The Chinese writing system is an unique phenomenon in the modern world of alphabet scripts. Instead of a few dozen letters, it has developed thousands of complex signs or "characters" that represent morphemes and words. Even related writing systems such as Japanese and Korean, while sharing many of the same characters, can fully function as purely phonetic scripts. And while it is not the only living logographic writing system in the modern world, it is the only one serving as the primary writing system for hundreds of millions of people.
The first recognizable form of Chinese writing dates from 3,500 years ago, but many argue that its origins lie much deeper in the past. Regardless of its actual age, Chinese has evolved substantially over time yet has retained its ancient core, making it one of the longest continuously used writing system in the world.
The common consensus is that writing in China evolved from earlier non-linguistic symbolic systems. During the Late Neolithic period, at the latter half of the 3rd millenum BCE, many symbols or "pictograms" started to be incised on pottery and jades. These symbols are thought to be family or clan emblems that identify the ownership or provenance of the pottery or jades.
While these pictograms are not truly Chinese characters, they do bear some resemblance to the earliest Chinese characters. And at least in one instance an emblem, namely bird with a solar symbol, continues to be used as clan name in early Shang dynasty on bronze artifacts. The prevalent thought is that at some point in time these symbols ceased to represent the objects they illustrate but instead came to represent the words of the objects. In other words, the symbols acquired linguistic values and became logograms. However, exactly when this switch happened is unknown. Perhaps it already had when these symbols were incised into the pottery, which could mean that these artifacts have writing on them, but there is no way to prove one way or another. At best we can say is that the symbols were precursors to Chinese writing.
The Earliest Chinese Writing
Whatever the obscure initial phase of written Chinese was, its appearance during the Shang dynasty already exhibited sign of a very complex system. The earliest form of Chinese writing is called the oracle bone script, used from 1500 to 1000 BCE. This script was etched onto turtle shells and animals bones, which were then heated until cracks would appear. By interpretating the pattern of the cracks, Shang court officials would make divinations of future events, hence giving the name "oracle bones" to these animal bones. An example of an oracle bone is illustrated in the following example.
The rough translation of this text is "on day hsin mao, it is divined on this day hsin that it will rain or not rain." This is actually fairly typical of the content of oracle bones, in that the priest will carve both positive and negative outcomes of the divination onto the bone, and depending on how the cracks appear one of the outcomes will be chosen as the augury.
A very common feature of the early Chinese script is that extensive use of "rebus writing" in which the sign for one word is used to write another word with the same or similar sound. A well-known example of rebus writing in English is to use the symbol "4" which denotes the word "four" to represent the word "for". Chinese is a highly monosyllabic language and so the opportunity of using rebus writing would have presented itself extremely frequently. The following chart illustrates some examples of signs used to represent multiple words.
In the above example, two words are given for each sign. The first word is the original meaning of the sign, presumably because it represents the object it is supposed to represent, and the second word is represented by the sign because its pronunciation is the same or similar to the first word. For instance, the first sign is that of a stylized elephant, and unsurprisingly its original meaning is "elephant". However, because "image" has the same pronunciation as "elephant" (*ziaŋʔ), it is also written with the stylized elephant sign. Similarly, the word "cauldron" (*teŋ) is represented by an abstract geometric sign that is a stylized cauldron, but because it is also similarly sounding to the word "to divine" (*treŋ), the same abstract cauldron sign is shared.
Another complexity in the ancient Chinese writing is "polysemy", which is the practice of using same sign for two words with vastly different sounds but have related meanings, as examplified below.
As you can see, the word "eye" (*muk) shares the same sign as the word "to see" (*kens), presumably because one sees with the eyes. Similarly, the word "mouth" (*khouʔ) shares a sign with the word "name" (*meŋ), although the relationship in this case is a bit looser.
As you can imagine, signs having multiple meanings can lead to wrong interpretation of texts. To alleviate this ambiguity, scribes started to attached additional symbols to these polyvalent signs to distinguish one use from another, in the process creating new, compound signs. One way these "add-on" symbols are used is called "semantic determinatives" as they provide approximate or related meanings to the new signs. This category of signs are used to distinguish signs that represent words with identical or similar pronunciations, as illustrated in the following chart which displays some of the "formulas" through which the determinatives are applied to form new signs.
For example, by adding the sign that means "to make cracks (for divination)" to the sign that can either be "cauldron" or "to divine", a new sign with the unambiguous meaning of "to divine" is created. The old, unadorned sign is now exclusively used for "cauldron".
In the speak of modern day Chinese, semantic determinatives are called "radicals", in the sense that they are the "roots" or core of the characters (from Latin radix, "root"), although ironically they are not as much as the core but decorations of the original ancient signs. Over the course of history radicals have been standardized and so they do represent a systematic way in which signs are organized. In fact, in a Chinese dictionary all words are grouped by their radicals and sorted by the number of strokes needed to write their character.
Another way to attach extra signs is to use their phonetic values to distinguish signs that have similar meaning but vastly different pronunciations. These extra signs are called "phonetic complements" in that they provide a rough guide on the words' pronuncation, and thus allowing the reader to tell apart one meaning from another.
In the previous example, note that the sign for "growing grain" (*ghway) is also for "harvest" (*nin), and so by adding the sign which has the phonetic value of *nin, the new compound sign now exclusively means "harvest". The old plain sign continues to mean "growing grain". Note that the phonetic complement actually means "man", but here it is not used for its semantic value, only for its phonetic value.
Stages of Chinese Writing
Given its immense time depth, the Chinese writing system is far from static. After the early evolution during the Shang dynasty, the script continued to evolved. Visually it became increasingly more linear, more stylized and less resembling of the natural objects. It also grew in complexity, as the innovations of semantic determinatives (radicals) and phonetic complements continued to be applied to form new words.
Scholars have conveniently divided different styles of Chinese writing into a number of "scripts". The following chart compares different Chinese characters in various forms throughout time.
Note: The pronunciation is that of Mandarin and of Old Chinese (1000-700 BCE).
The first four phases of Chinese writing trace the first 1,500-year history of Chinese and essentially encompass the evolution from a nascent pictographic and ambiguous writing script to a standardized system containing thousands of characters still in use today.
Jiaguwen (甲骨文), or Oracle Bone Script. This is the earliest form of Chinese writing, used from the Middle to Late Shang dynasty (approximately 1500 BCE to 1000 BCE). This script was etched onto turtle shells and animals bones, which were then used for divination in the royal Shang court, hence the name "oracle bones". Consequently, scholars have been using oracle bones as historical documents to investigate the reigns of later Shang monarchs, and surprisingly confirming the veracity of the traditional list of Chinese emperors that was deemed mythological rather than historical. The shape of these characters are often described as "pictographic", in that they resemble stylized drawings of objects they represent.
Dazhuan (大篆), or Greater Seal. This stage of Chinese writing flourished from the Late Shang to the Western Chou dynasties (1100 BCE to 700 BCE). Unlike Jiaguwen, which was carved on bones, Dazhuan mainly appeared on cast bronze vessels. In fact, Jiaguwen and Dazhuan overlapped in time, and they might have been the same script but as they were inscribed on different materials their visual styles differ due to the quality of the surfaces.
Xiaozhuan (小篆), or Lesser Seal. This elegant script is the direct parent of the modern, unsimplified Chinese script. Not only are Xiaozhuan characters are more stylized and less "pictographic" like Jiaguwen and Dazhuan, but also exhibits systematic and extensive use of radicals much like modern Chinese. This script has survived the passage of time and continues to be used in the present age in calligraphy and seals.
Lishu (隸書), or Clerkly Script. As its name implies, this script was used by government bureaucrats. While it probably appeared at approximately 500 BCE, Lishu became widely used in the Qin (221 to 207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE to 220 CE) dyansties when the bureaucrats needed a fast and efficient script to handle state matters. The marked difference between this script and the Xiaozhuan is that Li Shu characters have less strokes and a more flowing style, therefore easily adaptable to brushes and pens. Lishu is still occassionally used in the modern age.
The shape of Lishu characters are identical to modern Chinese characters. Furthermore, characters were standardized to remove regional variations, and these standard characters are for the most part the same characters written in the present. Therefore, it can be said that Chinese writing reached its maturity at this time (until the 20th century).
Evolution of Chinese writing after Lishu is a trend of increasingly cursive scripts. These scripts are used primarily in calligraphy.
Kaishu (楷書), or Standard Script, is essentially the traditional script used today (except in the People's Republic of China). It is very similar to Lishu, but slightly more cursive and contains serif-like (hook or anchor-like) elements at the corners and end of strokes. Kaishu appeared toward the end of the Han dynasty (220 CE).
Xingshu (行書), or Running Script, can be considered a cursive version of Kaishu. Often several strokes are merged into one, especially sequential dots or two strokes perpendicular to each other. It also appeared shortly after the Han dynasty.
Caoshu (草書), or Grass Script, is the most cursive Chinese script. It appeared during the Qin dynasty. The shape of its characters often do not resemble the corresponding Lishu or Kaishu character, in that some strokes are merged into one and others are simply left out.
The most important change in Chinese writing since the standardization in the Qin dynasty occurred in the middle of the 20th century. In 1949, the People's Republic of China (PRC) introduced simplified characters (jiantizi) to replace the traditional Kaishu characters. Not all characters were given a new simplified form, as these unsimplified characters were already very "simple" and involve very few strokes. Some simplified characters were in fact official recognition of widely-used colloquial variants of traditional characters.
In addition to the People's Republic of China, Singapore also adopted this script. However, other Chinese-speaking places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and various Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and the Americas rejected this new system and continued to use the traditional script. Tradition runs deep in Chinese culture, and the fact that the simplified script carries political undertones certainly did not help its wider acceptance.
As the only indigenous and the oldest writing system in East Asia, the Chinese writing system became the inspiration and the basis for many other East Asian writing systems, some prominent and still in use, while other having faded into obscurity and disuse. Together they are loosely called the Sinitic family of scripts, which includes the following scripts.
Japanese: At first the Japanese wrote fully in Chinese, but over time the Chinese script was adopted to represent Japanese words, syntax, and grammar. The result is a set of three scripts serving as a single writing system. One of the scripts, kanji is essentially Chinese characters, whereas the other two systems, hiragana and katakana are simplified forms of certain Chinese characters and used exclusively to represent sounds. It is possible and fairly common that all three scripts are useds together in the same text.
Korean: Writing in Korea also started as an adoption of the Chinese script to fit the Korean language, and as a result Chinese characters called hanja came to represent both words as well as sounds. This system persisted for more than a thousand until the creation and introduction of the alphabet hangul which is what is used in both North and South Korea.
Yi Scripts: The Yi people of China's Yunnan province have an indigenous writing system that on surface appears to resemble Chinese, so it is classified as a Sinitic script, but the resemblance might just a product of stimulus diffusion. This means that only the idea of writing and the visual style were adopted by the Yi, but the individual signs themselves are brand new inventions.
Khitan: The Khitan people were a powerful Mongolian tribe that dominated Northern China and established the Liao dynasty between the 10th and 12th centuries BCE and invented not one but two scripts both based on Chinese and augmented to their language. One form, the "Large Script", remained largely logographic, while the "Small Script" evolved into a mixed phonetic and logographic system. In both scripts, some signs were adopted from Chinese and heavily modified, while others are new creations. The Khitan script, as well as the Khitan language and people, faded into history after having been absorbed into the Mongolian empire.
Jurchen: The Jurchens were the ancestors of the Manchus (who went on to conquer China and established the last dynasty, the Qing) and they adapted both the Khitan big and small scripts and modified them into a single script for their own language. It is still a poorly understood script. The Jurchen/Manchu people later adopted the Mongolian alphabet and modified it into the Manchu script, and abandoned the old logographic Jurchen script.
Tangut: The Xixia Dynasty or Tangut Empire was a powerful state in northwestern China, headed by an elite who spoke a Tibeto-Burman language. By edict of Emperor Jingzong, a writing system was created by his court scholars in 1036 and rapid disseminated via government schools. The Tangut script was a logographic writing system with over 5,000 characters made to resemble Chinese characters visually but were in fact new creations. The script quickly declined after the destruction of the Tangut Empire by Genghis Khan, the last inscription dating from the 16th century.
Vietnamese Chu Nom means "Southern Writing" and it was a script to write Vietnamese using Chinese character construction principles. What this means is that traditional radicals were paired with characters serving as phonetic components to construct Chu Nom characters that represent Vietnamese words. Chu Nom never attained an official status such as that of Chinese in Vietnam and only remained in the domain of literary elites. During French colonization both Chinese and Chu Nom were suppressed and the Latin-based quoc ngu became the sole writing system for Vietnamese.
Nushu is perhaps the most interesting writing system associated with Chinese. It is a secret script used by women in Hunan over hundred of years to communicate with each other as women were not given any education in feudal Chinese society. It is moribund and only known by a handful of women of advanced age. However recently there is considerable interest in it and some efforts are made in preserving it.