China developed advanced pictorial techniques several thousand years ago in the Stone age. The designs used in this era in a certain way constituted the dawn of writing. The designs were limited to representation of objects; whereas feeling and other abstract ideas could not as yet be expressed. In 1890, in Henan Province bones and tortoise shells bearing engraved characters dating back to the shang Dynasty (around the 17th century B.C. - 11th century B. C.) were unearthed. Altogether, around 3,500 ideograms from this period have been identified, though only 1,500 of the are in a sufficient state of preservation to be accurately interpreted.
Since their primitive beginnings, Chinese characters have greatly changed. Though their strictly representational nature has largely disappeared. the original underlying structure remains. Today, about 50,000 ideograms exist, of which 5, 000 or so are in common use.
All the dialects of Chinese, spoken by 94% of the population, are known as hanyu. Because a number of these dialects are mutually unintelligible, the chinese government appointed a set of standard Mandarin Chinese, known as putonghua, so that Chinese from all parts of country can communicate verbally. The written language is the same, and is understood by all.
After 1949, the Chinese government set up a committee for the reform of Chinese writing. This committee has succeeded in simplifying the form of a large number of characters in everyday use by reducing the number of strokes. In 1958, the National People's congress also approved a system for the transcription of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet, called pinyin (the transcription you will find in this book). Traditionally, Chinese was written in columns and read vertically, and right to left. Nowadays, however, the standard is to write horizontally from left to right.