The Birth of Chinese Characters

November 28, 2010 9:54 pm Last Updated: October 1, 2015 6:22 pm

Portrait of Cangjie. (Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Cangjie. (Wikimedia Commons)
Historical documentation from China accredits Cang Jie with the inspiration for the creation of the Chinese character system of writing. The celebrated Yellow Emperor’s official historian, Cang Jie was reputedly endowed with special abilities. He was described as being “very unique-looking and born with the ability to write, while possessing an extensive amount of virtue and wisdom.”

Before the inception of the character system, people had resorted to recording events by tying knots. A large knot represented a significant event, a small knot stood for a minor event, while consecutive knots symbolized related events.

That system was to change, when one eventful day, Cang Jie traveled south to hunt. He chanced upon a huge turtle and was riveted by the elaborate, cyan-colored vein pattern of its shell. He methodically studied the shell’s design, and concluded that the pattern was in fact there for a reason. It dawned on him that since patterns could have significance, if some kind of rules was laid down, then people could communicate their thoughts and record events. Cang Jie relentlessly pondered possibilities in the natural world, studying everything around him in depth: the distribution of the stars and the patterns of constellations in the sky, the alignments of rivers and mountains, the tracks and behavioral habits of birds, beasts, insects and fish, the shapes of plants and household utensils. Based on his personal observations, he created the various symbols, while providing a definition for each one of them, which became the foundation of the Chinese character system.

During the period of the Warring States, vassals divided China into seven states that spoke different languages and used different character symbols. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, conquered the six other states. With the exception of the language used in the Qin State, the Emperor discontinued the use of the other six languages, upon the suggestion of Li Si, his prime minister. Collaborating with others, Li Si authored the book Cang Jie Pian (Compilation of Cang Jie.) The book catalogued 3,300 characters and was used as a study book primer for children.

Cang Jie Temple in Shaanxi Province pays homage to Cang Jie and his epic work through precious carved steles (commemorative tablets.) Cang Jie’s tomb lies behind the temple, beside a thousand-year-old cypress. The branches of the cypress alternately flourish: one year, a branch will be luxuriously verdant, and the next year it will wilt, with another branch dominant in its glory. It is an exceptionally popular tourist attraction, especially during the holidays.