Mandagrams – helping to understand written Chinese


This weekend we’re en route to Shanghai and Beijing to do a few lectures, and show the Chinese media a language project we’ve been working on over the summer.

When we were in China last year, there was a lot of interest in our Phonetikana project (merging English phonic sounds with the Japanese script, Katakana), and when we were asked to come back in 2010 and contribute to a British Council exhibition, we wanted to develop an equivalent with written Mandarin.

We noticed that as we studied Chinese, we were struggling to differentiate the shapes and forms of the characters from one another, and wondered if there was a way to make them more pictorial – taking some of the characters back to their visual roots. So the project concentrates on merging Mandarin with appropriate pictograms – we call them Mandagrams.

Here’s a quick preview of some examples. It’s relatively easy to see the ‘roots’ of a character such as ‘mountain’.


And you can see how, over time, characters have simplified from their original shapes and meanings.


But some characters only really make sense…


…when you see them like this.


When multiple characters are gathered together (called radicals) it gets very difficult.


That’s where a Mandagram for ‘monkey’ can be pretty useful.


Here’s a few of the basic characters that we’ve been working on.


And these should be pretty easy to decode.






We’re also experimenting with characters that fuse western and Chinese numerals.


In fact we can bring together the body parts in slightly odd arrangements like this.


We’ll post some more examples and some images from a small exhibit in Shanghai next week.


© johnson banks design limited 2010