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The Evolution Of Chinese Characters

China, being one of the biggest countries in the world, has an interesting writing system that is quite hard to understand for most people around the world. We have all somehow seen or at least heard of Chinese characters. Some seem really simple and some look like they have a dozen strokes. Today, nearly one-fourth of the world still uses Chinese characters. So it is safe to say that this ancient writing system is still a big part of human lives. Let’s take a look at the history of this fascinating writing system.

The earliest form of writing was the Sumerian Scripts. Unfortunately, they were lost. But being one of the earliest forms of writing, Chinese Characters, also known in Chinese as Hanzı (汉字), still remains today and is a big part of China’s culture. Some characters look a lot like drawings. That is because some Chinese Characters began with drawings. The exact dates when characters started to emerge are difficult to determine. However, there are three myths about who created them. The first one is that they were created by Fu Xi: the person who drew the Eight Trigrams. The Eight Trigrams, being used for divination, are composed of the symbols “” and “– –” that represent yin and yang. The eight parts indicate different natural phenomena. But these symbols are very different from traditional Chinese characters, so most historians think that this myth is not true.

The second myth is that Chinese Characters were created from knots. It is believed that in the time of Emperor Shen Nung ( 2838 - 2698 BCE ), people started using knots as a form of recording events. They used to make knots on ropes to remember certain events. Although the knot forms kind of resemble ancient Chinese characters, it is not likely that knots on ropes were used as a language let alone become a writing system. That is why it is seen as impossible that Chinese characters evolved from knots.

The last myth is that Cang Jie created Chinese characters. Cang Jie is a legendary figure who was known to be the historian of the Yellow Emperor (one of the important cultural heroes of China). It is said that Cang Jie had four eyes and four pupils that could see everything and understand the figures of everything. Therefore, he invented a lot of symbols and it is believed that they were ancient characters. Most ancient books, like Xunzı written by Hsun Tzu (an important Confucian philosopher), also talk about this myth. Even though it is hard to believe that this huge complex writing system was written just by one person, we cannot completely deny it. Cang Jie was probably an important person who started writing characters, and, with the contributions of many people, the number of characters increased.

Even though how Chinese characters were created is not certain, what is certain is that they have gone through a long period of development and change before looking like what they do today (simplified Chinese characters). They evolved from drawings to strokes and formed traditional (complex) to simplified (simple) characters. These different script forms started with the Oracle bone Script of the Shang Dynasty, which is the oldest systematic form of writing of Chinese characters written on animal and tortoise shells. Then, Chinese Characters went through bronze script of the Zhou Dynasty ( 1066 - 256 BCE), Seal script in the late Zhou Dynasty and Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BCE). Official script (also known as Clerical Script) in the Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty (206BC - 220 AD) and then regular script.

Here is the evolution of the character of ‘Tree’:

In 1955, the ‘List of the First Group of Standardized Forms of Variant Characters’ was published. Most characters were simplified. In 1964, the ‘Complete List of Simplified Characters’ was published. Around 2,259 characters were eliminated. Right now, in most schools in China, students are required to write with simplified characters. The original forms of the characters are known as ‘Traditional Characters’, and they have the structure of the clerical (official) script. Traditional characters are still being used in Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong.

There are 47, 035 Chinese Characters in the Kangxi Dictionary (the national character dictionary developed during the 18th and 19th centuries). However, the exact number of Chinese characters is unknown. Studies show that an educated Chinese person will know about 8000 characters. But in order to read an article, you will need to know about 3000 - 3500. This interesting writing system that does not have an alphabet, unlike most other writing systems, has a long history and it is still being used by a big portion of the world population today.

Work Cited:

Brown University, Introduction to Chinese Characters | Year of China

Accessed: 5 September, 2022

The Origin and Evolvement of Chinese Characters - CORE

Accessed: 5 September, 2022

A Brief History Of Chinese Characters, The Chairman's Bao

Accessed: 6 September, 2022

Yellow Emperor, Wikipedia

Accessed: 6 September, 2022

Cangjie, Wikipedia

Accessed: 6 September, 2022

Languages - Real Chinese - Mini-guides - Chinese characters, BBC

Accessed: 6 September, 2022



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