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Origin of Chinese Characters

When did calligraphy originate? This question probably interests everyone who wishes to study calligraphy. No precise date is given in ancient Chinese history. Legend says that during the reign of the Yellow Emperor a man named Cang Jie invented the Chinese language. Calligraphy came after invention of the language. We may attribute- the invention to 4,600 years ago, but this is only a legendary tale and may not be credible. What is interesting, however, is that archaeological discoveries since the birth of new China have authenticated that 4,500 years ago language came into existence in China. It follows that calligraphy entered an embryonic stage then.

Chinese characters have played a significant role in the development of the outstanding culture of the Chinese people. Chinese characters are one kind of the most ancient characters. In the world, there were originally ancient Sumerian and ancient Egyptian letters. However, the two disappeared successively and only Chinese characters remain extant.

Chinese characters, based on pictographs and combining shape, sound and meaning, become a kind of unique block-shape characters with meanings. Chinese characters originated from drawings. Archaeological researchers found many signs carved on earthenware excavated from the Banpo Village in Xi'an City and Jiangzhai Village in Lintong. These marks were carved in the Yangshao Culture Period 6,000 years ago in the primitive society. More than 4,000 years ago, people living in the Tai'an area of Shandong Province also carved some signs on earthenware. Take the character "" (dan in Pingyin, which means dawn) for instance: the sun ( ) rises upward crossing mountains and passing through cloud layers to tell people the morning has approached. It is safe to say that signs on earthenware are the origin of Chinese characters. That is to say, Chinese characters originated from drawings.

he most mature, earliest Chinese characters that have been discovered are Jiaguwen (inscriptions on tortoise shells and animal bones) of the Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago. The inscription on animal bones and tortoise shells look like drawings very much. Up till now, China has unearthed 150,000 pieces of animal bones and tortoise shells and has altogether discovered more than 4,600 non-repeated Chinese characters, among which more than 1,700 have been identified. The inscription on animal bones and tortoise shells has included phrases and simple sentences, providing much knowledge about the Shang Dynasty. Modern Chinese characters total more than 60,000, among which about 3,000 are frequently used characters.

There have been various stories about the origin of the Chinese script, with nearly all ancient writers attributing it to a man named Cangjie.

Cangjie, according to one legend, saw a divine being whose face had unusual features which looked like a picture of writings. In imitation of his image, Cangjie created the earliest written characters. After that, certain ancient accounts go on to say, millet rained from heaven and the spirits howled every night to lament the leakage of the divine secret of writing.

Another story says that Cangjie saw the footprints of birds and beasts, which inspired him to create written characters.Evidently these stories cannot be accepted as the truth, for any script can only be a creation developed by the masses of the people to meet the needs of social life over a long period of trial and experiment. Cangjie, if there ever was such a man, must have been a prehistoric wise man who sorted out and standardized the characters that had already been in use.

A group of ancient tombs have been discovered in recent years at Yanghe in Luxian County, Shandong Province. They date back 4,500 years and belong to a late period of the Dawenkou Culture. Among the large numbers of relics unearthed are about a dozen pottery wine vessels (called zun), which bear a character each. These characters are found to be stylized pictures of some physical objects. They are therefore called pictographs and, in style and structure, are already quite close to the inscriptions on the oracle bones and shells, though they antedate the latter by more than a thousand years.

The pictographs, the earliest forms of Chinese written characters, already possessed the characteristics of a script.As is well-known, written Chinese is not an alphabetic language, but a script of ideograms. Their formation follows three principles:Hieroglyphics Or The Drawing of Pictographs

As explained before, this was the earliest method by which Chinese characters were designed and from which the other methods were subsequently developed. For instance, the sun was written as , the moon as , water as , the cow as and so on. These picture-words underwent a gradual evolution over the centuries until the pictographs changed into "square characters," some simplified by losing certain strokes and others made more complicated but, as a whole, from irregular drawings they became stylized forms.

Associative Compounds

The principle of forming characters by drawing pictures is easy to understand, but pictographs cannot express abstract ideas. So the ancients invented the "associative compounds," i. e., characters formed by combining two or more elements, each with a meaning of its own, to express new ideas. Thus, the sun and the moon written together became the character (ming), which means "bright"; the sun placed over a line representing the horizon formed the ideogram (dan) which means "sunrise" or "morning".


Though pictographs and associative compounds indicate the meanings of characters by their forms, yet neither of the two categories gives any hint as to pronunciation. The pictophonetic method was developed to create new characters by combining one element indicating meaning and the other sound. For instance, 爸 (ba) the Chinese character for "papa" is formed by the element 巴 (ba) which represents the sound and the element 父 (fu) which represents the meaning (father). Likewise the character 芭 (ba) is formed by 巴 (the sound) and ++, indicating a plant. In this way, more and more characters were made until such pictophonetics constitute today about 90 percent of all Chinese characters.

Analysis of Chinese Characters

Calligraphy is the art of writing Chinese characters. To understand calligraphy, one must first know something about Chinese characters. The various nationalities in the world have created their own languages, but the Chinese have created an independent calligraphic art. Why? The reason is mainly related to the features of the language.
Languages fall into two systems; one expresses sound; the other expresses meaning. The cuneiform writing of the Sumerian, the Katakana in the Japanese language, English, French, Russian, German and Latin-these languages are phonetic. The language of the sacred books of ancient Egypt, the pictographic language of Crete, the Chinese language and the language of the Dongba nationality are all ideographic.

Ideographic languages have for the most part become extinct. Only one such language, Chinese, is still widely used today. A comparison of the two systems of language indicates that a phonetic language has an advantage over an ideographic language. Alphabets with few letters can easily be learned and memorized. Such a language can be popularized more easily. The pinyin form of Chinese represents the direction of language development. An ideographic language has a great many symbols. The morphology is cumbersome and difficult. It is hard to learn and remember it. Such a language cannot easily be popularized.

The inscriptions on bones and tortoise .shells of the Shang Dynasty, three thousand years ago or so, had vocabularies of five thousand symbols. The recently published Han Yu Da Zi Dian, a comprehensive Chinese-language dictionary, has over 54,000 entries. So vast is the Chinese vocabulary! Every character can be written in regular script, grass script, official script, etc., and every script can be written differently, ranging from a few to as many as scores of styles. The largest runs to about one hundred. For example, bai shou tu shows one hundred ways to write shou (longevity) in official script.

The Chinese language contains an enormous number of characters. A Chinese who spends his entire life learning to write his language will find it difficult to complete his task. The difficulty facing the novice can hardly be imagined.

Everything in the world is said to have a dual character. If it possesses advantages, it will also have drawbacks. This is also true to language. In the case of Chinese there is a huge stock of characters and the morphology varies greatly. This means that you can write words in many ways. The drawback is thus turned into an advantage. It opened up a huge vista for Chinese calligraphy to develop into an independent art. Chinese characters may be difficult to master, but they are governed by rules. Just like notes in music, characters are formed by changing the combination of elements. Tens of thousands of words in Chinese can be broken down into several hundred component parts. Take, for instance, the two characters Zhong Guo (China). The character zhong  is made up of  and a vertical stroke . The character guo  is made up of  and . Further analysis of Chinese characters leads to the discovery that there are eight basic strokes: namely, dot ( ), dash (), perpendicular downstroke ( ), downstroke to the left ( ), wavelike stroke ( ), hook ( ), upstroke to the right ( ) and bend ( ). The eight basic strokes, like notes in music, can be developed into many "tunes" and "movements", or schools of Chinese calligraphy.

Every Chinese character can be said to contain a picture. The two characters and show sunrise and sunset. In primitive pottery inscriptions was written as , made up of (sun), (moon), and (mountain), showing that the moon had gone down behind a mountain and that the sun is rising. The character  was written as  in ancient script. In official script it is written as .  indicates grass.  indicates a thick growth of grass. The picture shows that the sun has set behind a thick growth of grass. It is not too much to say that these two characters are pictures of sunrise and sunset. The reason why Chinese calligraphy has devel oped into an art containing images may be closely related to the fact that a picture stands for a word. Some will perhaps remark that Chinese calligraphy is the art of the brush. This is true. If you use a stiff or hard pen, it is difficult to write such beautiful characters as done by the brush. If you try to use a brush to write the twenty-six letters in the pinyt'n system, it is also difficult to create such beautiful images as in Chinese calligraphy.

Last Updated on Friday, 11 March 2011 17:49