The origin of Chinese characters


BY CchattyArticleComprehensive Chinese
Release time:2018-04-30
Tag: Chinese Characters
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The creation of Chinese characters began with these drawings. When they first began to create characters, Chinese people used figures to record and express ideas and meaning.
part 1

Chinese characters

Chinese characters

Chinese characters originated from drawings. In the early stages of creating characters, Chinese people used figures to record and express ideas and meaning. The creation of Chinese characters began with these drawings.

Chinese characters are a form of an ideographic symbol (a symbol that conveys an idea). They developed in the way they did because of the particular way in which the ancient Chinese viewed and observed the world.

Among the various legends that describe the origins of Chinese characters, one story is particularly famous. In the story, Chinese characters were created by Cang Jie, who had four eyes.


part 2

Legends from Ancient Times

Legends from Ancient Times

There are various mysterious legends from ancient times that tell people how Chinese characters came into being. Many of them were based on historical facts.

Fu Xi Drew the Eight Diagrams

It is said that in ancient times, in the drainage area of the Yellow River, a man called Fu Xi taught people to make fishing nets. He also showed them how to feed livestock. As a result, people began to lead a life based on fishing, hunting and animal husbandry. It is also said that Fu Xi drew the Eight Diagrams - a drawing that resulted in the development of Chinese characters.

The mysterious Eight Diagrams Fu Xi created were used for divination and were composed of the symbols “一” and “一 一”. “一” represented Yang and “— —” represented Yin. In the diagram, Yin and Yang go together in a “couple”, three of these couples constitute a group, and there are eight groups in all. Each group is a divinatory symbol and has its own name. The groups represent different natural phenomena and things, which include the sky, the earth, water, fire, wind, thunder, mountain, and marsh. It is important to note that the forms of Eight Diagrams are very different from those of Chinese characters. So, how did these long and short horizontal lines evolve into Chinese characters which have abundant strokes and complex structures?

In fact, only a very few Chinese characters have real relations with the Eight Diagrams. For example, the form of the number three “三” looks a little similar to the figure of “乾 (qian)” in the Eight Diagrams, “三”; and the form of the ancient character for water (水), bears a certain resemblance to the figure of “坎(kan)”. But it is hard to imagine that there is really any close relation between the forms of any other Chinese characters and the Eight Diagrams. Therefore, it is difficult to believe that the Chinese characters originate from the Eight Diagrams.

Recording Events Using Knots

Before the invention of characters, Chinese people often used knots to record events and to remember important things. People made big knots on ropes to mark major events and small knots for events of less importance. More events, therefore, resulted in more knots. However, as only the people who had made the knots could understand them, they were not used as a language. For example, if a knot was used to record the prey that had been caught, did that knot mean a deer, a wild boar or a goat? Only the person who made it could understand its exact meaning. Therefore, knots were a rather poor way of recording events and information and had a limited range of applications.

Recording events using knots was not an effective way to widely spread information. And it was impossible to make Chinese characters just by using various forms of knots on lengths of rope. However, academic research has concluded that some numerical symbols in the Chinese character might have evolved from knot symbols. In addition, people made knots to record events and, in this respect, it can be argued that knots were a precursor to the use of characters.

Cang Jie Created Characters

One popular and mysterious legend credits Cang Jie as the person who first created characters. More than 5,000 years ago, the Yellow Emperor, who was an ancestor of the Chinese people, united the areas around the Yellow River and established a huge clan-alliance of the region’s people. The Yellow Emperor had a historiographer named Cang Jie. In legend, Cang Jie was a very capable man. It is said that he had four eyes, each of which could observe all the objects of the world. When he raised his head and observed the forms of the stars in the sky, and when he lowered his head and watched the tracks of birds and animals on the ground, he became enlightened and realized that different forms could indicate different objects. As a result, he created pictographic characters. It is recorded in Huai Nan Zi (an ancient Chinese book) that: “昔 xi 者 zhe 仓 cang 吉页 jie 作 zuo 书 shu,而 er 天 tian 雨 yu 粟 su,鬼 gui 夜 ye 哭 ku” . This means that “the gods were so impressed by what Cang Jie had done that they granted the world a rain of millet, but the ghosts, who feared that their secrets would be revealed, cried all night”.

These legends show that the creation of Chinese characters was a major event that “astonished the world” and “frightened the ghosts”. It is known for a fact that Chinese characters held a very sacred position in the minds of the people of ancient China, and that Cang Jie was thought of by many as the creator of Chinese characters. He became revered as the “God of Characters” and was admired by generations of Chinese people.

The Implications of the Creation of Characters by Cang Jie

Today, we know that the creation of Chinese characters was not the act of one man, but that they were created collectively by the early Chinese people over a long period of time. If there was actually a person similar to Cang Jie in ancient times, then he would probably have been a scholar who would have been involved in the development process in some important way.

Although it is not strictly true, the legend about Cang Jie is of great value. In particular, the story of how Cang Jie used his four eyes to observe all the objects of the world tells us that Chinese characters are ideographic visual symbols and that the creation of the Chinese language is closely tied to people’s daily life.


part 3

Discovering the Origins of Chinese Characters

Discovering the Origins of Chinese Characters

Finding out the true origins of Chinese characters is vital if one intends to truly understand their evolution, development, and application. Archaeological discoveries offer us a window through which we can look back in time to the era when Chinese characters were first used.

Carved and Painted Pottery Symbols

In ancient times the Chinese people carved and painted many symbols on pottery. These carved and painted symbols are very important materials from which scholars have been able to research the origin of Chinese characters. The symbols can be classified into two kinds: geometric and image-based symbols.

Geometric Symbols

Archaeologists have discovered many earthenware items decorated with geometric symbols amongst the ruins of the Yangshao Culture in the middle reaches of the Yellow River. The specific locations of these discoveries include Banpo Village and Jiangzhai Village in Xi’an. These geometric symbols consist of lines carved and painted on pottery about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. They are very simple and abstract, so it is hard to figure out their exact meanings or to confirm that they are Chinese characters. But many of these symbols are repeated, which implies that the people who carved and painted them want to express some thoughts and that these symbols may have some functions related to the recording of events.

Recently, pottery antiques, discovered in Eriitou, Henan Province, have more than 20 kinds of carved and painted symbols on them. These symbols date back at least 4,000 years. The forms of these symbols are very similar to those found on earthenware excavated from Banpo and Jiangzhai villages, and some of them have a close similarity to the Jiaguwen of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties.

We cannot say for certain that these geometric symbols are actually characters, but the kind of line structure they exhibit is consistent with the Chinese characters that were developed later. What we can say, however, is that the geometric carved and painted symbols on the pottery of the Yangshao Culture probably constitute the true origin of Chinese characters.

Image Symbols

About 5,000 years ago, the people who lived near Taishan Mountain, Shandong province, carved and painted image symbols on their pottery to record events or as totems. These are now known as the famous “Dawenkou Culture Carved and Painted Pottery Symbols”. These image symbols describe things using lines, and are very different from the geometric symbols introduced above. They are more like the Jiaguwen inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells that were created in later eras. Archaeologists have found that the symbols on pottery in many places are very similar even though the locations of the pottery are a thousand miles away from each other. This implies that the symbols were not only used to spread information but that they were also in frequent use and might have been linked to spoken words (i.e. they might have been read out-loud). Therefore, it is believed by many scholars that the image symbols carved and painted during the Dawenkou Culture should be recognized as the earliest characters used in China and that they should be considered as the original image characters.

One example of these earthenware symbols is “旦,” which has been found on pottery in Shandong, Anhui, and Jiangsu. Many philologists say that this is the character of “dan” (meaning dawn). This symbol is thought to represent the morning: in it, the sun rises over lofty mountains, pierces through the clouds, and slowly illuminates the world below. The upper part “日” is the sun, and the lower part “一” is the simplification of mountains and clouds. Did this symbol represent the sun-rise that the Dawenkou people would have seen over the Taishan Mountain?

In addition, many philologists say that this symbol “旦” was a clan totem. This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, because, according to studies of later Chinese characters, many images of clan totems or clan emblems have been incorporated into the characters over time.

Generally, philologists divide the development of Chinese characters into three distinct stages which are characterized by three different types of characters. These are primitive drawing-like characters, ancient characters, and modern characters.

The image symbols that were carved and painted onto the earthenware of the Dawenkou Culture are considered by many philology experts as “characters” that should be classified into the first stage. During this stage, the characters were similar to drawings and still had a long way to go before becoming more mature characters of the second stage.

The Evolution of True Chinese characters

The evolution of Chinese characters took place over a long period of time. The ancient legend of Cang Jie (described above) and the existence of pictographic ideographs on rock paintings and painted pottery (and the existence of ancient totems and clan badges), show that Chinese characters are derived from drawings.

The existence of ancient pottery decorated with geometric symbols and ideogram makes it possible to date roughly the emergence of Chinese characters to the period of the Yangshao Culture, approximately 6,000 years ago.

The image symbols used during the Dawenkou Culture, the earliest known group of Chinese characters, appeared around 5,000 years ago at the foot of the Taishan Mountain in Shandong Province. This region is situated in the lower reach of the Yellow River.

In recent years, new archaeological finds have been made which shed more light on the origins of Chinese characters. These include Damaidi rock paintings in Zhongwei, Ningxia and carved symbols found on tortoise shells in Jiahu, Henan. However, it is still not possible to give an exact date for the emergence of the first true Chinese characters.


part 4

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