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Origins of writing in China

Most linguists believe that writing was invented in China during the latter half of the 2nd millennium BC and that there is no evidence to suggest the transmission of writing from elsewhere. The earliest recognizable examples of written Chinese date from 1500-950 BC (Shang dynasty) and were inscribed on ox scapulae and turtle shells – “oracle bones”.

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In 1899 a scholar from Beijing named Wang Yirong noticed symbols that looked like writing on some “dragon bones” which he had been prescribed by a pharmacy. At that time “dragon bones” were often used in Chinese medicine and were usually animal fossils. Many more “oracle bones” were found in the ruins of the Shang capital near Anyang in the north of Henan province.

The script on these “oracle bones” is known as jiăgŭwén – literally “shell bone writing”. They were used for divination, a process which involved heating them then inspecting the resulting cracks to determine to answers to one’s questions. The bones were then inscribed with details of the questions and the answers. Most of the questions involved hunting, warfare, the weather and the selection of auspicious days for ceremonies.

Recently archaeologists in China have unearthed many fragments of Neolithic pottery, the oldest of which date from about 4800 BC, inscribed with symbols which could be a form of writing. None of these symbols resemble any of the Shang characters and the likelihood of deciphering them is remote given the paucity of material.

The Chinese writing system   

Chinese is written with characters known as hànzi. Each character represents a syllable of spoken Chinese and also has a meaning. The characters were originally pictures of people, animals or other things but over the centuries they have become increasingly stylized and no longer resemble the things the represent. Many of the characters are actually compounds of two or more characters

How many characters?

The Chinese writing system is an open-ended one, meaning that there is no upper limit to the number of characters. The largest Chinese dictionaries include about 56,000 characters, but most of them are archaic, obscure or rare variant forms. Knowledge of about 3,000 characters enables you to read about 99% of the characters in Chinese newspapers and magazines. To read Chinese literature, technical writings or Classical Chinese though, you need to be familiar with about 6,000 characters.

Usage

Characters can be used on their own, in combination with other characters or as part of other characters.

Strokes

Chinese characters are written with the following twelve basic strokes:

Chinese Symbols 1

A character may consist of between 1 and 84 stokes. The strokes are always written in the same direction and there is a set order to write the strokes of each character. In dictionaries, characters are ordered partly by the number of stokes they contain.

 

Notes

The 48-stroke character (3 dragons) means “the appearance of a dragon walking”. The 84-stroke character is a Japanese surname. I can’t find the meanings of the 35 or 39 stroke characters in any dictionary.

When writing Chinese, every character is given exactly the same amount of space, no matter how many strokes it contains. There are no spaces between characters and the characters which make up multi-syllable words are not grouped together, so when reading Chinese, you not only have to work out what the characters mean and how to pronounce them, but also which characters belong together.

Homophones

There are approximately 1,700 possible syllables in Mandarin, which compares with over 8,000 in English. As a result, there are many homophones – syllables which sound the same but mean different things. These are distinguished in written Chinese by using different characters for each one.

Not all the following characters are pronounced with the same tone, so to Chinese ears they sound different. To Westerner ears however they all sound the same. These syllables can be distinguished in speech from the context and because most of them usually appear in combination with other syllables.

 

If you look closely, you will notice that some of the characters above have parts in common. These parts give you a clue to how to pronounce the characters.

 

Compound words

Chinese verbs and adjectives generally consist of one character (syllable) but nouns often consist of two, three or more characters (syllables):

 

Simplified characters

In an effort to increase literacy, about 2,000 of the characters used in China have been simplified. These simplified characters are also used in Singapore, but in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia the traditional characters are still used. Here are some examples (simplified characters in red):

 

 

Sample text in Chinese

 

Hànyŭ pīnyīn transliteration

Rénrén shēng ér zìyóu, zài zūnyán hé quánlì shàng yīlù píngdĕng. Tāmen fùyŏu lĭxìng hé liángxīn, bìng yīng yĭ xīongdì guānxì de jīngshén hùxiāng dùidài.

Translation

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

 

Evolution of Chinese characters

 

The Large Seal and Small Seal scripts are still used to write names on personal name chops, and are also occasionally used to write company names on buildings, stationery, name cards, etc.

The Grass script (a.k.a. Cursive script) is used mainly for Chinese calligraphy. Each character is written with one continuous stroke, which enables very rapid writing, though characters written in this way are difficult to read. Legibility is not a primary concern for Chinese calligraphers; instead they aim to produce calligraphy that is aesthetically pleasing.

The Standard script (a.k.a. Traditional Chinese) is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, parts of southern China and among many Overseas Chinese communities.

The Simplified script (a.k.a. Simplified Chinese), was officially adopted in the People’s Republic of China in 1949 in an effort to eradicate illiteracy. It is also used in Singapore.

Types of Chinese characters

 

Thought to be the oldest types of characters, pictographs were originally pictures of things. During the past 5,000 years or so they have become simplified and stylized.

Ideographs are graphical representations of abstract ideas.

 

Compound pictographs and ideographs combine one or more pictographs or ideographs to form new characters. Both component parts contribute to the meaning of the compound character.

Note

The character for thought was originally a combination of the characters for brain + heart. In the modern character the brain component has been replaced by the character for field, which is very similar to the one for brain.

 

Semantic-phonetic compounds represent around 90% of all existing characters and consist of two parts: a semantic component or radical which hints at the meaning of the character, and a phonetic component which gives a clue to the pronunciation of the character.

Characters containing the same phonetic component may have the same sound and the same tone, the same sound but a different tone, the same initial or final sound, or a different sound and a different tone.

Phonetic components are generally a more reliable indication of pronunciation than semantic components are of meaning.

 

Numerals

The complex numerals are used on checks, banknotes and coins and are the equivalent of writing ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, etc, rather than 1, 2, 3. The simple numerals are used for everything else. The same numerals are also used in Japanese and Korean.

 

Large numbers are divided into units of ten thousand, so 1 million is one hundred ten-thousands.

 

 

 

Simplified Chinese characters

The Simplified script (a.k.a. Simplified Chinese) was officially adopted in the People’s Republic of China in 1949 in an effort to eradicate illiteracy. The simplified script is also used in Singapore but the older traditional characters are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia.

About 2,000 characters have been simplified in a number of different ways (the simplified characters are shown in red):

Many simplified characters are based on commonly used abbreviations:

 

Others retain only one part from the traditional character.

 

Some replace the phonetic element of the traditional character with a simpler one that is pronounced in the same or in a similar way:

 

In some cases, several traditional characters are represented by one simplified character:

 

Recently the traditional characters have started to make a come back, particularly in southern China.

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