The Story of Chinese Characters

July 21, 2019 Updated: July 21, 2019

Of all the cultural heritages and legacies that have evolved in the world, none is more significant than the human language. Of all the existing languages, none is equal, in terms of longevity, to the Chinese language, or, more specifically, to Chinese characters, which are logograms.

The Chinese use of pictures as the building blocks of their language is unique to nearly all written languages used today. As for the other ancient writing systems using pictorial scripts, such as the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and the cuneiform of Mesopotamia, they vanished from our world some two thousand years ago.

The Origin of the Chinese Language

In ancient China, people once tied knots in ropes to encode and record information. This primitive writing form is also known as “quipu” or talking knots, which were widely used by some ancient cultures in the Andean South America and by some native Hawaiians. Linguists contend that quipu served as accounting devices, memory aids, as well as a way to record important events.

The earliest known form of Chinese writing, according to archeologists, is called “jiaguwen” (甲骨文), or the oracle bone script.  Jiaguwen can be traced back to the Chinese Bronze Age. The pictorial characters were inscribed onto tortoise shells and animal bones, and scholars believe they were used for the purpose of pyromantic divination.

It was not till 1899 when Wang Yirong, a Qing Dynasty imperial official, discovered jiaguwen by accident.  It was documented that Wang fell ill from malaria and was surprised to find in Chinese herbal medicine an ingredient called “dragon bones” containing some peculiar logographic scripts. Being an epigraphy expert himself, Wang decided to purchase all the “dragon bones” in the Chinese herbal medicine store that he used, as well as from medicine stores elsewhere. Upon further study, Wang identified these pictorial symbols as some sort of oracle script used as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1766-1046 B.C). In his lifetime, Wang was able to collect more than 1,500 pieces of oracle bones. These pictorial scripts were later called jiaguwen.

Today, over 150,000 pieces of oracle bones have been found and collected by museums and private collectors around the world. Of some 5,000 oracle bone scripts, linguists and archeologists so far are able to decipher between 1,500 and 2,000 of these pictorial characters.

Nowadays, linguists agree that the official Chinese writing system came into being during the time of the Yellow Emperor (circa 2700 B.C.). Legend has it that the Yellow Emperor one day asked Cangjie, his imperial historian who was rumored to have two pupils in each eye, to invent a writing system to replace the inefficient method of tying knots in ropes to record information.

By observing the footprints of birds and animals as well as his surroundings, Cangjie was inspired to create pictorial scripts that have later evolved through many dynasties into today’s Chinese characters. For instance, Cangjie created the logographic character “人” to represent the human by observing a person’s shadow under the sun. He also created the character “爪” for an animal’s paw by the image of an animal’s footprint on the ground.

According to historical literature during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 25), such as Huainanzi (淮南子) and Chunqiu Yuanmingbao (春秋元命苞), when Canjie developed his logographic writing system, underground ghosts cried at night while the sky rained millet during the daytime.

These two sober chroniclers of ancient China recorded these supernatural occurences matter of factly. The divine and the human were seen together on a daily basis. Here, those hostile to humanity grieved over the gift Cangjie had given it, while the heavens rejoiced, showering humankind with abundance.

Being the first official Chinese language and sanctioned by the Yellow Emperor, the pictorial characters created by Cangjie quickly spread throughout the country and became the standard writing for all Chinese people at that time.

Ancient Chinese logographic writing consists of symbols derived from nature. For instance, the character “木” resembles wood or a tree, and the character “林” stands for a forest, with two trees combined together. Over the centuries, the writing style of Chinese characters has evolved from jiaguwen (甲骨文) to “jinzi” (金字) or metal characters carved or cast onto bronze, then to “dazhuan” (大篆) in Western Zhou Dynasty (1045-711 B.C.), and to “lishu” (隸書) in Eastern Zhou period (770 – 256 B.C.), and to “kaishu” (楷書) in South-North dynasties (AD 220-589). These days, lishu and kaishu are still widely used in print as well as in calligraphy.

Foreign Influences

Chinese characters and vocabulary have been greatly influenced and enriched by foreign cultures by means of increasing interaction with neighboring countries and the rest of the world, particularly in modern times.

One of the significant contributions to the Chinese language came from Buddhism in AD 67. According to some historical documents, Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty one day dreamed of a golden god flying around his imperial palace; so the next day he asked his ministers for advice.

One of his ministers explained that this god in the dream should be Buddha from the West, and it was a sign of great blessings. Further, the minister suggested that the Emperor send emissaries to Central Asia to retrieve Buddhist scriptures.

Emperor Ming adopted this advice and sent a 12-member delegation to the West. The emissaries later met two Indian Buddhist monks named Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna in Central India and brought them back, along with two white horses carrying the Buddhist scriptures, to Luo Yang, China’s capital at that time.

Emperor Ming was delighted and built the famous White Horse Temple, the official cradle of Buddhism in China, where the two Indian monks translated the well-known Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters amongst other Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language. Despite the fact that historians have found documents that have recorded earlier Buddhist contacts in China, it is well established that Buddhism was officially introduced to China by Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty.

According to scholarly research, some 30,000 words or phrases from Buddhist vocabulary as well as some new characters were added to the Chinese language during some 800 years between the Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasty. Commonly used vocabulary such as “現在” (now),“未來” (future), “世界” (world), “因果” (cause-effect), “悲觀” (pessimism) all originated from Buddhism. Expanding the lexicon in this way has not only helped build up the reservoir of Chinese characters, but has also enriched Chinese people’s understanding of the world from a fresh metaphysical or spiritual perspective.

While it may be true that Japanese culture and language came mostly from China during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), contemporary Chinese vocabulary has in turn been enormously influenced by the Japanese language.

After the Opium War, a growing number of Japanese publications had been translated into the Chinese language. By the early 20th century, many Chinese had gone to study in industrialized Japan and the Chinese language had started to absorb a great number of Japanese words, such as “經濟” (economy), “社會主義” (socialism), “資本” (capital), “政治” (politics), “電話” (telephone), “派出所” (police station), “哲學” (philosophy), “雜誌” (magazine), “幹部” (bureaucrat), “藝術” (art), “自由” (freedom), and so on.

According to Dr. Zhao Bing, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, 70 percent of the terminology used in today’s Chinese social sciences and humanities is actually borrowed from the Japanese language.

Western cultural influence, particularly since the Qing Dynasty, has also become visible in the Chinese language. Words, such as 咖啡 (coffee), 邏輯 (logic), 維他命 (vitamin), 高爾夫 (golf), and scores of others are now being used in everyday life.

So, the Chinese language is a living language and has grown considerably since ancient times. A Chinese dictionary published in 1994 had collected 85,568 Chinese characters.

The Communist Disruption

Throughout history, Chinese characters have not evolved smoothly all the time. Since the 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party has launched a massive effort to disconnect society from the past Chinese culture in order to allow the imported communist ideology to take root in China.

To wipe out traditional cultural influence, the communist regime waged a series of political campaigns, such as the “Four Olds” (old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas), “Cultural Revolution,” and the persecution of Falun Gong, a meditation practice in the Buddhist tradition.

A deadly blow to the Chinese language came in 1956 when the communist party directed its Language Reform Committee of China to release a long list of more than two thousand “simplified” Chinese characters to replace the existing traditional Chinese characters, defying the linguistic heritage and despite the resistance from the public as well as from academia.

By applying many simplified radicals or removing the meaningful part of a traditional character, the new Chinese characters lost the original meaning and art form, often becoming senseless or irrational scripts. For instance, the traditional character for love is “愛”; but by removing “心” (heart) in the middle, the simplified character爱(love) becomes heartless.

By simplifying the traditional character “聽” (listening) to become “听”, the new character has lost its radicals that symbolize “耳” (ear) and “心” (heart) for listening, while the newly added radical “口” (mouth) isn’t a human faculty for listening at all.

Such insanity, as charged by scholars, aims to undermine the Chinese traditional language and cultural heritage. It was especially painful for many Chinese who understood that the Chinese culture, especially the language, is divinely inspired and rooted in ancient mythology.

Fortunately, traditional Chinese characters are still used by the Chinese people living outside mainland China, most notably in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore. Inside China, some people continue to treasure traditional Chinese characters as an art form, especially in brush-pen calligraphy.

For centuries, the Chinese language, along with its traditional characters, have survived many challenges, including an attempt by some to abandon its logographical form by becoming an alphabet-based system.

In many ways, the Chinese civilization and much of its cultural heritage are able to continue to exist to this day because of this unique medium of logographic writing. As a language used by a quarter of the world’s population, Chinese characters will not likely fade into history; instead, they are to thrive in the time to come.

Peter Zhang is a researcher on China studies and a graduate of Harvard University.

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