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The origin of the Chinese script


There have been various stories about the origin of the Chinese script, with nearly all ancient writers attributing it to a man named Cangjie.

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.

Another story says that Cangjie saw the footprints of birds and beasts, which inspired him to create written characters.

Evidently 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. A group of ancient tombs have been discovered in recen years at Yanghe in Luxian 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 zun), 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 years.

The pictographs, the earliest forms of Chinese written characters, already possessed the characteristics of a script.

As is well-known, written Chinese is not an alphabetic 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 rawings they became stylized forms.

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".


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, 爸 (ba) the Chinese character for "papa" is formed by the element 巴 (ba) which represents the sound and the element 父 (fu) which represents the meaning (father). Likewise the character 芭 (ba) is formed by 巴 (the sound) and ++, indicating a plant. In this way, more and more characters were made until such pictophonetics constitute today about 90 percent of all Chinese characters.


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