Bertrand Russell reflects on ideograms, alphabets and civilizations in The Problem of China. (Note, technically Chinese is neither wholly ideographic or logographic.)
As everyone knows, the Chinese do not have letters, as we do, but symbols for whole words. This has, of course, many inconveniences: it means that, in learning to write, there are an immense number of different signs to be learnt, not only 26 as with us; that there is no such thing as alphabetical order, so that dictionaries, files, catalogues, etc., are difficult to arrange and linotype is impossible; that foreign words, such as proper names and scientific terms, cannot be written down by sound, as in European languages, but have to be represented by some elaborate device. For these reasons, there is a movement for phonetic writing among the more advanced Chinese reformers; and I think the success of this movement is essential if China is to take her place among the bustling hustling nations which consider that they have a monopoly of all excellence. Even if there were no other argument for the change, the difficulty of elementary education, where reading and writing take so long to learn, would be alone sufficient to decide any believer in democracy. For practical purposes, therefore, the movement for phonetic writing deserves support. [Somehow, modern Chinese have achieved nearly 100% literacy despite the difficulty of the writing system.]
There are, however, many considerations, less obvious to a European, which can be adduced in favour of the ideographic system, to which something of the solid stability of the Chinese civilization is probably traceable. To us, it seems obvious that a written word must represent a sound, whereas to the Chinese it represents an idea. We have adopted the Chinese system ourselves as regards numerals; "1922," for example, can be read in English, French, or any other language, with quite different sounds, but with the same meaning. Similarly what is written in Chinese characters can be read throughout China, in spite of the difference of dialects which are mutually unintelligible when spoken. Even a Japanese, without knowing a word of spoken Chinese, can read out Chinese script in Japanese, just as he could read a row of numerals written by an Englishman. And the Chinese can still read their classics, although the spoken language must have changed as much as French has changed from Latin.
The advantage of writing over speech is its greater permanence, which enables it to be a means of communication between different places and different times. But since the spoken language changes from place to place and from time to time, the characteristic advantage of writing is more fully attained by a script which does not aim at representing spoken sounds than by one which does. [Italics mine.]
Speaking historically, there is nothing peculiar in the Chinese method of writing, which represents a stage through which all writing probably passed. Writing everywhere seems to have begun as pictures, not as a symbolic representation of sounds. I understand that in Egyptian hieroglyphics the course of development from ideograms to phonetic writing can be studied. What is peculiar in China is the preservation of the ideographic system throughout thousands of years of advanced civilization—a preservation probably due, at least in part, to the fact that the spoken language is monosyllabic, uninflected and full of homonyms.
As to the way in which the Chinese system of writing has affected the mentality of those who employ it, I find some suggestive reflections in an article published in the Chinese Students' Monthly (Baltimore), for February 1922, by Mr. Chi Li, in an article on "Some Anthropological Problems of China." He says (p. 327):—
Language has been traditionally treated by European scientists as a collection of sounds instead of an expression of something inner and deeper than the vocal apparatus as it should be. The accumulative effect of language-symbols upon one's mental formulation is still an unexploited field. Dividing the world culture of the living races on this basis, one perceives a fundamental difference of its types between the alphabetical users and the hieroglyphic users, each of which has its own virtues and vices. Now, with all respects to alphabetical civilization, it must be frankly stated that it has a grave and inherent defect in its lack of solidity. The most civilized portion under the alphabetical culture is also inhabited by the most fickled people. The history of the Western land repeats the same story over and over again. Thus up and down with the Greeks; up and down with Rome; up and down with the Arabs. The ancient Semitic and Hametic peoples are essentially alphabetic users, and their civilizations show the same lack of solidity as the Greeks and the Romans. Certainly this phenomenon can be partially explained by the extra-fluidity of the alphabetical language which cannot be depended upon as a suitable organ to conserve any solid idea. Intellectual contents of these people may be likened to waterfalls and cataracts, rather than seas and oceans. No other people is richer in ideas than they; but no people would give up their valuable ideas as quickly as they do....
The Chinese language is by all means the counterpart of the alphabetic stock. It lacks most of the virtues that are found in the alphabetic language; but as an embodiment of simple and final truth, it is invulnerable to storm and stress. It has already protected the Chinese civilization for more than forty centuries. It is solid, square, and beautiful, exactly as the spirit of it represents. Whether it is the spirit that has produced this language or whether this language has in turn accentuated the spirit remains to be determined.
Without committing ourselves wholly to the theory here set forth, which is impregnated with Chinese patriotism, we must nevertheless admit that the Westerner is unaccustomed to the idea of "alphabetical civilization" as merely one kind, to which he happens to belong. I am not competent to judge as to the importance of the ideographic script in producing the distinctive characteristics of Chinese civilization, but I have no doubt that this importance is very great, and is more or less of the kind indicated in the above quotation.