Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History #2: Writing: the Vehicle of Chinese History


Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History



#2: Writing: The Vehicle of Chinese History

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Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History #2: Writing: the Vehicle of Chinese History



Episode Transcript


If you asked a history teacher what the most important vehicle for transmitting culture in a given civilisation is, the answer you receive undoubtedly would be writing. The birth of writing is an important milestone in the progress of human civilization, not to mention a prerequisite for the continuation of culture. Thus, from the perspective of a history student, to gain real insight into the spirit of the ancient people of China, and get to know what is at the core of studying Chinese history, acquiring some understanding of ancient Chinese characters, the “vehicle” of history, is a must.



Throughout history, whenever there occurs a major shift in a political system, with it inevitably comes new changes in the written script; for example, in its form, meaning, scope of dissemination, and so on. Palaeography is still one of the most important tools used in modern archaeology. Often when dealing with excavated objects, if writing can be found related to the identity of the tomb’s occupant, many relevant questions can be resolved. This demonstrates the importance of being able to decipher the written language when conducting historical research, especially for the pre-Qin period.



In terms of its intrinsic nature, writing is made up of a system of symbols which combine the three characteristics of form, sound and meaning. Writing also has three major features. First, writing and thought is indirectly connected by language, that is, “thought – language – writing”. Second, writing comes in the form of written symbols and is deciphered with the aid of sight. Third, writing is an auxiliary medium of communication for spoken languages.



In light of these features, although some believe that the excavated symbols of the prehistoric cultures of China form the origin of Chinese writing, many argue they are not examples of a written language. This is, of course, a very controversial topic, so today we will start our discussion from jiaguwen as virtually all scholars acknowledge that the jiaguwen excavated from Yinxu is one of the earliest systems of writing in China.



Jiaguwen – the oracle bone inscriptions – is both the earliest form of writing in China, as well as one of the earliest writing systems in the world. These inscriptions emerged in the mid-to-late Shang dynasty, in approximately 1600-1000 BC – over 3,000 years ago! The superstitious people of the Shang dynasty were regular practitioners of divination, and would carve divinatory procedures and results onto tortoiseshells and ox scapulae. These artefacts were then buried deep into the ground and, in 1899, discovered by chance. At first they were used as ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine. It was not until writing was found on them that their value was realised, that they were dug out one by one, and preserved. That modern man can, with the aid of scholarly research, make out and interpret the basic meaning of these inscriptions, is indeed a miracle.



So, where were the extant oracle bone inscriptions unearthed from? From 1928-1937, large volumes of oracle bone inscriptions were excavated at Anyang, Henan province, China. Though it is difficult to prove they are the earliest examples of writing in China, they are certainly the most well-known. Since these inscriptions were unearthed at Yinxu, the ruins of the capital of the Shang dynasty, they are known as the Yinxu inscriptions. These inscriptions are not only a treasure of the Chinese people but of the world at large; in 2006, Yinxu was included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.



Throughout Chinese history there have been people who desired to see their name and deeds recorded forever in the annals of history. Following the advent of oracle bone inscriptions, some distinguished members of the aristocracy had their names and major events engraved or cast onto bronze objects, for example, musical instruments or food vessels. This kind of writing is called jinwen, jin meaning “metal”, wen meaning “writing”. Jinwen can refer to the writing on bronze objects, as well as the style of script specifically. Jinwen is also known as zhongdingwen, or by its common name mingwen.



Afterwards, characters were inscribed on stones such as shibei, i.e. vertically upright, memorial stone tablets or stelae, and shigu, i.e. drum-shaped blocks made of stone. After the passing of an eminent person, an epitaph would be composed and inscribed by a well-known individual on request. The epitaph would usually state the name, native place, life experience, etc. of the deceased, as well as express praise or grief for the deceased by way of a particular literary style.



Of course other methods can also play a similar function – for example, using ink to write on jiandu, i.e. manuscripts in the form of bamboo and wooden slips, or  xuanzhi, i.e. traditional Chinese paper used for writing and painting. What is the main function of these customs? The answer of course is to allow the deceased to be eternally remembered. These objects can be preserved for a long period of time given the right conditions, for example a completely dry or wet environment, and even now are continually being unearthed. Take the Tang dynasty scrolls kept at Dunhuang for example; though the writing is over 1,000 years old, it is still clear and intact.



Whether it be inscriptions on oracle bones, bells and cauldrons, or stone-drums, as long as they are in the Chinese language, modern-day people can understand the vast majority of them, demonstrating that their original purpose of being handed down through the ages has indeed been achieved. One of the most important reasons why the Chinese people have been able to record over 3,000 years of history in a relatively systematic and coherent fashion owes itself to Chinese characters.



So how did Chinese characters come into being? It must have been a very long process during which there inevitably must have been some individuals who made significant contributions. Yet it would be incorrect to state, simply, that someone invented Chinese characters. By reading a great deal of ancient documents, we can trace the evolution of Chinese characters.



The ancients believed that Chinese characters were invented by the legendary figure Fuxi; however, we have no way of verifying this story. It is usually claimed there indeed was someone by the name of Cang Jie who invented Chinese characters. Yet this theory cannot be proven either, because Cang Jie is too distant from us in history, and much of his story has its roots in legend.



Confucius said that, though he was able to interpret the rites and music of the Xia and Shang dynasties, much time had passed since then and, facing a dearth of documents and materials, he could only take the culture of the Zhou dynasty as a standard. Let us consider this for a moment. Even Confucius who lived 2,500 years ago was unable to speak confidently on matters relating to the Xia and Shang dynasties – and Cang Jie lived at a time even earlier than that. Thus, as modern-day students of history, we can only be even less certain than he would have been!



In the interests of consolidating and unifying the writing system of the great Qin empire, Qin Shi Huang, after unifying China, ordered the abolition of the writing systems of other states, and commanded the prime minister of the time, Li Si, to write a book called Cangjiepian, a Chinese character primer. Since the book is called Cangjiepian (literally, “Cang Jie’s Chapters”), there have been those who took the title as evidence that Cang Jie created Chinese characters. But is this really true?



The great Han dynasty historian Sima Qian wrote that Cang Jie was a court historian of Huang Di, i.e. the legendary common ancestor and leader of the peoples of the Central Chinese Plain – “Huang” meaning “yellow”, as in yellow soil, as it was thought it symbolised morality. Xun Zi, the famous Chinese philosopher, said that there were many who lived at the same time as Cang Jie who took writing as a hobby but, owing to Cang Jie’s single-mindedness, only his characters were handed down.



Since there were many people around the same time as Cang Jie who liked writing, Chinese characters could not have been invented by Cang Jie alone. Before his time, characters had already taken form and started to be circulated as a relatively prevalent medium for communication. Cang Jie could only have been one of the most adept and prolific users of writing among his contemporaries; at the same time, it is possible that he created some new characters, which contributed significantly to the circulation and promotion of writing. Lastly, we cannot say he invented the whole large system of Chinese characters on account of their complexity and the fact that they are continually evolving organisms.



We can, however, speculate the process by which writing came into being in China went something like this. During the prehistorical period of China, due to improvements in productivity, and the need to communicate and record information, some symbols gradually came into use for record-keeping purposes, and as those symbols grew in number, their use became more and more widespread. At the same time, knot-tying was also used as a record-keeping method. However, whether Chinese writing originated from knot-tying is still a matter of continuous debate in academic circles.



Up to the time of Fu Xi, he started to write characters to keep records to replace the knot-tying method. By the time of Cang Jie, writing had already basically taken shape. Writing became further standardised with the aid of specialised writing methods and characters created by Cang Jie, which in turn made the writing system easier to grasp. The number of characters increased as they were circulated and promoted for over a thousand years.



Students should know that the unified system of characters created by Li Si during the Qin dynasty are called zhuanshu, the seal script, or xiaozhuan, the small seal script. After that, writing evolved continuously, forming lishu, the clerical script, and kaishu, the regular script, and the one we use today. Chinese characters continued to be passed down and developed into one of the major world writing systems of the present day. Large volumes of ancient documents, transmitted via the written word, have become cultural repositories that can be enjoyed in perpetuity.



From Chinese antiquity, up to the present time, the total number of Chinese characters has increased rapidly. In the Xia and Shang dynasties there were 500 odd characters; in the Shang dynasty, approximately 3,500-4,500; in the Han dynasty, approximately 5,300-9,300; in the Wei dynasty, approximately 11,000-18,000; in the Song dynasty, approximately 31,000; in the Ming dynasty, approximately 33,000-34,000; in the Qing dynasty, approximately 47,000; in the Republic of China period, 48,000; in the present age, approximately 50,000-56,000.



When researching ancient Chinese characters, Shuowen Jiezi is in indispensable reference book. Shuowen Jiezi, or simply Shuowen, was the first dictionary compiled in China which provided a systematic analysis of the etymology of Chinese characters, and had a profound influence on later generations. Taking xiaozhuan, the small seal script, as its main research subject, the text includes over 9,000 characters, and provides an explanation of the composition, meaning and reading for every character included.



Naturally, due to historical limitations, Shuowen contains a large number of errors, since its compiler, Xu Shen, did not have access to oracle bone inscriptions during the time in which he lived. Furthermore, when Xu Shen collected material related to the form and meaning of characters, what he could find was mostly zhuanwen, characters written in the seal script, as well as a small amount of zhouwen, the script current in the Zhou dynasty, and other ancient characters. As palaeography, historiography, archaeology, philology and other disciplines develop further, the limitations of Shuowen can be addressed.



According to the traditional theory of the ancients, Chinese characters are created in six different ways, known as liushu. Han dynasty scholars classified the composition and usage of Chinese characters according to these six categories, hence the name. Liushu is the earliest systematic theory for the composition of Chinese characters. After the advent of the liushu system, every new character was created according to its principles.



The first type of Chinese character, xiangxing, the pictogram, involves creating a character based on the form of an object. Take for example ri, the character for sun. In both oracle bone and bronze inscriptions, ri is engraved as an encircled dot to embody the round shape of the sun. Other examples of pictograms include yue, the character for “moon”; ren, the character for “person”; niu, the character for “cow”; yu, the character for “feather”, and so on. However these kinds of characters are relatively few, and only make up approximately four per cent of the total number of characters.



The second type of Chinese character is called zhishi, the ideogram, which uses a specific written form to symbolise an abstract thing. For example, the composition of the characters shang and xia denote “high” and “low” respectively. Other examples of ideograms include the characters for 1-10; xiao, “big” and da, “small”; and the character yue, written as the shape of a mouth, meaning, “to speak”, as in “Confucius says…”



The third type of Chinese character is called huiyi, the compound ideograph, which expresses itself in a compound of mutually opposing components. The character creation method of the compound ideograph can make up for the limitations of pictograms and ideographs. There are clear advantages to compound ideographs in comparison with pictographs and ideographs. First, they can express very abstract meanings. Second, they are highly capable of creating new characters. The Shuowen Jiezi collected over a thousand compound ideographs, many more than the number of pictographs and ideographs.



The character wu, meaning “military”, is a famous compound ideograph, being made up of zhi, a component in the shape of a foot meaning, and ge, a type of ancient weapon. The combination of the two components symbolises marching towards battle, weapon in hand – and, by extension, the military. Other examples of compound ideographs include bao, meaning “to protect”, made up of a person carrying a child; jian, meaning “point” or “sharp”, made up of the character for small on the top and the character for big on the bottom, symbolising the pointy end of an object; and wai, meaning “crooked”, made up of the character for “no” on the top and the character for “straight” on the bottom.



The fourth type of Chinese character is called xingsheng, the phono-semantic compound, and is made up of two components, one indicating the meaning or nature of the character, the other its reading. Let’s take a look at some examples. Hu, meaning “lake”, is made up of the water radical on the left which indicates its nature, and the hu character on the right which indicates its reading. Mei, meaning “coal”, is made up of the fire radical on the left which indicates its nature, and the mou character on the right which indicates its reading. Lun, meaning “to discuss”, is made up of the speech radical on the left which indicates its nature, and the lun character on the right which indicates its reading.



There are many phono-semantic characters. Indeed, out of all the characters we use in daily life, the majority can be classified as phono-semantic. Furthermore, because Chinese as spoken in ancient times differs significantly from modern Chinese, it is difficult to determine whether some characters should be classified as phono-semantic compounds, or put in other categories. Many characters that scholars originally thought were pictograms or ideograms were later discovered to be phono-semantic characters. Thus, reconstructing readings in Ancient Chinese is an extremely important task for palaeographers.



The fifth type of Chinese character is called zhuanzhu, the transformed cognate, and refers to characters which share similar components and meanings, and are related to each other because they share a similar reading. Scholars have long had difficulty understanding transformed cognates, since in Shuowen Xu Shen did not give any other examples apart from the characters kao and lao which once shared similar meanings. As the famous Chinese palaeographer Qiu Xigui once said, “As we study Chinese characters today, there is absolutely no need to worry about zhuanzhu, this specialised term. We can clearly describe the composition of Chinese characters without discussing it…. In short, it is simply not necessary to get drawn into the endless debate surrounding the definition of zhuanzhu.”


六书的第六种,叫假借,是指用读音相同而意义不同的字来表达语义。比如说, 因为古文原来没有可以表示“没有谁,没有什么”意思的词,所以就借用和古汉语的否定性无定代词的同音词——莫非的莫字,来表达这个意思。可是,莫字,它的本义是昏暮,所以为了区别,人们后来加了日字底,造了“暮”字,来表示日暮的意思。

The sixth type of Chinese character is called jiajie, the phonetic loan, and refers to characters created which share similar readings but different meanings. For example, in classical Chinese there was originally no character which could express the meaning of “no one” or “nothing”. Thus the character mo, which had the same pronunciation of the negative indefinite pronoun in Old Chinese, was borrowed to express this meaning. However the original meaning of the character mo was “dusk”, and so, to distinguish the two, the character for sun was added on the bottom, thereby creating the character mu.



There is a poem that covers the advent of writing and its development which goes like this:


Fu Xi, Cang Jie and Li Si,
Established, formalised and standardised.
Oracle bones, bronze and stone, bamboo and wood, paper,
Forming the origin of Chinese civilisation.

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