‘to sweat’ and (tāng) meaning ‘soup;.

You can learn more about the water radical in our article, 三点水: The Water Radical

16. 马 (mǎ) horse

(mǎ) pictograph and meaning

Although 马 (mǎ) is gone through many transformations, you can still see a vague horse pictograph.

这匹马会赢得比赛。(zhè mǎ huì yíng dé bǐ sài) The horse will win the race.

马 (mǎ) bigrams

Some of the bigrams containing 马 (mǎ) are often not directly linked to horses but are more associated with transportation, which in ancient China would have mainly been via horse and cart.

马上 ( shàng) immediately

马路 ( lù) road

马虎 ( hu) careless (the shortened version of the chengyu 马马虎虎 ( ma hū hū).

马 (mǎ) radical

The 马 (mǎ) radical is found in the following characters:

(lǘ) meaning ‘donkey’, camel (tuó) and (qí) meaning ‘to ride’.

17. 米 (mǐ) rice

(mǐ) pictograph and meaning

(mǐ) shows a stalk of corn, although it was originally nine grains of rice.

我要一碗米饭。(yào wǎn mǐ fàn) I want a bowl of rice.

米 (mǐ) bigrams

玉米 ( mǐ) corn

大米 ( mǐ) rice

米饭 ( fàn) cooked rice

米粉 ( fěn) rice flour noodles

米 (mǐ) radical

米 (mǐ)  is often found in characters describing physical things or materials containing rice, such as (cū) meaning ‘coarse’, (nián) meaning ‘glutinous’ and (zhōu) ‘congee’.

18. 羊 (yáng) sheep

(yáng) pictograph and meaning

 The 羊 (yáng) character shows the body, legs, horns and tail of a goat or sheep.

我有一副小羊皮手套。(wǒ yǒu yī fù xiǎo yáng pí shǒu tào) I have a pair of kid gloves.

羊 (yáng) bigrams

羊 (yáng) bigrams almost always related to sheep and their materials.

羊肉 (yáng ròu) mutton

小羊 (xiǎo yáng) lamb

羊毛 (yáng máo) wool

羊 (yáng) radical

羊 (yáng) is very rarely used as a radical, but appears in the character (qún) meaning ‘flock’. It is more frequently used for pronunciation in characters such as (yàng) meaning ‘type’, (yáng) meaning ‘ocean’.

19. 门 (mén) door

(mén) pictograph and meaning

门 (mén) shows the frame of a door, although the traditional character, had both ‘leaves’ of a traditional door.

他用钥匙开了门。(tā yòng yào shi kāi le mén) He used the key to open the door.

门 (mén) bigrams

门口 (mén kǒu) entrance

开门 (kāi mén) to open a door

部门 (bù mén) department

门 (mén) radical

The 门 (mén) radical, is most often used to show something is ‘enclosed’.

For example, (wèn) shows a mouth inside the doorway and means ‘to ask’. In ancient China, enquiries would be made in the entrance to a house. The same could be said of (wén) meaning ‘news’, which shows an ‘ear’ (ěr) inside the door frame.

20. 网 (wǎng) net / network

(wǎng) pictograph and meaning

网 (wǎng) has gone backwards and forwards from its ancient form to more complex and back again.

他从网上下载了很多图片。(tā cóng wǎng shàng xià zǎi le hěn duō tú piàn.) He downloaded many pictures from the internet.

(wǎng) bigrams

These days, 网 (wǎng) is most frequently found in ‘internet’ related bigrams, although it does sometimes appear relating to a physical ‘net’ too.

网络 (wǎng luò) internet

网站 (wǎng zhàn) website

网球 wǎng qiú tennis

If you have any thoughts on Chinese pictograms, please leave your comments below!