Legendary Origins of the Chinese Language
Legendary Origins of the Chinese Language

April 20 is UN Chinese Language Day. Here’s a look at the fantastic tale of the language’s origins and significance. 

Strong fingers traced delicate lines, four ancient eyes blinked in mild astonishment, and the idea of a new form of communication began to grow. Just as Nu Wa breathed life into the first human beings, Cang Jie created a written form of the Chinese language that gave it a new birth. 

According to an ancient Chinese legend, the Yellow Emperor assigned Cang Jie, the court historian, a monumental task. He was to create a method to improve record keeping; laborious rope-knot tying was no longer adequate for a large new empire.

As the legend goes, Cang Jie was traveling in the mountains contemplating his task when he came upon a tortoise. Intrigued by the lines on her shell, Cang Jie took a closer look and found a pattern in the lines and meaning in the pattern.

This led to his deeper observation of the natural world, its creatures and processes. This intense study of nature led to the development of pictograms, or hieroglyphs, which conveyed the meaning of the objects they reflected. Cang Jie then assigned words to the pictograms.

Cang Jie was said to have four eyes capable of piercing through to the depths of even the greatest mysteries to discern the truth. Because of this remarkable ability, he was believed to be wisdom incarnate.

Even his name has a special meaning. The Yellow Emperor was so impressed with Cang Jie’s work on the written language that he bestowed a special surname on the inventor, surnames being quite rare. The composition of the character of his surname means “the person  above the monarch [who is above the masses].”

From Oracle Bone Script to Computer Coding

Although there are no artifacts of Cang Jie’s original pictographs, the earliest character forms were found incised or brushed on bone and shell fragments used in divination and dated to roughly 1200–1046 B.C. (during the Shang Dynasty). These writings are called Oracle Bone Script, or “shell-bone writing.”

Over time, characters evolved through a series of revisions designed to increase the efficiency of learning and writing the Chinese language. These later forms include the Bronze, Seal, Clerical, Running (semi-cursive), Regular (or standard), and Grass (cursive) scripts. In most recent history, characters have been further modified from traditional, or long, form to short form.

Today, Chinese characters are hand-written in various calligraphy styles or printed based on a number of data input methods developed for typewriters and, later, computers. One of the most popular methods, particularly for the input of traditional characters, is called Cangjie.

United Nations Chinese Language Day

Just how important is the legend of Cang Jie?

Chinese characters are considered the “pearl” of Chinese culture and the most accurate representation of the depth and meaning of the Chinese language. They are also seen as an enduring record of the amazing history of the Chinese people.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established World Chinese Language Day to promote cultural diversity and multilingualism. Chinese is also one of the six working languages in the organization.

April 20 was eventually chosen because the Chinese people celebrate Guyu, literally “millet rain,” around this time in honor of Cang Jie. The Guyu festival, also a solar agricultural term, came to be because legend declares that when Cang Jie created Chinese characters, heavenly secrets were revealed. This made the deities and spirits cry, their tears as drops of millet from the heavens. 

And it all began with Cang Jie who found inspiration in a simple tortoise shell leading to a new form of communication that would change an entire culture, a divinely inspired culture, forever.

Read more about Cang Jie and Chinese characters.

Additional research and translations by Alex Wu

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