The relationship among the Chinese spoken and written languages is complex. It is compounded by the fact that spoken variations evolved for centuries, since at least the late Hàn Dynasty, while written Chinese changed much less.
Until the 20th century, most formal Chinese writing was done in Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese (文言 wényán), which was very different from any spoken variety of Chinese, much as Classical Latin differs from modern Romance languages. Since the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the formal standard for written Chinese was changed to Vernacular Chinese (白話/白话 báihuà), which, while not completely identical to the grammar and vocabulary of dialects of Mandarin, was based mostly on them. The term standard written Chinese now refers to Vernacular Chinese.
Chinese characters represent morphemes or part of a morpheme independent of phonetic change. For example, although the number "one" is yi in Mandarin, yat in Cantonese and tsit in Hokkien (form of Min), they derive from a common ancient Chinese word and can be written with an identical character ("一"). Nevertheless, the orthographies of Chinese dialect groups are not completely identical, and their vocabularies have diverged. In addition, while colloquial vocabularies are often different they also share vocabulary that is derived from the Classical written language . Colloquial non-standard written Chinese usually involves "dialectal characters" which are not used in other dialects or characters that are considered archaic in standard written Chinese.
Cantonese is unique among non-Mandarin regional languages in having a written colloquial standard, used in Hong Kong and by non-Standard Mandarin speaking Cantonese speakers overseas, with a large number of unofficial characters for words particular to this variety of Chinese. By contrast, the other regional languages do not have such widely-used alternative written standards. Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging, although for formal written communications Cantonese speakers still normally use standard written Chinese.
Also, in Hunan, some women wrote their local language in Nü Shu, a syllabary derived from Chinese characters. The Dungan language, considered a dialect of Mandarin, is also nowadays written in Cyrillic, and was formerly written in the Arabic alphabet, although the Dungan people live outside China.
The Chinese written language employs Chinese characters (漢字/汉字 pinyin: hànzì), which are logograms: each symbol represents a semanteme or morpheme (a meaningful unit of language), as well as one syllable; the written language can thus be termed a morphemo-syllabic script.
They are not just pictographs (pictures of their meanings), but are highly stylized and carry much abstract meaning. Only some characters are derived from pictographs. In 100 AD, the famed scholar Xǚ Shèn in the Hàn Dynasty classified characters into 6 categories, only 4% as pictographs, and 82% as phonetic complexes consisting of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that arguably once indicated the pronunciation.
All modern characters are or are based on the standard script (楷书/楷書 kǎishū) (see styles, below). There are currently two standards for Chinese characters. One is the traditional system, still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau. The other is the simplified system adopted during the 1950s Chinese Cultural Revolution in Mainland China. The simplified system requires fewer strokes to write certain components and has fewer synonymous characters. Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, is the first and only foreign country to recognize and officially adopt the simplified characters. It is also the system used by the Chinese community of Malaysia.
Various written styles are used in Chinese calligraphy, including seal script (篆书/篆書 zhuànshū), cursive script (草书/草書 cǎoshū), clerical script (隶书/隸書 lìshū) and standard script (楷书/楷書 kǎishū, aka regular script). Calligraphers can write in traditional and simplified characters, but they tend to use traditional characters for traditional art.
As with Latin script, a wide variety of fonts exist for printed Chinese characters, a great number of which are often based on the styles of single calligraphers or schools of calligraphy.
There is no concrete record of the origin of Chinese characters. Legend suggests that Cāng Jié, a bureaucrat of the legendary emperor Huángdì of China about 2600 BC, invented Chinese characters. A few symbols exist on pottery shards from the Neolithic period in China, but whether or not they constitute writing or are ancestral to the Chinese writing system is a topic of much controversy among scholars. Archaeological evidence, mainly the oracle bones found in the 19-20th centuries, at present only dates Chinese characters to the Shāng dynasty, specifically to the 14th to 11th centuries BC, although this fully mature script implies an earlier period of development.
The vast majority of oracle bone inscriptions were found in the ruins of Yīn of the late Shāng Dynasty, although a few Zhōu dynasty-related ones were also found. The forms of the characters in the inscriptions changed slightly over the 200 to 300 years, and scholars date the inscriptions of the Shāng to the ruler by the content, particularly from the name of the diviners who inscribed the shell or bone artifacts.Contemporaneous with the late Shāng and the Western Zhōu periods are a number of bronze inscriptions. Over the last century, a great many ancient bronze artifacts have been unearthed in China which contain dedicational texts of the Zhōu aristocrats where the characters show similarities and innovations compared to the oracle bone inscriptions. In the period between the oracle bones and the bamboo books of the Warring States period, inscriptions on bronzes are the most important record of the written script. Note however that since this spans such a broad period of time, it is hardly meaningful to speak of bronzeware script or bronze script as a single entity.