Ancient Chinese Writing: History of How It Began
Chinese was the first written East Asian language.
The earliest evidence of Ancient Chinese writing was found in the early 20th century CE when cattle bones and turtles shells were uncovered in China. Priests or holy men used the bones and shells to tell future events.
The bones and shells were inscribed with metal tools or with ink-filled brush strokes that described a positive and a negative outcome. The bones or shells were heated in a fire until cracks appeared in the bone or shell. Depending on where the cracks appeared, the future was told.
For example, if a king wanted to go to war against a neighboring tribe, characters were inscribed on the bones to predict whether he win or lose the war. If the cracks showed he would win, the war was on. If the cracks showed he would lose the war, the king and his army stayed at home.
Hundreds of thousands of oracle bones have been uncovered in China. They are inscribed with future topics such as, the weather, would a baby be a boy or a girl, battles, and health issues.
Although no other writing examples exist from this early time, the way in which the priests or holy men inscribed the characters on the bones shows that they understood grammar rules, which are still in use today.
Ancient Chinese Writing History: Characters and Symbols
Ancient Chinese writing, just like modern Chinese writing, had two parts to each character, a radical symbol and a phonetic symbol. The radical symbol showed the broad topic the character represented, such as the names for wet things included the character for water. The phonetic symbol described the sound of the character. Some characters were written by combining ideas into one symbol that described the idea or item.
Punctuation was not used in ancient Chinese writing. The ancient Chinese wrote characters on pages starting at the upper right corner and moving down in a vertical line. Books were opened from what a Western person would know as the back of the book or last page first.
History of Ancient Chinese Writing Styles
Chinese writing has changed from ancient times until modern times with seven different styles of writing: Oracle Bone, Great Seal, Small Seal, Clerical, Cursive, Regular, and Running. The last two styles, Regular and Running, are still in use in modern China.
The Oracle Bone (Jiaguwen) style used written characters that were simple in form. The early written characters resembled the actual object they were representing, such as a horizontal line with three vertical lines coming down and then three more vertical lines inscribed below was the written character for rain. When you think of rain, it often looks just like the character. The drops of water are not one continuous line, but have gaps between them.
The Great Seal (Dazhuan) style used different stroke thicknesses to form characters and the corners of the characters were rounded rather than coming to a “squared-off” point. The characters remained representations of objects and although the thickness of the lines blurs the picture representation, when looking at the Great Seal character style, it is still clear that a character was the object it represented.
This style of forming characters became popular in the Chou or Zhou dynasty from 1122-221 BCE. Most representations from this era in Ancient Chinese writing history are found on bronze vessels.
The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, the founder of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE, recognized a need for standardization in how characters were formed and their meaning. He required that the characters be uniform across the Chinese empire.
Emperor Qin Shihuangdi chose the writing style that was popular in his state of Qin (Ch’in) as the style the empire would use. While the characters used in the state of Qin closely resembled those of the Great Seal style, each stroke of the Small Seal (Lesser or Xiaozhuan) style was the same. Additionally, where the Great Seal style had rounder characters, the characters of the Small Seal style were very long.
When looking at the Small Seal style characters, it appears that the writers were beginning to use the character to represent the word for the object rather than making the character look like the object.
Once the Ancient Chinese began writing the characters to represent the objects, the characters began to mean the words for the objects. This meant that when it was raining, one could picture the horizontal and vertical lines that represented rain or vice versa, one could use the character for rain when recording information about the weather.
Another style of writing began in the Qin dynasty called Cursive (grass script or Caoshu) style, which is a fluid style of writing with few brush strokes. Lines and characters are connected together much like in Western cursive writing. Strokes are left out and the characters formed in Cursive style do not look like characters in the other styles.
Cursive style writing is valued for how it looks. The ability of the writer to create art with the characters rather than the practicality of creating text, such as for books, is what is important with Cursive style.
Following the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) established more official government offices, which increased the amount of writing by government officials. To make it easier for the government officials and clerks to write all of the incoming information, a new style of writing, Clerical (Lishu) style, grew in popularity. It was easier to write and it had stronger brush strokes.
The Regular (Standard or Kaishu) style began after the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) and became more important during the Tang dynasty (618 CE – 907 CE). Regular style continues to be used in modern China. The Regular style is square and the lines are the same size. Additionally, many characters continue to represent an object. For example, the character for rain 雨 has horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines. It looks like a windowpane with rain splashing against the glass.
Running (Xingshu) style began during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317 CE – 419 CE). It is another type of cursive writing. This style blends strokes together and makes the character more rounded. Running style continues to be used in modern China as a quick way to write characters.