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Chinese Characters: More than Pictographs

In the history of human civilizations, writing itself has inarguably been one of the most important technologies in society. Around the globe and throughout history, scholars now believe that systems of writing have been independently invented at least four times: in ancient Sumer sometime between 3400 to 3100 BCE, in Egypt around 3250 to 3200 BCE, in China around 1500 to 1200 BCE, and in Mesoamerica around 900-300 BCE (Clayton, 2019; Fagan, 1996).

Figure 1: Chinese characters.

However, among these examples of the invention of writing, the Chinese writing system is distinctive for both its longevity and the continued use of a logographic writing system as opposed to the phonographic writing systems, such as alphabets, used by the majority of modern languages today. Due to the uniqueness of the Chinese writing system, it is a common misconception that Chinese characters are pictographs or ideographs, but this is very far from true. Chinese writing is not made up of pictorial symbols or graphs that represent ideas; rather, Chinese characters represent words in the Chinese language and a knowledge of Chinese is necessary to read and understand them.

Figure 2: Relics in Yin Ruins Museum of Anyang.

To begin with, the earliest known examples of Chinese writing were discovered in northern China and date back to about 1200 BCE, during the latter part of the Shang Dynasty. These earliest examples were a part of divination rituals that involved inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells, giving them the name ‘oracle bone script’ or jiaguwen (Chen, 2007). Inscriptions on bronze artifacts, ‘bronze script’ or jinwen, also date from the same period (Houston, 2008; Norman, 2012). In addition to other regional and dialectal variations, the Shang Dynasty jinwen later developed into the succeeding Zhou Dynasty jinwen, which eventually gave way to the ‘seal script’ (zhuanshu), a standardized script imposed and popularized by Qin Shihuang, the emperor who reunified China in 221 BCE after a period of war. During the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) and Han Dynasty (207 BCE-220 CE), a secondary script known as ‘clerical script’ (lishu) developed. The classical clerical script of the Han Dynasty, which later became the standard script, was already very closely related to the later ‘standard script’ (kaishu) which is still used today (Norman, 2012).

Figure 3: Development of Chinese characters.

It is important to note that the oracle bone and bronze scripts of the late Shang Dynasty were already a fully developed writing system capable of conveying and recording complex ideas, which means the earliest stages of Chinese writing are not known (Houston, 2008). Despite the lack of archeological evidence of Chinese writing before 1200 BCE, analyzing the oracle bone and bronze scripts help to explain, in part, how the Chinese writing system developed. In fact, by the second century CE, ancient Chinese scholars were already cataloging their writing system. Around the beginning of the second century, Han Dynasty scholar Xu Shen published Shuowen jiezi, a dictionary, and an analysis of Chinese characters that sought to identify and catalog the Chinese writing system.