University of Iowa Honors Theses

Thesis Title

A New Type of Chinese Zodiac Animal Characters

Major Department

Art, Studio


College of Liberal Arts & Sciences


BA (Bachelor of Arts)

Session and Year of Graduation

Spring 2017

Honors Major Advisor

Kee-Ho Yuen

Thesis Mentor

Serina Sulentic


In the Chinese semanto-phonetic writing system, pictograms, logograms, ideograms, and symbols have both sound and meaning. Although the system has varied over time, characters look similar to the oldest symbols we have found on turtle shells and animal bones dating back to the Shang Dynasty, the second dynasty in Chinese history. I think pictographs are very interesting, in that you can guess the meaning without actually knowing the language system. In English, the alphabet letters are phonetic, and I wondered if it would be possible to create a series of images, where you could visually recognize function by the combination of the letters? Twelve signs of Chinese zodiac animals are important for Chinese to record eras. By combining the ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Terrestrial Branches, the system repeats every sixty years. I have found the earliest oracle bone scripts of them, and they are all pictograms similar to the animal characters. For this research project, I am trying combine the alphabet letters of these twelve animals to create a Western pictogram version of the early Eastern animal characters, to help English-speaking people understand another language and culture.

I began to make the pictograms using Adobe Illustrator. It helps design a set of symbols with a consistent style. Graphic design is an effective way to show the final achievement to viewers; however, it lacks the process of thinking and designing, and it is not easy to express the transition from beginning to ending. I think the process of design is interesting. Showing the process can raise the mythical veil of design and reveal the thinking process. As a result, after making the first version, I considered recording the process of designing in hopes of showing both the condensed version of the process, as well as the final designed pictogram, in video form. First, to see if it is possible to use only letters of the animals to create pictographic characters, I did a rough drawing on paper. In Typography class I learned every type of font has its unique characteristic, so I typed the name of twelve animals in different fonts that I think will fit my drawing version. On the one hand, I want to show the characteristic of animal for recognizing purpose; on the other hand, the shape of the type font and number of letters for the animal name limit the creation. Digital graphic design set a law for letterform. Although this is easier for unification, it reduces variations that calligraphy can make. I have taken calligraphy and like its potential for of varying one letter in the same hand (font). I made some variations for the same letter when it was used in the different animals, if needed. I have viewed the squared English calligraphy designed by Xu Bing, and found it interesting to show the English word in Chinese calligraphy view. I thought it would also be interesting if people could find that phonetic English words could also express the feeling of a pictogram by different combinations of letters.

I believe my video can effectively show both the design process and the final pictogram, providing a different view of traditional English letters, and hopefully inspiring more people to embrace globalization and the richness of other cultures. As an international student, the experience of studying abroad has brought me a more comprehensive view of the world. I will continue to create more inclusive work and built a bridge between western and eastern cultures, so that we can understand each other better.


Pictogram, graphic design, semanto-phonetic, phonetic, oracle, Chinese zodiac animals


Copyright © 2017 Jiaying Cao

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