Logoi.com


Languages
Logoi Notes
Links and Resources
About Logoi.com
Logoi.com
Comments

Origins of Chinese Writing

Oracle bone inscription  
Oracle Bone Inscription












Bronze inscription  
Bronze Inscription








Bamboo strips  
Bamboo strips from
the state of Chu
(ca. 300 BCE)

(Guodian,
Jingzhou)

The earliest examples of Chinese writing date to the late Shang period (ca. 1200 BC). These are the so-called Oracle Bone Inscriptions (jiaguwen) which were found at the site of the last Shang capital near present-day Anyang, Henan province.

Oracle Bones

The discovery of the oracle bones in China goes back to 1899, when a scholar from Peking was prescribed a remedy containing "dragon bones" for his illness: "dragon bones" were widely used in Chinese medicine and usually refer to fossils of dead animals. The scholar noticed some carvings that looked like some kind of writing on the bones he acquired from the local pharmacy. This lucky find led eventually to the discovery of Anyang, the last capital of Shang dynasty where archeologists have found an enormous amount of these carved bones.

The inscriptions on these bones tell us that by 1200 BC Chinese writing was already a highly developed writing system which was used to record a language fairly similar to classical Chinese. Such a complex and sophisticated script certainly has a history but so far we found no traces of its predecessors.

The oracle bone inscriptions received their name after their content which is invariably related to divination. The ancient Chinese diviners used these bones as records of their activity, providing us with a detailed description of the topics that interested the Shang kings. Most of these divinations refer to hunting, warfare, weather, selection of auspicious days for ceremonies, etc.

Bronze Inscriptions

The next stage in the history of Chinese writing is the bronze inscriptions (jinwen). These are texts either casted into bronze vessels or carved into the surface of an already carved vessel. These vessels became widely used during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (ca. 1150-771 BC) but there are examples from late Shang as well.

Since the inscriptions are located on ritual vessels which were used for performing sacrifices, their content usually refers to ritual ceremonies, commemorations etc. Although most of these writings consist of only a few characters, there are some which contain quite lengthy descriptions. The language and calligraphic style at this stage is similar to that found on the oracle bones.

Beginnings of Modern Writing

Starting from about the fifth century BC, we begin to find examples of writings on bamboo strips. Before writing the characters with a hard brush or a stick on the bamboo surface, the strips were prepared in advance and tied together with strings to form a roll.
The new media also means new content: along with historical and administrative writings, the bamboo strips contains the earliest manuscripts of famous Chinese philosophical texts, such as the Laozi, Liji, and Lunyu. Beside bamboo, texts were also written on wooden tablets and silk cloth. The written language by this time is the so-called "classical Chinese" (wenyan) which had remained more or less the same as late as the 19th century.

A major event in the history of Chinese script is the standardization of writing by the First Emperor of Qin who unified China in 221 BC. Before that time, each of the many states in China had their own style and peculiarities which meant that, although mutually comprehensible, the scripts had many deviations. The First Emperor introduced the Qin script as the official writing and from there on all the unified states had to use it in their affairs. The calligraphic style of this period is the "clerical script" or lishu which is easily readable today even to the uninitiated.

Written by Imre Galambos

Origins of Chinese Writing @ 2000 Logoi.com. All Rights Reserved

Les origines de l'écriture chinoise
Początki chińskiego pisma
Shahon.org - Chinese manuscripts
Pictographs versus alphabet
The study of ancient characters in China
The Chinese zodiac
Ancient Chinese bronzes - Meaning and Explanation
Lao-tzu: pathless path
Chinese symbols
The Chinese alphabet
The non-ideographic nature of Chinese writing
The face of the beast - The Taotie
Chinese seals
Chinese manuscripts
A Galician Jew POW in Siberia
Why are Chinese symbols popular?
In search of the Chinese alphabet
Number of symbols in Chinese names
Goddess of Mercy good luck plaque
Funniest Chinese subtitles
Learning a language fast
Peking vs. Beijing