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

中国历史新手指南

Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History

 

第二集:中国历史的载体——文字

#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

如果你问一位历史老师,在一种文明中,什么是文化传播最重要的载体?毫无疑问,老师会说是文字。文字的产生是人类文明进步的一个重要的里程碑,更是文化得以延续的前提。因此,从历史学生的角度来看,如果要真正接触中国古人的灵魂,真正理解中国历史学的精髓,对历史的“载体”——古文字有一定的理解是很重要的。

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.

 

纵观历史,伴随着政治体系发生重大变化,文字也必然有着新的变化——如文字的形态、意义和传播范围等。在现代考古学的研究中,古文字依然是最重要的证据之一。在很多出土文物中,如果有与墓主人身份相关的文字,很多相关问题就能得到妥善的解决。由此可见,在进行历史研究的时候,尤其是对先秦历史的研究,看懂文字很重要。

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.

 

就其本身而言,文字是形、音、义相结合的符号体系。文字还具有三个重要特点:第一,文字和思维的联系是通过语言而间接进行的,即思维——语言——文字;第二,文字的形式是书写符号,借助视觉而感知;第三,文字是有声语言的辅助交际工具。

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.

 

鉴于这些特点,虽然有些人认为中国史前文化的出土符号是中国文字的起源,但很多人认为它们不是文字。当然这是一个很有争议的话题,所以今天我们会从甲骨文开始,因为几乎所有学者都承认殷墟出土的甲骨文是中国最早的文字系统之一。

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.

 

甲骨文,既是中国最早的文字,又是世界上最早的书写系统之一。甲骨文出现在商代中晚期,大约在公元前1600-1000年,距今已有三千多年!商代人迷信,遇事必卜,然后把占卜的过程和结果刻在龟甲或牛胛骨上。这些文物被深埋在地下,在1899年,偶然被人发现。一开始被用作中药材,后来人们发现了上面的文字,才意识到它的价值并陆续发掘保护。经过学者的研究,现在的人基本还能认识和读懂它们的大概意思,真是一个奇迹。

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.

 

那么,流传至今的甲骨文是从哪里发掘出来的?在1928-1937年,中国河南省安阳市出土了大量甲骨文,这很难说是最早的中国文字,但肯定是最有名的。这些甲骨文是在商代首都遗址——殷墟被挖掘的,所以叫做殷墟文字。殷墟文字不但是中华民族的瑰宝,也是全世界的瑰宝;2006年,殷墟被联合国科教文组织列为世界文化遗产。

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.

 

中国历来有人要把自己的名字和事迹永载史册。在甲骨文之后,一些地位显赫的大贵族,就把自己的名字和一些大事刻或铸在青铜器上,比如乐器或食器。这种文字叫金文。金,是金属的金,文,是文字的文;金文可以指青铜器上的文字,也可以指这些字的特殊写法。金文也被称之为钟鼎文,或者被普遍称为铭文。

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.

 

后来,人们把文字雕刻在石头上,比如说,石碑——竖立起来作为纪念物的石制品,或者是石鼓——形状像鼓一样的大石头。显要的人物死后,后人就请名人撰写墓志铭并雕刻。这个墓志铭,一般会记述死者的姓名、籍贯、生平等,然后通过相关的文体表达对死者的赞扬或哀悼。

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.

 

当然其他的方法也可以起到类似的功能。比如说,用墨水在简牍或宣纸上写字。这些习俗的主要目的是什么?答案当然是让死者的记忆永远流传。如果有适当的条件,比如完全干燥或完全湿润的环境,这些物品都可以长久保存。它们到现在还不断出土,像保存在敦煌的唐代人写的卷轴,虽然是一千多年前的文字,但是到现在还是很清晰,很完整。

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.

 

甲骨文也好,钟鼎文也好,石鼓文也好,只要是汉字,当代人能够看明白绝大多数,确实达到了流传的目的。中华民族之所以能够比较系统地连贯地记载三千多年的历史,汉字是关键性因素之一。

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.

 

那么,汉字是如何产生的呢?汉字的产生肯定是一个漫长的过程,在这个过程中,必然会出现一些作出过重要贡献的人,但我们不能简单地说某某人创造了汉字,因为那样也不符合实际。通过大量阅读古代文献,可以总结出汉字的演化过程。

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.

 

古人认为文字的发明人是传说中的伏羲氏,但究竟是什么情况,已经没有办法考证了。我们一般会说,真的有一个创造汉字的人,他的名字叫仓颉。但是仓颉造字这个说法也无从验证,因为仓颉距离我们太远了,这个人物传说的成分也很大。

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.

 

孔子说过,夏代和商代的礼乐他也能解释,但年代久远,没有足够的文献和资料,所以只能以周代的文化为规范。你想一想,连两千五百多年前的孔子都无法说清楚夏商两朝的事情,而仓颉比夏商还早,我们现在学历史的人就更说不清了!

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!

 

秦始皇统一天下后,为了巩固统一大秦帝国文字,他下令废除其他国家的文字,而命令当时的丞相李斯写一本书,叫做《仓颉篇》,是一部启蒙识字课本。就是因为这本书叫《仓颉篇》,所以有人把这篇标题作为仓颉造字的依据,但这是事实吗?

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?

 

汉代伟大的史学家——司马迁写过仓颉是黄帝史官。我说的黄帝,指的是传说中中原各族的共同祖先和领袖。黄是黄色的黄,因为他以土为德,土色黄。中国有位哲学家荀子曾经说过,与仓颉同时爱好书写的人很多,但只有仓颉写的字流传下来,因为他精神专一。

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.

 

和仓颉同时代有很多人喜欢书写文字,所以汉字肯定不是仓颉一个人创造的。在仓颉以前,文字已经成形并流传开来,成为比较普遍的交流工具。仓颉只能是同时代人中书写最好最全的人之一,同时也可能创造了一些新的文字,对于文字的流传与推广有重要贡献。最后,我们不能说是他发明了汉字这整个大系统,因为汉字很复杂,是一种不断演变的事物。

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.

 

但是我们可以大致推测出中国文字产生的过程:在中国史前时代中,由于生产力的提高,以及交流和记录信息的需要,人们逐渐用一些符号来记载事物,随着符号的增多,数量越来越大,使用范围越来越广。同时有人用绳子打结的方法来记事。可是,中国文字是否起源于结绳记事,学术界还在不断地争辩。

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.

 

到伏羲氏的时代,他开始用文字记载来代替结绳记事这个方法。到仓颉时期,文字已经基本成形。由于仓颉的专门书写和创造,文字得到了进一步规范,人们因此更容易掌握。又经过上千年的流传、推广,文字数量就更多了。

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.

 

到秦朝,学生应该知道,李斯所统一的文字叫做“篆书”,也称之为“小篆”。后来经过不断地演变,形成了隶书和楷书——我们今天所使用的汉字。汉字一直流传下来并发展成为世界主要的几种文字之一。大量的古代文献,通过文字流传下来,成为我们享用不尽的精神财富。

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.

 

从中国古代,一直到现在,汉字的数量快速增长。夏商有500余字;商代大约有3500~4500字;汉代大约有5300~9300字;魏大约有11000~18000字;宋朝大约有31000字;明朝大约有33000~34000字;清朝大约有47000字;民国大约有48000字;当代大约有50000~56000字。

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.

 

我们研究古文字的时候,《说文解字》是必不可少的参考书。《说文解字》,简称《说文》,是中国古代第一部有系统分析汉字来源的字书,对后世的影响极为深远。它以小篆为主要研究对象,全书收录了九千多个字,并对所收录的每一个字进行了字形、字义和读音的说明。

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.

 

当然,由于历史的局限,《说文》也有许多错误,因为它的编者许慎生活的时代看不到甲骨文,而且许慎收集有关字形和字义资料的时候,他主要能找到的是篆文,以及少数籀文和古文。随着古文字学、历史学、考古学、文献学等学科的深入发展,《说文》的局限可以弥补。

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.

 

按照古人传统理论,汉字的造字方法有六种,称之为“六书”。汉代学者把汉字的构成和使用方式归纳成六种类型,总称六书。六书是最早的关于汉字构造的系统理论。有了六书系统以后,人们再造新字时,都以该系统为依据。

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.

 

六书的第一种,叫象形,是根据事物的形象来造字。比如说,“日”这个字,甲骨文和金文都是刻成一个圈儿,里面还加了个点,来表示圆圆的太阳。其他的象形字包括月亮的月、人们的人、牛奶的牛、羽毛的羽等等。但这种汉字比较少,在所有的汉字中只占了百分之四左右。

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.

 

六书的第二种,叫指事,是用具体的笔画表示抽象的意思。比如说,“上”和“下”,这两个字的结构分别表示高处和低处的意思。其他的指事字包括一到十的数字、大和小字,以及有口型的曰字,就是孔子曰的曰,它有说的意思。

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…”

 

六书的第三种,叫会意,是通过字的结构来表示相互构成的意义。会意字的造字方法可以补救象形字和指事字的局限。和象形、指事相比,会意法具有明显的优越性:第一,它可以表示很多抽象的意义;第二,它的造字功能强。《说文解字》收集一千多会意字,比象形字、指事字多得多。

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.

 

武器的武是一个很有名的会意字,武字里面的“止”字有脚的形式,“戈”是干戈的戈,是一种古代武器。两者结合,表示持戈而行,代表军事。其他会意字包括保护的保,由单人旁和发呆的呆组成,原来代表一个人在抱着婴儿;尖锐的尖,上面有小字,下面有大字,代表物体细小锐利的一端;还有歪曲的歪,上面是个不字,下面是个正字,表示不正、偏斜的意思。

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.

 

六书的第四种,叫形声,是由两个偏旁组成,一个表示意义或性质,一个表示读音。我们先讨论些例子吧。湖泊的湖,三点水表示性质,右边的胡字表示读音;煤炭的煤,火字旁表示性质,右边的某字表示读音;讨论的论,言字旁表示性质,右边的仑字表示读音。

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.

 

形声字非常多。确实,在我们现在日常生活所使用的汉字之中,大部分属于形声字。而且,因为古代汉语跟现代汉语的发音很不一样,有些字属于形声字还是其他类别很难讲清楚。很多字,学者原来以为是象形字,或者是指事字,后来发现是形声字,所以重建古代汉语的读音,对古文字学家来说,是一个很重要的工作。

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.

 

六书的第五种,叫转注,是指两个字的形旁相同,字义相同或相近,且读音有关。学者一直难以了解转注字,因为许慎在《说文》里面,除了意思相同的“考”和“老”这两个字,没有给任何其他的例子。中国著名文字学家裘锡圭先生认为:“在今天研究汉字,根本不用去管转注这个术语。不讲转注,完全能够把汉字的构造讲清楚。……总之,我们完全没有必要卷入到无休无止的关于转注定义的争论中去。”

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.

 

有一首诗可以概括文字产生和发展的过程,说:

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

 

伏羲仓颉复李斯,
Fu Xi, Cang Jie and Li Si,
草创成型规范之。
Established, formalised and standardised.
甲骨金石简牍纸,
Oracle bones, bronze and stone, bamboo and wood, paper,
文明华夏尽由兹。
Forming the origin of Chinese civilisation.

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