Chinese Characters: Hanzi History And Origin

The Chinese characters refer to the medium through which the Chinese language was and is recorded. And just like any other type of characters, it represents a form of or an expression of communication through which there is decoding of how the characters are pronounced and what the characters represent.

One thing that really stands out about the Chinese characters would be the fact that the characters are unique and unlike most other characters used in other languages. It begs the question, how did the Chinese characters come to be? What is the story behind it all?

What Are Chinese Characters?

Hanzi ior Chinese characters in simplified Chinese, can be defined as logograms that were developed for the sole purpose of writing. This logographic system of writing is one of the greatest writing systems in the whole world, and just like the semantic writing styles of the West, the Chinese scripts and writing are the fundamental writing systems for the East.

As expected of the hogographic systems for writing, the earliest Chinese characters featured the use of pictures and pictographs originally inscribed on pieces of bone from different animals. These inscriptions later appeared on metals like bronze, among other types of metals. The characters later and eventually developed into a calligraphic style with brush strokes and clean lines, which Chinese writing is known for today. In other words, the Chinese characters and writing styles have undergone many alterations and modifications over the years, from the crude and highly unformulated styles of writing known as the Jiǎgǔ zì to the widely recognized modern-day characters known for the diamond shapes.

So, what’s the actual history behind these characters?

What Is The History Of Chinese Characters?

As mentioned above, the Chinese characters have evolved over the years, and the oldest Chinese characters are believed to have been even many thousands of years ago. Like other ancient things, there is no actual or accurate way of saying when exactly the characters were first used, and historians are still trying to figure all that out.

But according to data on the analysis of different historical data forms, the Chinese characters can be traced back to a period between 5 and 6 thousand years ago. This is evidenced by the Banpo Neolithic Yangshao culture’s archaeological site located on the east side of Xi’an in the province of Shaanxi. This site revealed the characters carved in ancient pottery. There is scanty information on all this, unfortunately.

When Were Chinese Characters Invented?

Cangjie

The more recent discoveries that point to writing styles closer to what exists today point to the Shang Dynasty. This ancient Chinese writing style from the 1600-1046BCE Shang Dynasty rule is believed to have evolved from the divination practice that was common during the reign of the Shang Dynasty. These are the same writings believed to have been uncovered in Banpo. But again, there are people that challenge all these.

What is known about the Ban Po Village, however, is that the village was inhabited between 4500 and 3750BCE, and the discovery of the village was brought to light when workmen dug the foundations of a factory in the same site in 1953CE chanced upon the site. Excavation works stopped, and the site is now a site of historical discovery, which has been classified into 27 unique categories with signs and images that suggest an early form of language, as noted by some scholars. Most of the recent studies on these writings support the theory and the belief that the Chinese characters evolved during Shang Dynasty’s reign.

These discoveries show that the presence of many inscriptions with 10-60 characters featured on incised pieces of bones and also on tortoise shells that were used in oracular divination during the reign of the Shang Dynasty between the 18th and the 12th century BC. It’s worth noting that even with these discoveries, it is highly likely that the Chinese characters were developed earlier than this because the discovered writings were highly developed, with very small differences from what exists currently. So, perhaps the Chinese characters were invented much earlier.

From the 1400BC script with between 2500 and 3000 characters that are mostly legible to date, the characters’ invention seems to date to a later time when the Zhou dynasty ruled between 1046 and 256BC. This is supported by the developed Chinese characters that include the Guwen, whose inscriptions were found from the late Shang Dynasty’s time in 1123BC. And it is believed that the characters and scripts from the Zhou dynasty (dazhuan) had degenerated by the dynasty’s end.

With no clear data pointing to when exactly the Chinese characters were developed, it is safe to say that the Chinese characters were invented around the time when the oracular divination was huge, which was during the reign of the Shang Dynasty.

Legendary Origin of the Chinese characters

The discoveries at Ban Po village notwithstanding, the Chinese characters, according to legend, were invented by someone known as Cangjie, who was a bureaucrat who lived during the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor. Through inspirations from his studies of the different animals of the world, the stars in the skin, and the landscapes, Cangjie is believed to have created or invented the first kind of symbolism known as the Zi, which represents the very first Chinese characters.

Legend also has it that on the same day that he created the first characters, grain rained from the sky on the same night and that people heard the wailing of ghosts and demons crying because Cangjie’s discovery meant that humans could be cheated any longer.

After the legendary discovery and in the following decades, there were many inscribe pictures and graphs that were made, and the recent discoveries place these inscriptions in the Neolithic era, and the discoveries were made in the Neolithic sites across China such as Jiahu from 6500 BC, as well as the Damaidi and Dawidan discoveries believed to be from the 6th millennium. Banpo was discovered in the 5th millennium, as mentioned above.

Despite many other discoveries or perceived discoveries of the Chinese characters, scholars and historians have settled on the Shang Dynasty discovery and invention of the Chinese characters.

What are oracle bones?

oracle bones picture

The oracle bones are the shoulder blade bones of the oxen or, in other cases, the plastrons of the turtles that were scraped then thoroughly cleaned and inscribed with divination marks. From the discoveries made of the oracle bones, it is clear that the ancient Chinese were very much concerned with understanding the future and knowing what their futures held, and they went to the diviner to seek guidance, especially before making big decisions. The diviners are what we now know as mediums or psychics, and these individuals would carve the questions posed by individuals on the bone, heat up the bone using a hot poker, or even put the bone near a fire, and after the bone cracked, the lines formed were interpreted and used to answer the hard questions posed. To date, more than 150,000 fragments of the oracle bones with scripts have been discovered.  

The inscriptions on the bones are of different lengths, with the shortest characters being only a few characters long and the longest inscriptions having up to 60 characters. One of the discoveries made shows that the Shang Dynasty kings used the oracle bones to communicate with their ancestors on several topics ranging from military success and ritual sacrifices to weather forecasting and other important topics.

After the Oracle-Bone scripts, there were Bronze Scripts. The Bronze scripts date back to the late Shang, Early Western Zhou reign between 1027 and 771BC. These scripts showed an advancement in the quality of the characters used, and this is believed to be the case thanks to the fact that the characters and scripts featured more of the graphic-style scripts relating to different things, and the inscriptions were found on metal objects like utensils, tools, and weapons.

Who Invented Chinese Characters?

According to legend, the legendary Yellow Emperor’s bureaucrat Cangjie is the one who made the very first form of the Chinese characters with inspiration from nature, including the landscapes and the stars in the sky.

How Are Chinese Characters Formed?

The Chinese characters have different structures, and the characters all come to be based on the structure that they are formed through.

Unlike the rest of the characters associated with the West, the Chinese characters don’t have the letters of the alphabet; they have logograms instead. The logograms, in this case, are pictures representing different words. The Chinese characters and even the Korean and Japanese characters are all logogram-based.

But not all Chinese characters are pictograms, and though some pictograms are used to sell the Chinese language to beginners, this is a misleading way of looking at and understanding the Chinese characters. The pictograms make up only 4% of the Chinese characters, and the actual Chinese characters are very complex.

According to the Chinese linguist Xu Shen, the formation of the Chinese characters as per Shuowen Jiezi, the etymological dictionary, falls into six main categories – the pictograms or xiangxing zi, self-explanatory characters or zhishi zi, the pictophonetic characters or xiangsheng zi, the associative compounds or huiyi zi, the mutually explanatory characters zhuanzhu zi, and the phonetic loan characters or jiajie zi. The first 4 of these represent the composing Chinese characters, while the last 2 have to do with the use of the Chinese characters.

Over the years, the creation of the Chinese characters has moved from the use of pictograms, which was also common with many other ancient tribes, and the new evolved characters hardly look like the things they represent.

Wondering how these characters have evolved?

  • bronze inscriptions
  • Well, it’s important to first note that the evolution has taken thousands of years, through thousands of styles and scripts, from the oracle bone inscription, the bronze inscriptions, the small seal characters, the official script, regular script, the cursive or grass stroke writing, and characters, to the freehand cursive characters.

    1. The oracle bone inscriptions mentioned above featured Chinese characters incorporated on the bones of mammals and turtles and used in divination.
    2. The bronze inscriptions had the writings on metallic surfaces, so bronze and other metal surfaces.
    3. This was followed by the small seal characters from the Qin Dynasty and the Warring States Period. It was the unifying language that played a role and influenced the development of the now standard Chinese characters.
    4. Official script came in later in the Han Dynasty’s time. It featured the increasing use of curved and broken strokes that were the standard for this writing style, which transitioned into the modern Chinese characters’ development.
    5. Regular script appeared towards the end of the reign of the Han dynasty and also influenced the modern/ mainstream scripts for Chinese characters.
    6. Cursive writing evolved from the regular script, and it is known for being the most artistic and calligraphic writing style, that is cursive to the extent that it is impossible to differentiate the individual strokes. So, cursive writing and characters are considered one of the most revered styles of Chinese writing that embodies beauty and freedom.
    7. Freehand cursive or semi-cursive writing came in later and was just as elegant as cursive and common with calligraphers.
    8. Simplified Chinese characters are the now standard Chinese characters used in mainland China, and it’s the official character form approved by the People’s Republic of China, as well as Singapore.

    Why Are Chinese Characters Important?

  • Official script
  • Generally, understanding the evolution and the Chinese characters allows for a deeper understanding of the connections between concepts and the different worlds recognized by the human race.

    It also helps shed light on the historical evolutions of the Chinese language.

    Why Are Chinese Characters So Complicated?

    The primary reason why the Chinese characters are very complicated is that the language and the characters themselves are not only very complex but because these elements of Chinese culture have gone through a tremendous amount of changes thanks to the evolution of the characters, which has taken thousands of years. And through all these years of evolution, the Chinese language and the characters have maintained their cultural integrity and are not washed out by the Western cultures.

    The characters and the tone are complex, but for beginners, even the tenses, grammatical cases, the gender, and the superlatives/ comparatives all make the characters and the Chinese language more complicated. But once you figure out the Chinese characters and the tones, it becomes easier.

    How Many Chinese Characters Are There?

  • Regular script
  • There are 47,035 Chinese characters recognized in the Chinese Kangxi dictionary, but the numbers could be higher or even lower because the language and characters evolve, and also the standard national Chinese dictionary was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. That said, only 3500 basic characters are the ones used regularly in communication, especially in magazines and newspapers.

    How To Read Chinese Characters?

    small seal characters

    It’s important to know that when it comes to reading or deciphering the Chinese characters, the tone is very important – the Chinese language is, after all, a very tonal language, and the variations in pitch are what will distinguish different words.

    There are 4 primary tones that you need to be acquainted with:

    • The 1st tone, which is the high-pitched and flat tone,
    • 2nd tone is the rising tone whose intonation is similar to the English tones,
    • 3rd tone is the dipping tone that first dips low, then rises halfway up.
    • The 4th tone is the falling tone, and it sounds like a firm No! in the English language.

    The tone aside, you also need to understand the direction of reading the Chinese characters. Essentially, modern Chinese texts are read from left to right and top to the bottom, as you would in English. But because ancient texts are in columns, you’d have to read the characters and texts from right to left.

    Other important tips:

    • Start out with pinyin, which represents the simplest Chinese characters. And only advance to the more complex characters once you understand the basic, simple characters.
    • Break down the Chinese characters – you need to do this because each of the Chinese characters represents a syllable and not just a letter. And in other cases, the character is an entire word. All these Chinese characters are radical, and the tone or pronunciation is what sets the tones apart. So, you have to recognize the radicals to find the translations easily. There are 214 radicals in simplified Chinese. You also need to know that some of the radicals combine both the phonetic and semantic components of the characters.
    • Visualize the characters – remember that some of the Chinese characters are pictograms, and the characters are symbols of the actual words they look like.
    • Employ robust software if you can

    How Many Chinese Characters Do I Know

    Well, the number depends on your experience and how long you have been studying.

    yelang

    My name is Yelang, I love my country. I love Chinese history, Chinese culture and Chinese food, I want to share my story to friends all over the world. Truly, without any political bias, let you know my motherland. For this reason, I have traveled all over China's 20 + provinces and visited more than 100 + cities. At the same time, I read a lot of books and articles, and let you know through the website of sonofchina. At the same time, I hope to get to know friends all over the world and know different countries in the world through sonofchina.So, if you have any questions, please let me know.

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