A survey of the cultural function of the Chinese writing system, from a classic textbook (I used it in college) by two of the deans of modern American east Asian studies. The piece is now dated in some ways and it would be worth discussing just what its limitations are, but it is also a good short synopsis:

E. Reischauer and J. Fairbank, East Asia: The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1960), pp. 42-44, "Advantages and Disadvantages of the Writing System"

The Chinese writing system has certain drawbacks when compared with the simpler phonetic systems of the West. It obviously takes a great deal more time and effort to master. Many characters are extremely complex, some being made up of more than twenty-five strokes. At least two or three thousand characters must be memorized before one can read even simple texts. The writing system thus has been an increasing handicap in modern times, when the need for widespread literacy has sharply risen. The emphasis on rote memory work to learn all these characters may also have had a limiting influence in Chinese education, putting a premium on memorizing abilities but giving less scope for creative talents. Moreover, even though the Chinese invented printing, their writing system has made printing a much more complicated technique than in the West. In the modern age, a system of code numbers has proved necessary in order to send telegraphic messages in Chinese; that is, each character must be encoded, transmitted by number, and then decoded. Chinese characters have so far defied all efforts to construct a Chinese typewriter that is anything less than a small printing press or electronic brain.

On the other hand, the Chinese writing system has certain values that our Western systems lack. The very complexity of the characters and their graphic qualities give them a vitality that is entirely absent in the Latin alphabet. Once the characters are learned, who can forget that "peace" is a woman under a roof or that "bright" is made up of "sun" and "moon"? By comparison our written words for "peace" and "bright" (despite the latter's curious spelling) are as dull as numbers in a phone book. No one who has learned Chinese characters can ever free himself of the notion that somehow the written word has richer substance and more subtle overtones than the spoken word it was originally designed to represent. Chinese characters thus lend themselves to a terse vividness in both prose and poetry that is quite unattainable in our phonetically-bound writing systems.

If ancient times the Chinese characters undoubtedly had magical values, and these have by no means been entirely lost in the modern world. Prayers in Chinese were not spoken to the gods but were written. All writing was considered to be of value, and until recently there was a strong feeling that paper with writing on it might be burned but should not be simply thrown away. In East Asian civilization the written word has always taken precedence over the spokne; Chinese history is full of famous documents -- memorials, essays, and poems -- but lacks the great speeches of the West. The magic quality of writing is perhaps one of the reasons why the peoples of East Asia have tended to place a higher premium on book learning and on formal education than have the peoples of any other civilization. It is no mere acciident that, despite their extremely difficult systems of writing, literacy rates in East Asia run far higher on the whole than in the rest of the non-Western world (and in the case of Japan even surpass those of the West).

The Chinese writing system also has far greater aesthetic interest than our simple scripts. Until recently good penmanship was considered a desirable skill for scribes and clerks in the West, but in East Asia a distinguished hand has been the mark of all educated men since antiquity. Calligraphy is a great art and the direct ancestor of all the graphic arts of East Asia, for the writing brush has also been the brush of the artist. Whatever the drawbacks of the characters for mass education, people in East Asia still appreciate their aesthetic, if not their magical, values.

Another tremendous advantage of the Chinese writing system is that it easily surmounts differences of dialect or even more fundamental linguistic barriers. All literate Chinese, even if they speak mutually unintelligible "dialects," can read the same books and feel that classical written Chinese is their own language. If they had had a phonetic system of writing they might have broken up into separate national groups, as did the Italians, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The stature of China as the largest national grouping in the world is to be explained at least in part by the writing system. It may also explain the extraordinary cultural cohesiveness of the Chinese abroad. The millions of Chinese who have migrated to Southeast Asia are actually divided from one another and from the mass of Chinese at home by the different languages they speak; yet even after generations abroad they hav enot, for the most pat, lost a sense of identity with the homeland. The same is often true of the smaller communities which have migrated to the cities of the West.

The larger unity of East Asian civilization has also depended greatly on the writing system. A love and veneration for Chinese characters has been a binding link between the various countries. Until the last century, virtually all books written in Korea and Vietnam and many of those written in Japan were in Chinese, not in the national languages. Even today any educated Japanese or Korean and until recently any educated Vietnamese could pick up a Chinese book and read its title at a glance. In fact, it is impossible to tell from the titles of many contemporary books, as printed in Chinese characters, whether these books are actually written in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. If the Chinese had had a phonetic system of writing, East Asia would certainly not have been so distinct a unit in world civilization.

There is also a curious hidden history of a writing system apparently evolved in China by married women to use in communicating privately among themselves! The only references I have seen come from CHINA-L and point to a very short list of modern scholarship available only in Chinese: see Gao Yinxian, et al., Nushu--shijie weiyi di nuxing wenzi ("Women's Writing-- The Only Female Script in the World").