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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 17:08, July 14, 2005
Unveil the origin of Chinese characters
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During the period from the legendary coinage of characters by Cang Jie (an official historian of the Yellow Emperor) to the discovery of inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (C.1600--C. 1100B.C.) over one hundred years ago, Chinese scholars of all ages have been devoting their efforts to unveiling the enigma concerning the origin of Chinese characters.

There are various sayings in ancient Chinese documents concerning the origin of Chinese characters, such as "tie knots", the "Eight Diagrams", "picture", "carved characters", etc., The legendary story about Cang Jie creating characters is generally recorded in ancient books. It is the view of modern scholars that a systematic writing tool can't be created completely by one single person, and if there did exist such a person as Cang Jie, he should be a collator and promulgator of written language.

Already 8,000 years since the emergence of the earliest scribed symbols
Over the past decades, Chinese archaeologists have published in succession a series of unearthed materials related to the origin of Chinese characters and earlier than the inscriptions on bones of the Yin Dynasty ruins. These materials refer mainly to symbols scribed or color drawings on earthenware appeared in the late period of the primitive society and in the early period of recorded society, as well as to a limited number of symbols carved on bones, jade articles and stone artifacts. It can be said that they jointly provide a new basis for explaining the origin of Chinese characters.

Through systematic examinations and comparisons with the symbols inscribed on pottery unearthed from over 100 ruins of 19 categories of archaeological culture, Wang Yunzhi, doctorial student tutor of Zhengzhou University, holds that the earliest Chinese scribed symbols appeared in the Wuyang Jiahu ruins in central China's Henan Province, with a history of over 8,000 years.

As a professional, he attempts, through scientific ways, such as these basic methods as comprehensive application of archaeology, paleographical configuration, comparative philology, scientific and technological archaeology, to further carry out comprehensive collation of these primitive materials, thereby getting some clues to the emergence and development of Chinese character before the emergence of the Shang dynasty character.

However, things are not so simple. Except the existing limited number of materials from the Zhengzhou Shangcheng ruins, the Xiaoshuangqiao ruins (about 10 instances of character on a seal carved in relief and inscription on pottery in the early period of the Shang Dynasty were successively found in this ruins in recent years) that can be compared directly to the character of the Yin Dynasty ruins, other pre-Shang Dynasty symbols are scattered here and there and many of their inter-links are missing, moreover, most of the symbols are out of keeping with the configuration of the Shang Dynasty character. There are still some symbols that carry a heavy regional color and have a complicated background.

The Chinese character system formally took shape in Central Plains
According to Wang Yunzhi, the Chinese character system was formally formed in the Central Plains region (comprising the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River).

Chinese character is a kind of character system having its independent origin, it exists independent of any other nationalities, but its origin is not unitary, after multiple and long-term grind-in and in about the Later Han Period, on the basis of extensive absorption and application of the experience of earlier symbols, our ancestors creatively invented a character symbol system used for recording language, in that period, the Chinese character system rapidly became mature.

Sources say, judging from the character materials excavated and unearthed by archaeologists, we came to know that China had had formal written language at least in the Yu (a state in the Zhou Dynasty) and Xia Dynasty (c 21st century-16th century). For instance, in recent years archaeologists discovered characters written with brush on a seal on a flat earthen pot unearthed in the Taosi ruins in Xiangfen County, Shanxi Province. These symbols belong to the basic configuration in the early character system, unfortunately, such unearthed character information is to date still rare.

Character matured first in the Shang Dynasty
With regard to presently known and seen Shang Dynasty character materials, there are already many kinds of literal carriers. Besides characters at that time which were written with a brush on brochures, other main means used were inscribing characters on tortoise shells, pottery, jade and stones as well as molding characters on bronze-ware. Shang Dynasty character materials mainly used bone and tortoise shells from the Yin Dynasty ruins and bronze-ware as the main carriers, which are so far the earliest matured characters discovered in China.

The Shang Dynasty characters as reflected in the period of Yin Dynasty ruins not only find expression in the largest number of characters, in rich materials and strikingly in the fact that the method of coinage had already formed its own characteristic and law.

The structural features of basic characters of the Shang Dynasty characters can be classified into four categories: Taking the characteristics of human body and a certain part of the body as the foundation of configuration; taking the labor-created article and the object of labor as the foundation of configuration; taking the forms of beast and cattle as the foundation of configuration; and taking natural object-image as the foundation of configuration. Examined from the cultural connotations of configuration, the objects to be adopted or cut in these earlier matured configurations are quite close to the social life of our ancestors, and are of highly realistic characteristic.

In the meantime, the content described in these configurations involves every aspect of Man and Nature, therefore it has a wide-ranging characteristic of the sources of configuration.

By People's Daily Online

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