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China Information >> Literature
 
Chinese character

 

History of Chinese Characters

Chinese is the language with the largest number of users in the world, and the script with the longest history.

It is difficult to determine the specific time when Chinese characters emerged. The oldest characters we see today are the scripts on the tortoise shells and animal bones in the Shang Dynasty (17th- 11thcentury BC) and scripts carved on bronze wares. Characters of the Shang Dynasty have been much developed, so Chinese characters might have emerged long before the dynasty, perhaps as early as in the New Stone Age about four to five thousand years ago.

We can see pictographic characters on porcelains with signs unearthed at the sites of the Erlitou Culture and Dawenkou Culture. These pictographic characters and ideographic characters gradually evolved into relatively mature characters. After scattered and individual characters accumulated to a certain number, a system of Chinese characters came into being through efforts of standardization. According to textual researches, primitive characters emerged in the middle period of the New Stone Age, and took about 2,600 years to basically form the system of Chinese characters.

Cangjie Creating Chinese Characters

Huainanzi(Masters in the Kingdom of Huainan) says that it was because of the characters Cangjie made that the Heaven rained grains and the ghosts cried at night.Xunzi(Hsun Tzu) andShijing(The Book of Odes) and other ancient books also record he legend of Cangjie creating Chinese characters. By the Qin (221-206BC) and Han (206BC-220AD) dynasties, the legend had become more widespread and had more far-reaching influence.

Emperor Qinshihuang Unified Chinese Characters

Qin Emperor Shihuang

Qin Emperor Shihuang (259-210BC) was the state-founding emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC). He was enthroned at the age of 13 and became an emperor at 39. From 230 to 221BC, he destroyed six states -- Han, Wei, Chu, Yan, Zhao and Qi -- in succession, unified China and established the feudal centralized system.

In order to consolidate his position, Qin Emperor Shihuang launched a series of reforms on politics, economy, culture and ideology. He asked his Prime Minister, Li Si, to unify the eight calligraphic styles that were thriving in other states and absorb some simplified characters and vulgar style scripts to create the standardizedQinzhuan(Qin-Dynasty seal) script.  

This was China,s first thorough character standardization movement led by the central government, and the uniform calligraphic style has great significance in pushing forward the development of Chinese characters.

 

Historians in the past once tried to prove whether there was a person named Cangjie in the history, and if there was one, when he lived, but they failed to draw a conclusion due to lack of irrefutable proofs.

Some people guessed that Cangjie was the historiographer of the Yellow Emperor. Xunzi thought Cangjie must have been a prehistoric wise man who sorted out and standardized the characters that had already been in use.

Evidently the legend of Cangjie creating Chinese characters cannot be accepted as the truth, for any script can only be a creation developed by the people to meet the needs of social life over a long period of trial and experiment. Chinese characters are a huge and complicated system, and it could only come into being after a long period of creation and development.