The Evolution of Chinese Characters

BY CchattyArticleComprehensive Chinese
Release time:2018-05-02
Tag: Chinese Characters
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The evolution of Chinese Characters has been an incredibly long process of growth and development. It started more than 3.000 years ago with Jiaguwen inscriptions that were made on bones or tortoise shells during the Shang Dynasty.
part 1

The Evolution of Chinese Characters

Chinese  Characters-Characteristic of Chinese character

Chinese Characters have witnessed an incredibly long process of growth and development. It started more than 3.000 years ago with Jiaguwen inscriptions carved on bones or tortoise shells during the Shang Dynasty. Since that time, Chinese Characters have evolved through the following stages: Jinwen (inscriptions on ancient bronze ware), Xiaozhuan (the lesser seal style Chinese characters of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)), Lishu (the official script of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and Kaishu (the regular script of today). During the development process, drawings evolved into strokes, pictographic characters became symbols, and complex characters changed into more simple forms. Simplification has always been at the heart of the development of the Chinese Characters.

part 2

Ancient Drawing-like Characters

Chinese  Characters-Oracle Bone Inscription

After a certain period of time, primitive drawing characters became “ancient characters.” These characters still looked like drawings to a certain degree but were comparatively mature. The use of these mature Chinese Characters coincided with China's progression from an era of shadowy legends into a time of true, recorded history.

1, Characters from Underground - jiaguwen

Some 100 years ago, when the farmers of Xiaotun Village, Anyang, Henan Province were working in their fields, they often found fragments of bone in the soil. Many of these had symbols inscribed on them. The farmers used these inscribed fragments to make a traditional Chinese medicine named “longgu” (dragon’s bones), which they then sold in pharmacies for extra cash. These “dragon’s bones” were Jiagu, i.e., tortoise shells and the bones of non-mythical animals. The symbols inscribed on them, therefore, became known as Jiaguwen. They had been made over 3,000 years earlier.

Jiaguwen is a kind of character that was used during the Shang (1600- 1046 BC) and Western Zhou (1046-771 BC) Dynasties. They were used to record words, phrases and simple sentences. Jiaguwen was a kind of ideographic symbolic language that could be read, pronounced and utilized to record complex ideas. Jiaguwen consisted of comparatively mature characters. It is therefore regrettable that, for a long period, many examples of these rare and ancient characters were ground up and eaten as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)!

1.1 TCM reveals its secret

Chinese people didn’t recognize the existence of Jiaguwen for thousands of years. Then in 1899, an official named Wang Yirong (1845-1900), who was in charge of wine sacrifice for the Imperial College of the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), became sick and had to take traditional Chinese medicine. He found many very tiny inscriptions on the “dragon’s bones" that he had bought. He was wild with excitement and brought some bigger “dragon’s bones” to investigate things further. Luckily, Wang Yirong was a learned person who had an interest in ancient characters. After collecting and studying the “bones,” he realized that the symbols on the bones were very ancient characters from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). These characters were inscribed on tortoise shells and animal bones, so people of later generations called them “Jiaguwen” (inscriptions on tortoise shells or bones). These Jiaguwen pieces came from the previously mentioned village of Xiaotun.

The region around Xiaotun Village was the capital of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), which was called “Yin.” After the fall of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the area gradually fell into ruin and was eventually buried, so people referred to the place as “Yinxu” (meaning, the ruins of the Yin). In all, about 150,000 pieces of Jiaguwen of the later Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) have been unearthed from Yinxu and other places. More than 4,500 different character symbols have been discovered on these pieces, and more than 1,500 characters have been deciphered and interpreted.

1.2 Mysterious Divination

The society of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) was fixated on the worship of gods and ghosts. The Emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) would make an act of divination using tortoise shells and animal bones. There are mainly three reasons for this act. First, to see whether there would be a harvest; second, to see if the wind and rain would be moderate or heavy; third, to see whether or not his people would be victorious in war; finally, to see if they would be successful when out hunting.

For the act of divination, small round holes were made in the back of tortoise shells or animal bones. The official in charge would cry out and ask the heavenly gods and ancestral gods to settle whatever question had been asked by the emperor. Then the small holes would be fired or baked with a hot charcoal stick. After they had been heated in this way, the tortoise shells and animal bones would crack. The answer to the question would be decided by the crack. Finally, they would inscribe the divination questions and answers on the tortoise shells and animal bones using characters. These three steps explain how the Jiaguwen we know today came into being. It can, therefore, be said that a Jiaguwen is a form of divination and that the Jiaguwen characters act as a type of communication between man and god. It should be noted that Jiaguwen pieces were also used for recording events.

1.3 Drawings Using Vigorous Lines

Jiaguwen was a kind of ancient character-language based on drawings. It featured many pictographic characters that manifested the typical features of things. For example, in Jiaguwen the characters for “(鹿) deer” and “(虎) tiger” could be written in various ways, but the character for “deer” was always drawn with horns and the character for “tiger” with stripes. In Jiaguwen the character of  “(马) horse” always included the mane on the horse's neck.

The formal structure of a Jiaguwen character was composed of lines and strokes. Tortoise shells and animal bones are hard, and it is difficult to inscribe characters on them, so the strokes of Jiaguwen were mostly straight lines carved with the point of a knife. The lines were thin, rigid and straight, and showed a beautiful and primitive simplicity and vigorousness.

Although Jiaguwen were drawings composed of lines, they were indicative symbols, and people could understand their meanings. The large number of ideographic divination words found on the tortoise shells and animal bones that have been unearthed tell us that, as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) more than 3,000 years ago, Chinese Characters had become a relatively complete system for recording language.

1.4 History and Culture

Jiaguwen inscriptions on animal bones or tortoise shells recorded many elements of the rich culture of the Shang Dynasties (1600-1046 BC), which included its agriculture, animal husbandry, sacrifices, wars, astronomy and daily life. For example, the famous Jiaguwen, known as the “Divination on Cattle Bones, Multitude Working in Fields” of the Shang Dynasty (1600- 1046 BC), tells the story about the emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). In the story he asked God, “if the emperor orders a multitude of people to work together in the fields, can we get a good harvest?” These divination characters reflect the fact that farming in the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) was conducted by groups of slaves. The Jiaguwen, known as the “Moon Eclipse Again, Characters on Cattle Bones,” of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), has great scientific value as, according to specialists, it is a written record of a total lunar eclipse, which occurred on the second day of the seventh month of 1173 BC. This Jiaguwen has been deciphered and is thought to say: “Renyin Zhen” Moon Eclipse Again “(壬寅贞月又食).”

Jiaguwen recorded many natural phenomena, including lunar and solar eclipses, heavy rain, rainbows, gales, drought, and sandstorms. The historical details of the Shang Dynasty they record conform with the Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian) which were written by the historian Sima Qian (145 - 87 BC). The Jiaguwen not only shed light on the culture of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) but also confirm the value of the Records of the Grand Historian, which is vital information for modern historians.

1.5 The Mystery of Fu Hao

In 1976, archaeologists excavated a medium-sized royal grave of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) in the palace area of Xiaotun Village, Anyang. In this grave, they found 1,928 pieces of bronze and jade. The archaeologists discovered that the person buried in the tomb was a woman named “Fu Hao.”

According to over 200 pieces of the tortoiseshell or animal bone Jiaguwen in her grave, she was the wife of Wu Ding, Emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). She was also a brave and beautiful female general. She had led many victorious armies, held numerous palace sacrificial ceremonies and divinations, enjoyed a very high position in court, and had been accorded a corresponding level of prestige. The Jiagu divination words the archaeologists discovered revealed a story that was a little bittersweet. They showed that Wu Ding always worried about the welfare of Fu Hao, especially when battles raged outside their castle walls. He, therefore, made divinations for her health and safety almost every day. These divination inscriptions include: “Now it is rainy in the north, does she know how to pay attention to the weather?”, “It is cold these days, will she feel the cold?”, “She has a pain in her bones; oh, how about her now?” These short-verse divination words on tortoise shells and animal bones are full of Wu Ding’s profound thoughts and endless love for Fu Hao. Later, when Fu Hao died, at the age of 33, Wu Ding was overwhelmed with sadness. He buried his beloved wife within his palace’s walls and held a ceremonial funeral.

2, Inscriptions on Bronze - the Wonder of China’s Bronze Age

In about 3,500 BC, the East entered the Bronze Age. At that time the earliest bronze ware appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The “Age of Bronze Ware” in China emerged a little later, in about 3,000 BC. During the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) periods of the so-called “slavery society,” the production of bronze ware in China reached its peak. This period was, therefore, the real “Bronze Age” in China. The bronze ware of the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) Dynasties became the wonder of this era because of its beautiful shapes, exquisite line decorations, superb craftsmanship and majestic inscriptions.

Bronze ware from this era was made of bronze to which a little tin had been added. It, therefore, had a beautiful sheen. At that time, bronze was called “Jin,” so the inscriptions on the bronze ware items are called “Jinwen,” with “wen” meaning “inscriptions.” Ding tripods and Zhong bells were the most important sacrificial bronze vessels of the time and were inscribed with many characters, so bronzeware inscriptions are also known as “Zhong Ding Wen”. These inscriptions are recognized as one of the wonders of the world’s various Bronze Age cultures.

2.1 Sacrificial Vessels Buried Underground

Bronze ware was a precious thing in the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) Dynasties. It was often used as a ceremonial container and was, most importantly, used as a sacrificial vessel by slave owners and nobles when they worshipped their gods and ancestors. At that time, bronze ware was a symbol of power, high position, and prestige. The higher a person’s status, the more bronze ware they owned. For example, the bronze Ding tripod was one of the most critical sacrificial vessels in existence at the time. A king would have the most of these vessels (e.g., nine pieces), and other officials and nobles would have fewer of them (e.g., seven, five, three or one). Ordinary people were not allowed to own any Ding.

At that time princes and nobles often had details of significant events, such as sacrifices, battle victories, and awards, inscribed on their bronze ware. The inscription was done in style similar to that used to make Jiaguwen characters and was intended to provide a permanent record of important happenings. These inscriptions are the Jinwen we know today. After their death, a prince or a noble would have their bronze ware buried alongside them. The bronze ware of the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) Dynasties that we can see today has almost all been excavated from burial sites.

2.2 Majestic Jinwen

The bronze ware of the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) Dynasties had begun to be unearthed as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Since then tens of thousands of bronze ware items have been excavated. More than 3,000 different Jinwen characters have been discovered on the bronze ware of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, and more than 2,000 of these have been decoded. Jinwen still looks like drawings, but they are more shapely than Jiaguwen. Their strokes are fuller and more rounded than Jiaguwen, their linear features stronger, and many of their characters simpler.

Another aspect that differentiates Jinwen characters from Jiaguwen characters is the fact that they were the first to have been written using a brush. They were then inscribed onto the bronze ware that carried them. In comparison, Jiaguwen characters were carved with a knife. Because of the way in which they were created, Jinwen incorporated brushstroke elements and exhibited a primitive simplicity, vigor, and majesty in their aesthetics.

2.3 The Appearance of Long Inscriptions

In the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) the inscriptions on Chinese bronze ware only featured a few In the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the inscriptions on Chinese bronze ware only featured a few characters. Indeed, some just had a couple of characters. For example, only three characters are inscribed inside the Simuwu Ding of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), which was unearthed from Yin’s ruins. It weighs 832 kg and is the largest bronze Ding from ancient China yet found. Its three characters are “Simuwu 司母戊,” They show that this big bronze article was cast by Wu Ding, Emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) and that it was used for holding sacrificial ceremonies for his mother “Wu.”

In the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) the longest bronze ware inscription (yet found) had only 42 In the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the longest bronze ware inscription (yet found) had only 42 characters. In the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), these inscriptions became longer. In this era, inscriptions appeared on bronze ware that were hundreds of characters in length and which recorded things in great detail. For example, the longest bronze ware inscription from this period (yet found) appears on the Maogong Ding of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). This inscription comprises 497 characters which make up a long passage. The next longest inscription is found on the Sanshi Plate of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). The inscription on its underside has a total of 357 characters.

2.4 The Historical Value of Bronze Ware Inscriptions

At present, most of the important social and historical information we know about the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) Dynasties have been obtained from bronze ware inscriptions. For example, in 1976, a Ligui, a kind of bronze ware from the early Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), was unearthed. It carried an inscription of 32 characters that revealed a great deal about how the Emperor Wuwang of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC) conquered the Emperor Zhou of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). It tells us that this famous battle was finished within a day, which confirms the records contained in Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian) that “On the Day of Jiazi, the forces of the Shang Dynasty were defeated.”

The famous Dayu Ding carries an inscription of 291 characters, which record a story about a nobleman named Yu of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). This nobleman was commended by Emperor Zhou who told him with “sincere words and earnest wishes” that he should not idle away his life seeking pleasure like the Emperor of the Shang Dynasty. Instead, he was told that he should put his best efforts into serving his country. On the reverse side of the Shiqiang plate, a piece of bronze ware from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), there is a 284-character inscription. This inscription praises the merits of all of the past emperors of the Zhou Dynasty and tells the history of the maker’s own family. From this, it is possible to learn a great deal about the historical situation of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC) and the policies adopted by the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC) regarding the survivors of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). The inscription is of great historical value.

The Jinwen of the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) Dynasties form a link between the Jiaguwen that preceded them and the Xiaozhuan that followed. The Xiaozhuan are the lesser seal style of characters that were adopted in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Jinwen characters looked like drawings, but they marked a significant step from earlier pictographic and ideographic forms to the square linear ideographic Chinese Characters that we recognize today.

3, Xiaozhuan - Ancient Artistic Characters

The Evolution of Chinese Characters+Hello+Ancient Drawing-like Characters2

Xiaozhuan (the lesser seal style of Chinese characters) came into being because of the policy of “writing in the same characters”, adopted by Emperor Qinshihuang of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). In comparison to the earlier Jinwen characters, Xiaozhuan characters were more uncomplicated, and the composition of their lines was less similar to drawings. The emergence of Xiaozhuan marked the final phase in the development of ancient Chinese characters.

3.1 The Emergence of Xiaozhuan

During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC) - which existed after the Western Zhou Dynasty - the royal authority of Zhou Dynasty collapsed. As a result, China’s various hereditary fiefdoms became dominate. Various states fought each other for power, and this resulted in endless wars (this was particularly the case during the Warring States Period (475-221BC)). As a result of this division, the forms of Chinese Characters were not standardized. Characters were written in different ways in the 齐 Qi, 楚 Chu, 燕 Yan, 韩 Han, 赵 Zhao, and the 魏 Wei States in the east and by the 秦 Qin State in the west. The pronunciation of some characters was also different.

In 221 BC, Ying Zheng, King of the Qin state, conquered the six eastern countries and united China. He then proclaimed himself “Emperor Qinshihuang.” To spread government orders to the whole nation and to make people understand what he wanted them to do, Emperor Qinshihuang took immediate action to unify the way in which characters were written and instigated a nationwide policy of “writing in the same characters.” The Emperor ordered his Prime Minister Li Si to oversee the work of unifying characters. Using the characters prevalent in the Qin State as a standard, Li Si incorporated the best elements of the characters used by the other states, and so established a unified written language. Jiaguwen, Jinwen and the characters of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) were collectively known as Dazhuan (big seal characters). The characters unified by Emperor Qinshihuang of the Qin Dynasty (221- 206 BC), which had a simpler structure than Dazhuan characters, were called Xiaozhuan (lesser seal characters). “Zhuan” means drawing with crooked lines.

This unification was the first large-scale simplification and standardization of Chinese Characters, and it led to the establishment of a single set of Chinese Characters during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

3.2 Ancient Artistic Characters

Xiaozhuan is a very charming style of calligraphy. The beauty is in its ordered rectangular forms, its regular and symmetrical structure, its rounded and graceful strokes, and its lines that exhibit an even thickness. Xiaozhuan is considered to be the most beautiful characters that were ever used in ancient China, and, therefore, they are known as the “artistic characters.” Compared to Dazhuan characters, Xiaozhuan characters are simpler, and each has only one written form. Also, the right-angles of the strokes used to make Dazhuan characters are more rounded than those used to create Xiaozhuan characters.

In Xiaozhaun characters, the number of strokes and the forms and position of their components are fixed. Compared to Dazhuan characters, Xiaozhaun characters contain more components that indicate sounds. The Xiaozhuan character set also has more pictophonetic characters that can be pronounced and which have meaning. If you look carefully, it is possible to see the occasional pictographic clue in some Xiaozhuan characters. But these features are not apparent, which shows that Xiaozhuan characters had evolved a long way from earlier character sets based on drawings.

3.3 The Official Style of Characters in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)

In the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), Xiaozhuan was the official style of characters that were used for all important government documents. For example, when Emperor Qinshihuang unified the standards used to measure length, capacity and weight, the inscriptions on the bronze imperial edicts that were issued across the country were in style of Xiaozhuan. Today we can see Xiaozhuan inscriptions on many of the Qin Dynasty measuring instruments that have been unearthed by archaeologists all around China. We can also find the Xiaozhuan of the Qin Dynasty on excavated coins, roof tiles, weapons, tiger-shaped tallies (used by the emperor to mobilize soldiers) and ancient styles.

3.4 Carving Stones of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)

In 219 BC, having united China, Emperor Qinshihuang led a caravan of carts and horses and visited seven strategically valuable places. At each of these, he set up a stone stele that praised his merits. The inscriptions on these steles were written by Li Si in Xiaozhuan.

The Xiaozhuan characters carved on these stones had an ordered and precise design. They were written using beautiful, rounded strokes and had a vigorous and straightforward style. These characters were considered to represent the orthodox school of Xiaozhuan.

Of the seven steles Emperor Qinshihuang erected, only the Taishan Carved Stone and Langyatai Carved Stone are still extant, and most of the original stone inscriptions have been destroyed. Later copies of the other five carved stones, such as the Yishan Carved Stone, do, however, exist. These Carved Stones of the Qin Dynasty provide valuable materials for the study of the development of Chinese Characters.

part 3

The Development of Modern Characters

Modern Chinese Characters

After Xiaozhuan, Chinese Characters entered a new stage in which “modern characters” came into use. The calligraphy styles of these new characters included Lishu (official script) and Kaishu (regular script). These new types of Chinese Characters were removed entirely from drawing and were merely characters composed of strokes and symbols. Many new types of Chinese characters were pictophonetic characters that could be read and pronounced and which had meanings as words. Characters were no longer pictographs and were exclusively indicative symbols. This evolution from pictographic to indicative symbols marked a significant change in the development of Han script and was of enormous significance in the history of Chinese characters.

 1. Lishu-the Demarcation Line Between Ancient and Modern Characters

In the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), while Xiaozhuan was still popular, another faster and more convenient style of calligraphy began to attract people’s attention—Lishu. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) Lishu developed into its mature form. The structures of these mature Lishu characters were composed of straight strokes, and their forms were simplified. The characters were entirely dissimilar to drawings and were purely symbolic. Lishu, therefore, broke the pictographic mold of ancient characters. It ended the ancient-character phase and ushered in the use of the modern characters we see today.

1.1 The Contribution Made by Yamen Servants

Paper was invented during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD), but it was not widely adopted until the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). In the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), people therefore usually wrote characters on strips of bamboo or wood, using brushes. In order to write more quickly, the yamen servants who were in charge of composing official documents adopted the calligraphy style that was used by many ordinary folks, which involved changing the rounded strokes of Xiaozhuan (the lesser seal style) to straight lines and simplifying the forms. As this style of new, simplified calligraphy had been created by lowly officials (Li people) whose job was to write documents, it was called Lishu (in this word “shu” means “writing”).

The use of brush pens and the need to write Xiaozhuan faster led to the creation of Lishu. The reason is that examples of this new style of writing have been found on many excavated bamboo and wooden strips, such as those of the Qin State from Shuihudi, Yunmeng. The forms of the Lishu characters on these strips are entirely different from Xiaozhuan. One of the key archaeological finds that have shed light on the development of Lishu is the famous Juyan Han strips that were discovered in the Ejin River Basin, in Inner Mongolia. More than 30,000 of these strips have been found. The oblate Lishu characters they contain not only show the high level of Lishu calligraphy that existed during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), but also reveals the artistic freedom of the people who created them. According to such archaeological evidence, Lishu was a popular calligraphy style during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), during which time only important official documents were written in Xiaozhuan. In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Lishu was in frequent use by all classes, from government officials to ordinary people.

1.2 The Change of Lishu - a Great Revolution in the Development of Characters

The development of Lishu brought about a considerable simplification of the strokes and forms of Xiaozhuan characters. Lishu made the remnants of the pictographic lines found in Xiaozhuan characters obsolete and marked the point at which Chinese Characters become solely ideographic symbols composed of strokes. Lishu is, therefore, the demarcation line between China’s ancient and modern characters. In other words, before Lishu, Chinese Characters were “ancient characters,” similar to drawings, and after the arrival of Lishu, Chinese Characters became “modern characters” that bore no relationship with drawings. The evolution of Chinese Characters from Zhuanshu to Lishu is known as the “Change of Lishu.”

In summary, after the Change of Lishu, the lines of Chinese Characters altered from bent to straight, their pictographic characters disappeared, and they began to take on a new style wholly composed of strokes. In other words, drawing-like “line characters” were replaced with “stroke characters.” Lishu characters were also more uncomplicated and had a more excellent symbolic quality.

The Change of Lishu made it much easier for people to learn and write Chinese Characters. It was an enormous revolution in the development of Chinese Characters.

1.3 The Emergence of Han Li

“Han Li” is a kind of Lishu that appeared in the Han Dynasty (206 BC -220 AD). It had an oblate form and was easier and faster to write than the character forms that preceded it.

Han Li characters were faster to write on strips of bamboo and wood because they have a flatter and straighter strokes than Xiaozhuan characters. Some of their longer strokes are also disconnected, e.g., the strokes of point (丶), horizontal ( 一 ), vertical ( 丨 ), left- falling (丿 ) and right-falling ( 丶).

In Han Li, a horizontal stroke has what is known as “three turns within a wave,” the endings of a horizontal, left-falling, and right- falling stroke rise upward, and the left-falling and right-falling strokes extend on two sides. Lively and beautiful wave-like strokes are the most obvious features of Han Li.

Also, in order to make it easier to write more characters onto strips of bamboo and wood, Han Li Lishu characters were given a more oblate shape than Xiaozhuan characters, while their form and structure were simplified. For example, the components of “水 shui (water),” “手shou (hand)” and "心 xin (heart)" in Xiaozhuan changed to“字” and “个” in Lishu. As part of this simplification process, many of the different strokes used in Xiaozhuan characters were changed to a single component in Han Li characters. For example, the claw and tail in the Xiaozhuan character “鸟 bird,” the tails in the two characters of “燕 swallow” and “鱼 fish,” and the leg and tail in character “马 horse” were all changed to four dots in Han Li characters. Therefore, the last of the pictographic lines used in Xiaozhuan disappeared.

1.4 The Elegant Styles of Han Li

The Evolution of Chinese Characters+Hello+The Development of Modern Characters2

Many Lishu characters have been preserved on bamboo and wood strips and stone steles, however, the highest achievement of ancient Lishu is displayed on the stele inscriptions of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD). A huge number of such inscriptions have been found. They have various styles, and show a high level of sophistication. Examples include the Stele of Sacrificial Vessels, which presents a solemn but lovely calligraphy style, the beautiful and elegant Yiying Stele, the sturdy and straightforward Zhangqian Stele, the unrestrained Ode to Shimen, and the vigorous and lively Ode to Xixia. These have all long been seen as excellent models for students of calligraphy to copy and follow.

In 175 AD, Cai Yong (133-192), a great scholar of the Eastern Han Dynasty, wrote major Confucian classics in the Lishu style (this was done in collaboration with some others). The classics include the Shi Jing (Classics of Poetry), the Shang Shu (The Book of History) and the Lun Yu {Analects of Confucius). These books were carved onto 46 stone steles by famous craftsmen, which were then set up at the door of Luoyang Taixue (the Imperial College). They are known as the famous “Xiping Shijing.” It is said that at the time many intellectuals came to Luoyang to see and learn the Shijing.

Xiping Shijing is the earliest official Confucian classic in China. The Lishu characters inscribed on the steles have become an epitome of Han Li and are regarded as a masterpiece of this type of writing. Only a few relics of the Xiping Shijing survived to the present day.

2. Kaishu - the Standard Calligraphic style

Kaishu (regular script) is also known as “Zhenshu” (real script) or “Zhengshu” (regular script). It received its name because people often practice this style when learning calligraphy.

Kaishu evolved from Han Li Lishu and appeared at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). In the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) Dynasties, it developed and matured. Kaishu is easier to write than Lishu and easier to read than Caoshu (cursive hand). It is therefore still popular today and has become a standard calligraphy style that has enjoyed an extensive usage.

2.1 Upright and Foursquare Chinese Characters

It is said that Zhong You, a minister of Wei State in the Three Kingdoms (220-280) period, wrote the earliest Kaishu. He changed the wave-like strokes of Lishu to straight horizontal and vertical lines. He also changed the endings of horizontal, left-falling and right-falling strokes so that they did not rise upward. He also introduced the hook stroke, which made the characters’ form upright and four-square. These changes made the characters simpler and easier to write.

Kaishu and Lishu are therefore basically the same regarding their structure and form. The only difference is in the way their strokes are made. Kaishu characters have a four-square form, asymmetrical and precise structure, and generous and beautiful strokes.

In summary, the strokes of Kaishu are straight and have no wave or tendency to rise at their endings like Lishu.

2.2 Eight Strokes of Character “永 yong”

In ancient times the eight strokes of the character “永” were used for learning Kaishu. This character demonstrated the eight basic strokes of Kaishu: dot, horizontal, vertical, left-falling, right-falling, turn, lift and hook strokes. To master the basic strokes of Kaishu, a person had to write the character “永” repeatedly.


2.3 Yan Tendon and Liu Bone

In ancient times, many of the great calligraphers who practiced Kaishu exhibited different styles in the way they made their strokes. For example, in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Yan Zhenqing (709-785) wrote characters using full and sturdy strokes, whereas the strokes of Liu Gongquan’s (778-865) characters were thin and rigid. Hence the phrases “Yan tendon and Liu bone” and “Yan fat and Liu thin” are used to describing the different Kaishu styles of these two scholars. The Kaishu characters of Ouyang Xun (557-641) in the Tang Dynasty were round, fluent, square and forceful, while the Kaishu characters of Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) in the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) were round and fluent. People refer to Yan Zhenqing, Liu Gongquan, Ouyang Xun and Zhao Mengfu as the four great ancient Kaishu calligraphers of China.

2.4 The Most Popular Character Styles

The Chinese Characters used today are either printed or handwritten Kaishu. Since the invention of printing in the Song Dynasty (960—1279), Kaishu has been the primary style of characters used for printing books, magazines, and newspapers. Some variants of Kaishu are also used, which include Songti or Song-Dynasty style, Fangsongti (which is an imitation of Song-dynasty style Kaishu) and Heiti (which is a boldface style). In the printing style of Kaishu, character strokes are horizontal or vertical. The characters are clear and beautiful, and their structure is ordered and symmetric. These characters are therefore the most favored by the public.

Kaishu represents the last stage in the evolution of Chinese Characters. Since the formation of Kaishu there has been a degree of structural simplification in the way that characters are formed, but no significant changes.

3, A Lively and Vigorous Cursive Hand

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The cursive hand is a simplified and continuous way of writing Lishu characters. It breaks away from the square forms of Chinese Characters. Its lines are fluttering, its strokes are connected, and its characters are lively and vigorous. It is hard to read characters that are written in this way. However, although it is not exactly practical, it has great aesthetic beauty. The cursive hand is divided into three types: Zhangcao, Jincao, and Kuangcao. Zhangcao is the cursive hand’s initial stage. Jincao evolved from Zhangcao. Kuangcao is the most mature form of the cursive hand. The written Kuangcao characters are quite lively and vigorous and are much admired for their artistic value. In China, there have been many famous masters of cursive-hand calligraphy. One of the most famous was Zhang Xu (675-750), a great calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). His Kuangcao works are free, bold, unrestrained and full of momentum and enthusiasm. People much admire Zhang Xu's cursive-hand works and refer to him as “the master of cursive handwriting.”


4, Running Hand - a Fluent and Practical Style

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Running hand is the style of writing that results when Kaishu is written quickly. Its characters are neither as ordered as Kaishu nor as elegant as cursive writing. It is a style that lies somewhere between regular script and cursive hand. If we describe Kaishu as a “sitting” style of writing and cursive hand as a “flying” style, then running hand is a “walking” style.

Running hand is extremely practical and is the way in which many people write on a day-to-day basis. However, the style can also have artistic merits. There were many great calligraphers of running hand in ancient China, such as Wang Xizhi (303-361) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420). Wang Xizhi was an outstanding calligrapher, and he was extremely good at Kaishu, running hand and cursive hand. People called him “the master of calligraphy.” The Lan Ting Xu was written by Wang Xizhi in the running hand style. It has beautifully formed characters and fluent strokes. The work is considered as the “No.l running-hand work in all the world.”

part 4

The Main Aspects of the Development of Chinese Characters

The Main Aspects of the Development of Chinese Characters

If a Chinese character has two or more forms, the one with more strokes is called a complex If a Chinese character has two or more forms, the one with more strokes is called a complex character while the one with fewer strokes is called a simplified character. Since ancient times, complex and simplified characters have coexisted. However, the main trend in the development of Chinese Characters has been one of simplification in which complex characters have been replaced by simpler forms.


1, The Simplification of Chinese Characters in History

Ever since they came into being Chinese Characters have been difficult to learn, challenging to write Ever since they came into being Chinese Characters have been difficult to learn, challenging to write and hard to memorize. To try and make them easier to master, people have never stopped working to simplify them. Ancient China was witness to several key stages in the simplification of Chinese Characters. These included the evolution from Dazhuan to Xiaozhuan and from Xiaozhuan to Lishu. Ordinary people of ancient China also created simplified characters by using simpler strokes. These were called “characters of nonstandard forms” at that time. Most of the simplified characters used in modern China are derived from these “nonstandard forms.” Some people think that philologists first painted them in ancient book-lined studies, but this is not the case.


2, The Simplification of Chinese Characters Today

Since the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Government has promoted the simplification of Chinese Characters as part of a major program to standardize the characters. This program principally involves two areas of work: the reduction of the number of strokes characters contain and a reduction in the overall number of characters. The simplified characters currently used on the Chinese mainland were standardized on the basis of an ongoing study that was started by the Chinese Government in 1956. In 1964 China issued the General Table of Simplified Characters, and then in 1986, it released an updated version, which led to a total of 2,263 complex characters being replaced by 2,235 simplified characters (equivalent to one-third of the total number of characters in use). After simplification, the number of strokes used in Chinese Characters was reduced by nearly 50 percent. The speed at which they could be written increased correspondingly.

Today, any character not complying with the General Table of Simplified Characters is not considered to be a standard character. Such characters include the complex characters of “學 (学) xue” and “習 (习) xi” which have been replaced by their simplified forms. Variant Chinese characters have also been abolished, such as “盃 (杯) bei,” “採 (采) cai.”

Simplified characters not included in the General Table or which are created by someone for other use, such as “亍 (街),” and “辺 (道),” cannot be used as standard characters.

It is appropriate to remark here that complex characters are not standard characters, though they are not incorrect. Indeed, they are still used in the compilation of ancient books, in the study of Chinese and in works of calligraphy.

In 2013, the government of China issued the General Standard Chinese Characters Table, which identified a total of 8,105 general standard Chinese characters.

The well-formed characters in this table have definite meanings and can be written quickly. For instance, the complex character “龜 (gui)” depicts what a tortoise is like, but is difficult to write due to its numerous strokes. In comparison, its simplified form is “龟(gui)” –which also depicts the look of a tortoise, but only has seven strokes and is therefore easy to write.

The complex characters “憂鬱 (youyu)”are another example. They too have many strokes and are much easier to write in their simplified form “忧郁 (youyu).”

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Simplified characters are convenient for people to write and their usage has become more and more popular. They have been adopted by people across the Chinese mainland and in the international community. For example, the Chinese versions of UN documents make use of simplified characters.

During its history, ancient China witnessed many grand schemes for the simplification of its written characters. The current development of simplified characters is another chapter in this ongoing story. It can best be regarded as an overall summary and standardization for the long-standing folk use of simplified characters.

part 5

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