The Chinese writing system is generally considered to be logographic. Accordingly, the graphemes of written Chinese do not map onto individual phonemic units of the spoken language. Instead, each logogram corresponds to one morpheme. Moreover, the morphemes of the language are typically monosyllabic. Therefore, Chinese writing is sometimes described as a morphosyllabic or morphophonological system (DeFrancis, 1989; Perfetti & Zhang, 1995). The interweaving of component strokes within a character, together with spatial separation between characters, makes each Chinese character a salient and an integrated visual unit (Hoosain, 1991). Nevertheless, there is structure internal to the logographic character. One structural element of Chinese writing, the semantic radical, is evident only in the written language. Semantic radicals specify aspects of meaning, and they are not generally realized phonologically. A second structural element, the phonetic component, specifies aspects of a character’s pronunciation, but does not reflect the meaning of the character. Because the semantic and phonetic components of Chinese compounds differ in function, the experimental study of reading in Chinese provides an approach to the study of reading that is inaccessible from the study of alphabetic writing systems. In an alphabetic orthography, letters combine to represent syllabic as well as morphological units. In contrast, in the logographic orthography of Chinese, components differ in function such that some components correspond to aspects of whole character phonology and others correspond
to aspects of character meaning. In this chapter, we consider the functional differences between components and examine some of the implications for visual character recognition. We begin by describing this distinctive attribute of Chinese, that is, the differing contributions of the semantic and phonetic components to the phonological and semantic integrity of the phonetic compound.