have been various stories about the origin of the Chinese script, with
nearly all ancient writers attributing it to a man named Cangjie.
according to one legend, saw a divine being whose face had unusual features
which looked like a picture of writings. In imitation of his image, Cangjie
created the earliest written characters. After that, certain ancient accounts
go on to say, millet rained from heaven and the spirits howled every night
to lament the leakage of the divine secret of writing.
story says that Cangjie saw the footprints of birds and beasts, which
inspired him to create written characters.
these stories cannot be accepted as the truth, for any script can only
be a creation developed by the masses of the people to meet the needs
of social life over a long period of trial and experiment. Cangjie, if
there ever was such a man, must have been a prehistoric wise man who sorted
out and standardized the characters that had already been in use.
group of ancient tombs have been discovered in recent years at Yanghe
in Euxian County, Shandong Province. They date back 4, 500 years and belong
to a late period of the Dawenkou Culture. Among the large numbers of relics
unearthed are about a dozen pottery wine vessels (called zan), which bear
a character each. These characters are found to be stylized pictures of
some physical objects. They are therefore called pictographs and, in style
and structure, are already quite close to the inscriptions on the oracle
bones and shells, though they antedate the latter by more than a thousand
pictographs, the earliest forms of Chinese written characters, already
possessed the characteristics of a script.
is well-known, written Chinese is not an alphebatic language, but a script
of ideograms. Their formation follows three principles
Hieroglyphics or the drawing of pictographs - As explained before, this
was the earliest method by which Chinese characters were designed and
from which the other methods were subsequently developed. For instance,
the sun was written as , the moon as, water as ,, the cow as and so on. These picture-words underwent a gradual evolution
over the centuries until the pictographs changed into " square characters,
" some simplified by losing certain strokes and others made more
complicated but, as a whole, from irregular drawings they became stylised
Associative compounds-The principle of forming characters by drawing pictures
is easy to understand, but pictographs cannot express abstract ideas.
So the ancients invented the "associative compounds, " i. e.,
characters formed by combining two or more elements, each with a meaning
of its own, to express new ideas. Thus, the sun and the moon written together
became the character , (ming), which means "bright";
the sun placed over a line representing the horizon formed the ideogram
(dan) which means "sunrise" or "morning".
Pictophonetics - Though pictographs and associative compounds indicate
the meanings of characters by their forms, yet neither of the two categories
gives any hint as to pronunciation. The pictophonetic method was developed
to create new characters by combining one element indicating meaning and
the other sound. For instance, (ha) the Chinese character for "papa"
is formed by the element (ba) which represents the sound and the element
(fu) which represents the meaning (father).
refer to the scripts carved by the ancients of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th
to 11th century B. C'. ) on tortoise shells and ox scapulas (shoulder
blades), which are considered to be the earliest written language of China.
discovery was by accident. In 1899, Wang Yirong, an official under the
Qing Dynasty, fell ill. One of the medicaments prescribed by the physician
was called "longgu" (dragon bones). They turned out to be fragments
of tortoise shells which were found to bear strange carved on patterns.
He kept the "dragon bones " and showed them to scholars who,
after careful study, came to the conclusion that the carvings were written
records from 3, 000 years before and were of great historical significance.
Further enquiries revealed that the "dragon bones" had been
unearthed at Xiaotun Village, Anyang County, Henan Province, site of the
remains of the Shang Dynasty capital.
digs made at the site in later years brought to light a total of more
than 100, 000 pieces of bones and shells all carved with words. About
4,500 different characters have been counted, and 1,700 of them deciphered.
thousand five hundred years ago, Anyang was a marshy area teeming with
tortoises, a favourite food of the local inhabitants. And the Shangs were
a very superstitious people. Their rulers would resort to divination and
ask the gods for rev elation whenever there was a gale, downpour, thunderstorm,
famine or epidemic. Before going on a war or a big hunt, their need to
divine the outcome becomes more urgent.
method of divination then was to drill a hole on the interior side of
the tortoise shell and put the shell on a fire to see what cracks would
appear on the obverse side. By interpreting the cracks the soothsayer
predicted the outcome of an event. After each divination, the dates, the
events and the results would be written down and carved on tortoise shells
or bones. And the collection of these became the earliest recorded historical
material in China, from which modern scholars have divined "how things
were in the Shang society".
the oracle inscriptions, one finds many pictographs in their primitive
picture forms. Together they show that a well structured script with a
complete system of written signs was already formed in that early age.
on, the area around Anyang became dry, and tortoises grew scarce, so people
began to use bamboo strips instead for divination. From this grew the
practice of asking the gods about the future by drawing bamboo sticks,
as one may see today at certain temples a practice that has its remote
root in the superstition of the Shang people.
type of early Chinese script in its long history of development is represented
by the inscriptions cast or carved on ancient bronze objects of the Shang
and Zhou dynasties. It is called .Jinwen ( literally, script on metal
) and, as ancient bronzes arc generally referred to as zhongding (bells
and tripods). it is also called zhongdingmen.
The ding, originally a big cooking pot with three
(rarely four) legs, became a ritual object and a sign of power, and the
owning of such tripods, as wc41 as their sizes and numbers, was a status
symbol of the Shang slave-owning aristocrats. At the beginning only the
names of the owners were cast or engraved on the tripods. Later the tripods
(and other bronzes) began to carry longer inscriptions stating the uses
they were put to and the dates they were cast. Towards the end of the
Warring States Period (475 221 B. C. ) ,,the ducal states of Zheng and
Jin had their statutes promulgated and cast on tripods.
the inscriptions on the bronzes grew longer, from a few characters to
a few hundred, from simple phrases to detailed accounts.
bronze objects bearing inscriptions have been unearthed in China and can
be seen in a large number of museums.
priceless tripod is the Daynding (Large Tripod Bestowed upon Yu) dating
from the early Zhou Oynasty (c. 11th century to 771 B. C. ), now kept
at the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing. About one metre high and
weighing 153. 5 kilograms, it has on its interior wall an inscription
of 291 characters in 19 lines, by which King Kang summed up the experience
in found ing a new nation and drew lessons from the failure of the preceding
Shang Dynasty. The inscription also mentions that the King awarded his
aristocrat follower Yu 1, 722 slaves of various grades and large numbers
of carriages and horses.
important bronze called Maogongding, now kept in Taiwan Province, belongs
to the late Western Zhou. It bears an inscription of 497 characters, the
longest ever discovered on any bronze hitherto unearthed. It is an account
of how King Xuan admonished, commended and awarded Maogong Yin; it also
reveals the instability of the Western Zhou regime at the time.
tripods furnish rare and valuable information to throw light on the slave
society under the Western Zhou.
ancient bronzes reflect not only the high level that Chinese metallurgy
attained in their time. The inscriptions they bear may well be regarded
as "books in bronze" which fill important gaps left by the scanty
written history of that remote age.
museums of ancient history one often sees bamboo or wood strips written
with characters by the writing brush. These slips are called jian, the
earliest form of books in China.
practice of writing on slips began probably during the Shang Dynasty (c.
16th-11th century B. C. ) and lasted till the Eastern Han (AI) 25-220),
extending over a period of 1,600 - 1,700 years. The historical Records,
the first monumental general history written by the great historian Sima
Qian (c. 110 B.C. - ?), consisting of 520,000 characters in 130 chapters
and covering a period of 3,000 years from the legendary Yellow Emperor
to Emperor Wudi of the Han, was written on slips. So were other well known
works of ancient China, including the Book of Songs ( the earliest Chinese
anthology of poems and songs from 11th century to about 600 B. C. ) and
.Jiazhang Suanshu (Mathematics in Nine Chapters completed in the 1st century
AD, the earliest book on mathematics in the country).
in 1972 in an ancient tomb of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B. C. -A. D.
24) at Yinque Mountain, Linyi, Shandong Province, brought to light 4,924
bamboo slips. They turned out to be hand-written, though incomplete, copies
of two of China's earliest books on military strategy and tactics The
Art of War by Sun Zi and The Art of War by Sun Bin. The latter had been
missing for at least 1,400 years.
write on bamboo or wood slips was no easy task. Take bamboo slips for
example. Bamboos were first cut into sections and then into strips. These
were dried by fire to be drained of the moisture of the natural plant
to prevent rotting and worm infestation in future. The finished bamboo
slips run from 20 to 70 cm in length. Judging from those unearthed from
ancient tombs, royal decrees and statutes were written on slips 68 cm
long, texts of the classics on 56-cm-long slips, and private letters on
23 cm ones. The brush was used in writing and, in case of mistakes, the
wrong characters would be scraped off by means of a small knife to allow
the correct ones to be filled in. The knife played the same role as the
rubber eraser today.
on bamboo or wood slips was done from top to bottom, with each line comprising
from 10 to at most 40 characters. To write a work of some length, one
would need thousands of slips. The written slips would then be bound together
with strips into a book. Some books were so heavy that they had to be
carried in carts. In some cases the blank slips were first bound into
books before they were written on.
unofficial story tells about Dongfang Shuo (154-93 B. C. ), a courtier
and humorist, who wrote a 30,000 -character memorial to the Western Han
Emperor Wudi, using more than 3,000 slips. These had to be carried by
two men to the audience hall.
also extols the hard work of the First Emperor of the Qin of 2,200 years
ago by telling that he had to peruse and comment on 60 kilograms of official
documents every day. This may not be so astonishing as at first hearing,
when one recalls that the passages were written on wood or bamboo slips.
and clumsy as they were, ancient books of bamboo and wood played an important
part in the dissemination of knowledges in various fields. They were in
circulation over a long period until gradually replaced by paper which
was invented during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 23-220).
the earliest Chinese script cut on stone, is kept in the Palace Museum
(Forbidden City) of Beijing. It is in the form of inscriptions, on 10
drum-shaped stone blocks, of 10 poems of 4 character lines, depicting
the ruler of a state on a big hunt. The characters are written in a style
called dazhuan (big seal character) and have been taken as the "earliest
model of zhuan-style writing", important to the development and studies
of Chinese calligraphy.
"stone drums" were discovered in the Tang Dynasty (Al) 618-907)
at Tianxing (present-day Baoji in Shaanxi Province) and caused a stir
among men of letters and calligraphers. Celebrated poets like Du Fu, Han
Yu and Su Dongpo sang of the discovery in verse. It was only after the
end of World War 11 that the "stone drums" were moved to Beijing
for safekeeping. But age, rough handling and long distance from ports
have taken a toll on the valuable relics. Many of the characters have
disappeared or eroded by weathering, and one of the "drums"
has even become completely devoid of any engraving.
the invention of paper and printing, the best way in China to keep outstanding
writings and calligraphic works was to carve them on stone. Those cut
on drum shaped blocks are called shigawen (stone drum inscriptions); and
those cut on steles and tablets are called beimen.
former, being much earlier and rarer, are greatly treasured.
dating of the set of stone drums under discussion was a subject of controversy
over the ages. Careful research made by archaeologists in recent years
has led to the conclusion that they were engraved in the state of Qin
during the Warring States Period (475-221 B. C. ) and are therefore well
over 2,000 years old.
the invention of the art of printing, how did ancient Chinese preserve
and disseminate their culture and art? As mentioned before, they relied
to a great extent upon inscriptions on stone tablets.
inscriptions are known as beiwen ( writings on stelae) or, less common,
shishu ("stone books"). The earliest examples so far discovered
are a set of 46 stelae engraved with the Confucian classics after the
handwriting of the great Eastern Han calligrapher Cai Yong, carved in
Al) 175 or the fourth year in the reign of Xiping. They are called "Xiping
Shijing" (Xiping Classics on Stone). They were placed in front of
the lecture halls of the then Imperial College in old 1 uoyang (the site
of the 3rd-century town, a little to the east of today's Luoyang) as standard
versions of the classics for the students to read or to copy from.
engrave a voluminous work or series of works would require thousands of
stone tablets and generations of perseverance and painstaking work. By
far the greatest work engraved on stone is the Dazangjing (Great Buddhist
Scriptures ), which comprises more than 14,000 tablets. The carving of
the stupendous collection began in the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and concluded
about 1644, when the Ming Dynasty was replaced by the Qing, extending
over a thousand years! This rare collection of books on stone is kept
in 9 rocky caves on Shijingshan (Stone Scripture Mountain) in Fangshan
County, southwest of Beijing.
order to preserve the "stone books" of various periods, scholars
in China started as early as 1090 (5th year of the Yuanyou Period under
the Song Dynasty) to collect the stelae scattered around the country and
keep them together at Xi'an. Today in the halls of the "Forest of
Stelae" are 1,700 tablets of many dynasties from the Han down to
the Qing - the greatest collection in China.
engravings on these stones cover a wide range of subjects-from the classics
to works of calligraphy, from linear drawings to pictures in low relief.
They include the Thirteen Classies (Book of Changes, Book of History,
Book of' Songs, the Analects, etc. ), the basic readings required of Confucian
scholars of past ages. These, totalling 650,252 characters, were cut on
both sides of 114 stelae in A.1). 837 of the Tang Dynasty. The stelae
stand side by side like walls of stone, a veritable library of stone books.
Forest of Stelae at Xi'an is not only a treasure house of Chinese literature
and history but represents, a galaxy of the best calligraphers of different
ages and schools, including all the different scripts-zhuan seal character,
li (official script), coo (cursive ) and kai (regular ) -each with its
representative works. Visitors here may feast their eyes on the whole
gamut of Chinese calligraphy.
sometime in the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C. ) and over a long
period of time in ancient China, plain silk of various descriptions joined
bamboo and wood slips as the material for writing or painting on. Silk
had advantages over the slips in that it was much lighter and could be
cut in desired shapes and sizes and folded, the better to be kept and
carried. But owing to its much greater cost, silk was never so popularly
used as the slips.
most valuable find of ancient silk writings was made in 1973 from an ancient
tomb known as the No. 3 Han Tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province.
It is in the form of 30-odd pieces of silk, bearing more than 120,000
characters. They consist largely of ancient works that had long been lost.
For instance, Wuxingzhan describes the orbits of five planets (Venus,
Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn) and gives the cycles of their alignment,
all with a precision far more remarkable than similar works which appeared
later. Also found were three maps drawn on silk, showing the topography,
the stationing of troops and the cities and towns of certain regions of
are the earliest maps in China, and in the world as well, that have been
made on the basis of field surveys. Contrary to their modern counterparts,
they show south on top and north at the bottom. The topographic map is
at a scale of 1:i80,00(), and the troop distribution map at about 1: 80,
000/100, 000. Their historical value may be easily imagined when one remembers
that they are at least 2,100 years old.
was considered in old China an exquisite material for writing on; some
were pre-marked with lines in vermilion. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907),
it was the fashion to weave the lines into plain white silk to be used
exclusively for writing.
artists of today have carried on the ancient practice of painting and
writing on silk.
make rubbings from carved inscriptions was the earliest method of making
copies in China before printing was invented.
ancient times, engravings were often made on stone of important imperial
decrees, texts of Confucian classics, Buddhist scriptures, proved medical
recipes as well as poems, pictures and calligraphic works by noted men
of letters so that they may be appreciated and preserved for posterity.
make rubbings is to make copies from these cut inscriptions or pictures.
The method followed is rather simple in principle paste a wetted piece
of soft but firm paper (xuan paper is normally used) closely over the
stone tablet or bronze and beat it lightly all over with the cushioned
end of a stick so that the parts of paper over the cut hollows will sink
in. The paper is then left on to dry. Then ink is applied by dabbing it
on until the paper is turned into a copy with white characters or drawings
on a black ground. Removed and dried, it becomes the rubbing.
vary and are called by different names according to the ink used. Wujinta
(black gold rubbings) are made with very black ink; chanyita (cicada wing
rubbings) are made with very light ink; zhuta (vermilion rubbings) with
vermilion ink. Bound book form, the rubbings become beitie (stele rubbings),
which may be used either as models for calligraphy or kept in a collection
for appreciation or research.
inscriptions on bronze, stone or wood wear out with time, early rubbings
made from famous pieces of work are more valued and cherished than the
ones made later.
are convenient and meaningful mementoes for foreign tourists to remind
them of their China tours. They are especially liked by Japanese visitors
who share the same written character.