The origin of chinese characters

The origin of Chinese characters in John C. Didier, “In and Outside the Square,” Sino-Platonic Papers, 192, vol. 1 (September, 2009)

  1. The technology of writing appears suddenly and morphologically fully developed on Shang oracle bones and, later, bronzes at about the same time that wheeled transport was introduced, or c. 1220–1200 BC, and one can only assume that the idea and practice of writing were brought from the settled civilizations of South or Southwest Asia by waves of migrating Iranian Andronovo tribes, though no concrete trace of the spread of writing from the west toward or into Shang China has been discovered.

Although clan or other symbols had appeared previously on Neolithic and Bronze-period artifacts in China, they in no way represent an indigenous development of the full script and syntax that graces Shang bones and, later, bronzes. Nor can they be argued to represent either a language syntax or a set of logographically expressed individual words. They are, in short, simply marks, ones that probably denote the identity or clan / tribe of either the maker of the artifact or its sponsor or owner.

The entire issue of the sudden appearance of the recursively developed Chinese logographic script c. 1200 BC is puzzling, and if, as it seems likely, the idea for and practice of writing were introduced from the West, there must be as yet a — or several — missing link(s) in the record of transmission, since the script(s) that the Iranians could have brought with them would have been consonantary or alphabetical (syllaberial, or uniliterally or phonetically applied), not logographic (see Volume II, Chapter V for a brief discussion of the possible presence in the Shang Sinitic script of a consonantary derived perhaps from the Phoenician consonantary).

Since, when it first appears c. 1200 BC, the Shang, or Sinitic (proto-Chinese), Oracle Bone Script is already fully developed recursively (on the basis of the extensive use of the rebus), some argue that the script must already have been developing in situ in the Yellow River corridor for at least several hundred years or longer. The fact that the script is nowhere evident on any artifacts datable to before the late-13th century BC reflects to many scholars an earlier tendency, for at least several hundred years, to record writing on perishable materials.

According to this thesis, the first evidence of true writing in the Chinese context can be found in graphs [72] expressing only lineage emblems and day-names that were cast on bronzes, occurring at about the same time as and slightly later than the earliest OBIs, in a style that has been theorized to have developed directly from painting characters on perishable materials using brush and ink.

However, such a thesis is wholly conjectural. In a ground-breaking study of inscriptions found on “practice bones” at the late-Shang capital Anyang, recently Adam Smith has demonstrated that scribes at work in the Shang court’s scribal workshops of the 13th and 12th centuries BC, which were essentially diviner-group schools that trained Shang oracle-bone scribes in the preparation of the scripted oracles etched onto turtle plastrons and cattle scapula, most probably were responsible for creating rather rapidly the fully effloresced script that developed at the Shang court for the express purpose of communicating between mostly the Shang king and his ancestors’ spirits using oracle bones.

It may well be, then, that the proto- Chinese Sinitic OBI script, the first script in East Asia, was developed fully artificially to serve the specific and very critical purpose of communication for the sake of obtaining and retaining a religiously based socio-political power. This in turn supports the argument that the idea for and practice of writing were imported sometime during the 15th–13th centuries BC, for it seems that once the Shang Chinese court had been exposed from its contacts with outsiders to the power of the written word, it commanded the creation of a usable script from among the Chinese linguistic and cultural context.

In a mere several generations, it seems, the scribal authorities commissioned with this task succeeded in developing a workable and thoroughly indigenous script, based not only on the idea and practices of writing that had been transmitted from Southwest Asia but also graphically in large part upon a tradition of scratching symbolic clan- or ownership-marking graphs onto various owned artifacts, a tradition that had been practiced in China since Neolithic times.

Therefore, it appears, the first Chinese script, while dependent on the importation from the West of the “technology” of the powerful idea for and practice of writing a language, was developed specifically for the purpose of scratching onto bone with a stiff, sharp stylus characters created momentarily in court educational centers, and not, as it is [73] often argued, from the earlier use of a brush to paint signs on perishable materials (for which absolutely no evidence actually exists). The script seems to have evolved rather lineally and, from a native point of view, indigenously, from the millennia-old habit of employing a stylus to scratch symbols and signs onto items of personal — or personally created — and mostly ceramic objects.

Therefore, although the idea for and practice of enscripting a language appear to have been exogenous, the nature of the first writing in China, using a hard and sharp stylus to etch signs onto bone or other hard but permeable material (typically, pottery), appears to have followed directly from indigenous Neolithic-Bronze period traditions of sign-making on items of personal property to identify origin or ownership. This is not at all to suggest that the Neolithic early Bronze signs constitute any kind of true writing but only that the approach to designing and etching graphs of the OBI script appears to follow from the earlier native — though not at all commonly attested — approach and methods.

More posts on Chinese culture

Spirits possession in ancient China
Spirits possession in ancient China

Spirits possession in ancient China. I have just finished reading The Ancestors Are Drunk, a book by Jordan Paper. Perhaps one of the best books on the religion of China that can be found, because with every chapter, almost with every page, he opens new windows,...

Yan Lianke. The Four Books
Yan Lianke. The Four Books

Yan Lianke. The Four Books The Four Books refers to the famous Four Books of Confucius, the basis of Chinese thought for two millennia. And like those of Confucius, these by Yan Lianke could become a new model for understanding the glories and miseries of human...

Lao She Cat Country
Lao She Cat Country

Cat Country - Lao She Sometimes we say that a poet or a writer writes with his blood, and there are many occasions in which writers end up paying with their lives for having written a book. This is possibly one of them, and we can say that Lao She paid with his life...

The top 10 gods in 20th century Sichuan
The top 10 gods in 20th century Sichuan

he top 10 deities in 20th century Sichuan And we assume that there will be no major differences with the most popular ones in other parts of China, except on the coast, where the Empress of Heaven (Tianhuo), patron goddess of sailors, would be in the leading...

Notes on Chinese Medicine
Notes on Chinese Medicine

Notes on the Chinese Medicine Chinese medicine is the most important non-Western medicine, and it is the only one of the medicines developed by non-Western countries that has managed, throughout history, to face the continuous achievements and advances of Western...

More posts on China ethnic groups

Wonderful- yaks most precious treasure is their manure
Wonderful- yaks most precious treasure is their manure

Wonderful- yaks most precious treasure is their manure                 Most of the travelers who visited Tibet in former times noticed the importance that, for the maintenance of the living of the Tibetan nomads and travellers, had the Yak manure, known among the...

Life of Milarepa, the hermit poet
Life of Milarepa, the hermit poet

Life of Milarepa, the hermit poet. MiIarepa is one of the most beloved religious leaders of Tibet. His story, full of unique facts, has been told again and again over the centuries, and if the publishers did not warn that this is the autobiography written by the holy...

The first description of the Religion of the Yi
The first description of the Religion of the Yi

The first description of the Religion of the Yi By Father François Louis Crabouillet in 1872. The religion of the Lolos[i] is that of sorcerers: it consists only of conjurations of evil spirits, according to them, the only authors of evil. Without being devout like...

Tibetans, the people who descend from the monkey
Tibetans, the people who descend from the monkey

Tibetans, the people who descend from the monkey According to an ancient myth, the Tibetans originated from the union of an ogress (raksasi) and a monkey. The monkey was sent by Avalokitesvara, Mother Buddha, to sow the seed of Buddhism in these lands. One day, an...

The sung funeral of the Kucong of China
The sung funeral of the Kucong of China

The sung funeral of the Kucong Among the Kucong, one of the peoples who have most persistently maintained their isolation in the mountainous areas on the border of China and Laos, the different stages of the funeral are celebrated through music, which gives the...

The magical world of Yao painting. Jean Pierre Cormerais
The magical world of Yao painting. Jean Pierre Cormerais

The magical world of Yao painting. Jean Pierre Cormerais The Yao ceremonial paintings, the masterworks of the Yao people, nowadays are spread across much of Southeast Asia, increasingly fascinated art lovers worldwide after the apparition of the first paintings in...

Pin It on Pinterest