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History of the Chinese language

Popularity 2Viewed 6220 times 2013-4-8 16:51 |System category:Others| Chinese

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.



Ancient China is one of the places where writing appears to have developed independently, along with Mesopotamia, which developed cuneiform, and Egypt and the civilization of the Maya, where hieroglyphs developed.

The earliest examples of ancient Chinese writing come from oracle bones at Anyang, a Shang Dynasty capital, and contemporary bronze inscriptions. There may have been writing on bamboo or other perishable surfaces, but they have, inevitably, disappeared. Although Christopher I. Beckwith thinks the Chinese may have been exposed to the idea of writing from Steppe nomads [Empires of the Silk Road - Review], the prevalent belief is that China developed writing on its own.

"Since the oracle bones belonging to the Shang dynasty were discovered, it is no longer doubted by sinologists that Chinese writing is an autochthonous and very ancient invention of the Chinese...."

"The Use of Writing in Ancient China," by Edward Erkes. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 127-130

Origins of Chinese Writing

The Cambridge History of Ancient China, by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, says the likely date for the earliest oracle bones is about 1200 B.C., corresponding with the reign of King Wu Ding. This speculation is based on the earliest reference to the origins of writing, which dates to the 3rd century B.C. The legend developed that a scribe of the Yellow Emperor invented writing after noticing bird tracks. [Source: Francoise Bottero, French National Center for Scientific Research Chinese Writing: Ancient Indigenous Perspective.] Scholars in the Han Dynasty thought the earliest Chinese writing was pictographic, meaning the characters are stylized representations, while the Qing thought the first writing was of numbers. Today, the earliest Chinese writing is described as pictographic (picture) or zodiographic (graph of the name of the thing), words that for non-linguists mean similar things. As the writing of the ancient Chinese evolved, a phonetic component was added to the pictographic, as is true of the paired writing system of the Maya.

Names of the Chinese Writing Systems

Ancient Chinese writing on oracle bones is called Jiaguwen, according to AncientScripts, which describes the characters as pictographic. Dazhuan is the name of the script on Bronze. It may be the same as the Jiaguwen. By 500 B.C. the angular script that characterizes modern Chinese writing had developed in the form called Xiaozhuan. Bureaucrats of the Qin Dynasty used Lishu, a script still sometimes used.

Pictographs and the Rebus

During the Shang Dynasty, the writing, which was pictographic, could use the same graphic to represent homophones (words with different meanings that sound the same). Writing could be in the form of what is called a rebus. The rebus example AncientSites lists is two pictures together, one of a bee, and one of a leaf, to represent the word "belief". Over time, signs known as determinative symbols, were added to clarify the homophones, phonetic symbols were standardized, and symbols were put together to form new words.

Chinese and the Sino-Tibetan Language Family

Writing and spoken language are different. Period. The cuneiform of Mesopotamia was used to write a variety of languages, including languages from the Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic families. As the Chinese conquered their neighbors, their writing was exported to neighboring countries where it was applied to the indigenous languages. This is how the Japanese came to use Kanji.

The spoken language of Chinese is thought to be a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family. This connection between Chinese and Tibetan languages is made on the basis of lexical items, rather than morphology or syntax. However, the similar words are only reconstructions of Old and Middle Chinese.



Xia dynasty

According to legend there was a Xia dynasty before the Shang. In the 1960s and 70s, archaeologists uncovered urban sites, bronze implements and tombs that point to the existence of a Xia dynasty in the same areas as cited in Chinese historical text. However, unlike the Shang dynasty, no written records from the period have been found to confirm the existence of the Xia.

The Xia dynasty was said to have begun with the reign of Yu the Great. Yu the Great is best remembered for his battle against flooding. The story goes that a flood inundated the Yellow River Valley. The King at the time ordered Yu to control it. He worked for 13 years, building drainage channels and other projects to stop the flood. Another story tells that the God of Rivers gave Yu a map so that he was able to create his first flood-control plan.

The Dynasty lasted for more than 400 years, from around 2200BC to 1700 B.C. It is believed that the last ruler of the Xia, Jie, increased oppression and abused his power. The people could no longer tolerate his despotism and fled in large numbers. The Shang were able to take advantage of the Xia's weakness, and overthrew the Dynasty.


© The British Museum





                                                                             Western Zhou dynasty

The Zhou were a group which originated from western China. In the eleventh century B.C. the Zhou gained power and in 1050 B.C. attacked the Shang who controlled adjacent lands to the east. The Zhou defeated the Shang and gained control over their lands. The first kings of the Zhou Dynasty, Wu, Cheng and Kang, established a capital at modern day Xi'an. This period (1050 - 771 B.C.) is commonly called 'Western Zhou' due to the western location of its capital. In 771 B.C. the Zhou had to flee from the west and set up a new capital at Luoyang, this period of Zhou dynasty rule has become known as 'Eastern Zhou'.

The Zhou dynasty spoke the same language as the Shang. They also shared many of their customs and beliefs. The practice of divination and ancestor worship continued unchanged in the first centuries of Zhou dynasty rule.

Despite the continuation of many Shang practices, Zhou literature continually mentions the depravity of the late Shang kings, and gives this as a reason for the Shang's defeat. The Zhou introduce the notion of the 'mandate of heaven', that heaven gives wise and virtuous leaders the right to rule and can also take it away from corrupt rulers. The Zhou claimed that the Shang had lost the mandate of heaven due to their corruption and depravity. This political concept was a very important one and one that would last throughout the later dynasties of the Chinese empire.


© The British Museum





The eastern Zhou dynasty

The Zhou dynasty had ruled over a large territory which expanded greatly in the centuries after its defeat of the Shang. In order to maintain effective control over their lands they established a system of fiefdom. Relatives or local lords were appointed as Zhou representatives for certain areas.

Their representatives started to gain more influence and in time many of them became as powerful as the Zhou Kings. The Zhou dynasty was also surrounded by enemy tribes including the Rong and the Di.

In 771 B.C. the Zhou king was killed by an alliance of Rong tribesmen and Zhou vassals. The king's son was put on the throne, but the Zhou were still not safe. They fled their capital in the Wei River Valley and moved east to Luoyang. The Zhou never regained their strength. This was the beginning of a period where many individual states with separate rulers existed side-by-side in China. The move of the capital to Luoyang marks the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period.

The period saw the growth of a number of states and principalities. Warfare was a fact of life throughout the period as struggles between principalities mushroomed. Constant warfare meant that life in ancient China was revolutionised. The successful state was the one that could mobilise the largest army with the most effective weaponry and a workforce capable of building large defensive walls and producing foodstuffs and weapons for the army. Trade was promoted - coins were cast by different states and cities. Towns expanded into cities. Agriculture was transformed by the use of iron ploughs and tools from the sixth century onwards. Irrigation projects were launched to make more land profitable.

Faced with a rapidly changing society, rulers were keen to employ philosophers and advisers who could make sense of these new times. With this state sponsorship philosophy and literature flowered.

One of the most famous philosopher/advisers of the period was Confucius. He spent time as an advisor in the state of Lu. He then went on to become a renowned teacher. His philosophy espoused the values of the early years of the Zhou dynasty. Respect for elders and ancestors was very important. He also believed that practice of social decorum and ritual was the quickest path to ethical and moral growth.

The Eastern Zhou period is traditionally divided into two periods; the 'Spring and Autumn' period which lasted from about 770 B.C. to 475 B.C., and the 'Warring States' period which lasted from about 475 B.C. to 221 B.C. The titles of these periods originate from contemporary historical documents. The Warring States period saw the intensification of inter-state wars. Smaller and weaker states were swallowed up by stronger neighbours. Armies went from containing thousands of men to numbering tens of thousands.

The two major powers of the period were the Qin and the Chu. The Chu state was an important and powerful kingdom which controlled the Yangzi basin in the south. It expanded in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. after taking over the Wu and Yue states in the east and the Zeng state to the north. The Qin took over the lands in the west previously controlled by the Zhou. It also set out to conquer and absorb many non-Chinese tribes and states scattered within, west of and below the big loop of the Yellow River, also moving southwards and east into Hubei province. Due to its occupation of relatively remote western regions, Qin was regarded by other Chinese states as somewhat foreign and backward. Between 256 B.C. and 221 B.C. Qin succeeded in ousting all of its rivals. Qin Shi Huangdi fashioned his newly conquered territories into an empire and became the First Emperor of China.


© The British Museum



Tomb of Lady Fu Hao  

Fu Hao is a very unusual heroine from Ancient Chinese history. She was one of the consorts of Wu Ding, the Shang king under whom Shang power reached its zenith. Fu Hao was a wife and mother, military leader, politician and shaman.

Fu Hao's tomb was discovered in 1976 near Anyang. It is one of the best preserved tombs from that era. Archaeologists easily identified it as the tomb of Fu Hao. Her name had been long known from Shang period oracle texts and they found her name inscribed on the ritual bronzes on the tomb.

Most of the information we have about Fu Hao comes from oracle bone inscriptions. Many of the oracle bones show concerns for her well-being, for example childbirth and illness. Inscriptions on the oracle bones also show that Fu Hao was involved in two aspects of royal life that were normally not open to women. She participated in ritual ceremonies and military activities. The Shang King exercised ultimate control over ritual matters. However, Fu Hao obviously enjoyed the confidence of her husband as he repeatedly instructed her to conduct special rituals and offer sacrifices.

She led numerous military campaigns against the neighbouring Tu, Ba, Yi and Qiang tribes. One oracle bone, for example, asks whether Fu Hao should gather soldiers before an attack. On another it is reported that the king had assembled soldiers for Fu Hao's campaign against the Tu tribe.

Fu Hao's tomb has yielded over a hundred weapons. This is very unusual for a woman's tomb, and shows her status as a military leader. In all there were around 2000 items buried with Fu Hao. Among these there are 468 bronzes, 750 jades, 560 of bone and over 110 of stone and semi-precious stone. Over six thousand cowrie shells were buried with her also - these would have served as currency in the Shang period.


© The British Museum




The notion of a single Chinese language is misleading. China has several major dialects (or regional languages) which may be related but are all highly distinctive. Mandarin is the official spoken language and is known as putonghua (common speech) within China. It is spoken by approximately 70% of the population, although it may always be their first language. It is the language that is spoken around Beijing.

Cantonese is the other major dialect and is spoken mainly in the south. It is also spoken by many members of China's overseas communities. Dialects spoken in the south-east and south-west are Wu, Min, Hakka, Gan and Xiang.

There are also non-Chinese based languages spoken in other parts of China. Uighur, a Turkish based language, is spoken in Xinjiang province. Tibetan, a language based on the ancient Indian Brahmi script, is the main language in Tibet. In Inner Mongolia the language is based on ancient Turkish.

Chinese has a large number of words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. Tones are used to differentiate between the words; for example, ma can mean mother, hemp, horse or scold, depending on the tone used. In Mandarin there are four tones - flat, rising, falling-rising and falling. The Chinese language has no tenses or plurals so the pronunciation of words does not change. There are no definite (the) or indefinite (a) articles in the Chinese language either.


© The British Museum





Pronunciation guide for Mandarin Chinese

This is not a complete list of all pronunciation but will allow you to say the Chinese words in the site. All other letters in the Chinese words are pronounced the same as in English.



Like 'ts' in bits


Like 'g' in genius


Sounds like 'ch'


Like 's' in sock


Like 'ds' in suds


Like 'j' in judge



Sounds like 'aah'


Like 'i' in bite


Like 'ow' in cow


Like 'ur' in blur


Like 'ei' in weigh


Like 'ee' in meet.
Except after c, ch, r, s, sh, z and zh when it sounds like 'e' in her.


Sounds like 'E.N.' ('ee' and 'en' sounds running together)


Like 'or' in swore


Like 'o' in Jo


Like 'oo' in boo


Like 'way' in sway


Sounds like 'war'


© The British Museum



Chinese writing is not based on an alphabet. Instead it is based on characters, which represent part or all of a word. On the whole there is more than one character to a word and when written down the 'words' all fill the same amount of space regardless of the number of characters contained in it. Each character is made up of a number of strokes which must be written in the correct order. To be able to say the word a person has to know the character as it is not possible to sound a word out like in English.

Some characters are pictographs, which mean they are based on an object they represent. Only a small number of characters use pictographs such as those for moon, sun, tree, and person.

Most characters are ideographs, which are more complex than pictographs as they represent ideas. Some are fairly easy ideas to understand, e.g. the characters for sun and moon together means bright. Others are more complex ideas to understand, e.g. the characters for female and horse together means mother.

Despite there being different dialects the written language is mostly the same throughout China. There are some local characters specific to certain dialects. One key exception though is written colloquial Cantonese. It is so different from the main written language that is practically unreadable to a person used to the main form.

There are two different ways of writing characters. The traditional form is based on classical Chinese. This is used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and by some overseas Chinese. The simplified form was introduced in 1954 to improve literacy by decreasing the amount of strokes in some of the more complex characters. This is used in China and Singapore.

To be able to use a Chinese dictionary a person needs to know the first character in a 'word'. Then to find a 'word' the total number of strokes and which order they are written in is needed. To be able to read a Chinese newspaper a person needs to know approximately 3,000 characters. Knowledge of 4,000 to 5,000 characters is thought to demonstrate a person has had a good education.

Pinyin is the official system of writing Chinese using a Roman alphabet. When children first learn to write at school they use pinyin before learning the character. Pinyin is not widely understood outside of a school environment, although it appears on street names and shop fronts.

In China, calligraphy is regarded as one of the highest forms of art. There are different types of calligraphy but the most commonly seen is running script. The character should look elegant, as though all the strokes are flowing together. The strokes have to demonstrate the four characteristics of 'bone', 'flesh', 'muscle' and 'blood'. All four must balance for a perfect piece of writing.


© The British Museum




































































































Legendary Cang Jie - the Inventor of Chinese Characters


Cangjie(仓颉) is a very important figure in ancient China. He was an official historian of the Yellow Emperor and the inventor of Chinese characters. Legend has it that he had four eyes and eight pupils, and that when he invented the characters, the deities and ghosts cried and the sky rained millet. He is considered a legendary figure rather than a historical figure, or at least, not considered to be sole inventor of Chinese characters. The Cangjie method, a Chinese character input method, is named after him. A rock on Mars, visited by the Mars rover Spirit, was named after him by the rover team.

Shortly after unifying China, the Yellow Emperor, being terribly dissatisfied with his "rope knot tying" method of recording information, charges Cangjie with the task of creating characters for writing. Cangjie then settles down on the bank of a river, and devotes himself to the completion of the task at hand. After devoting much time and effort, however, he's unable to create even one character. One day, Cangjie suddenly sees a phoenix flying in the sky above, carrying an object in its beak. The object falls to the ground directly in front of Cangjie, and he discovers it to be an impression of a hoof-print. Not being able to recognize which animal the print belonged to, he asked for the help of a local hunter passing by on the road. The hunter told him that this was, without a doubt, the hoof-print of a PiXiu, being different from the hoof-print of any other beast alive. His conversation with the hunter greatly inspired Cangjie, leading him to believe that if he could capture in a drawing the special characteristics that set apart each and every thing on the earth, this would truly be the perfect kind of character for writing. From that day forward, Cangjie paid close attention to the characteristics of all things, including the sun, moon, stars, clouds, lakes, oceans, as well as all manner of bird and beast. He began to create characters according to the special characteristics he found, and before long, had compiled a long list of characters for writing. To the delight of the Yellow Emperor, Cangjie presented him with the complete set of characters. The emperor then called the premiers of each of the nine provinces together in order for Cangjie to teach them this new writing system. Monuments and temples were erected in Cangjie's honor on the bank of the river where he created these characters.


(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




Shake hands


Friends who just made a statement (1 Person)

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Comment Comment (2 comments)

Reply Report DSseeing 2013-4-9 10:36
So interesting
Reply Report huaren2323 2013-4-10 11:02
Thanks Aziz..I will go back and read in details. Like what DSseeing said...indeed fascinating!

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    Agreed man.

  • World’s First Human Head Transplant Will Take Place in 2017 2017-3-11 06:25

    Have you ever seen the old Russian video of dogs head that is sort of alive with no body?

    I am excited about this because if we can replace our bodies then we can extend our lives and this kind of thing could lead to something close to immortality maybe. It would be good if the brain could be transplanted into a new body. We could grow clone replacement bodies and then just put the brain in when the body we are using gets old.

    I want a new body and I would also like a new head. A better looking one.

    I finished the first Metal Gear Solid on the playstation.

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