July 12, 2023

The Origin of Chinese Characters


Recently, the CCTV documentary "From Met You" was launched, telling the audience the story behind Chinese characters. The film starts with the most basic chinese alphabet, and each episode centers on one character, telling the origin and evolution of each character in a story-like form. There are rich cultural codes behind the magical world of Chinese characters. Let's take a look at the origin and evolution of Chinese characters.

Origin of Chinese characters

As the most important means of information transmission in human society, the leap from language to writing is undoubtedly an important milestone in the history of civilization.

As early as 5,000 years ago, the Sumerians invented cuneiform writing, and the ancient Egyptians carved sacred writing on steles and temples. Thousands of years later, most of the ancient characters were lost in the long river of history, and were even completely forgotten by people. In comparison, the history of Chinese writing is not as long as that of ancient Egypt and Babylon, but the history of China has never stopped, and the ever-evolving Chinese characters are undoubtedly a crucial cultural glue.

Chinese characters are the oldest Chinese characters that are still in use in the world today. From oracle bone inscriptions to simplified characters, the stereotypes of Chinese characters have undergone a long process of evolution and research.

According to ancient Chinese mythology, Shennong "ruled with knots", which seems to indicate that there was no official language at the time. Xu Shen said in "Shuowen Jiezi": "Cangjie, the history of the Yellow Emperor, saw the traces of the hooves of birds and beasts, and knew the difference between them. He first made a contract." This means that the text originated in the period of the Yellow Emperor. , was Cang Jie, the recorder of the Yellow Emperor, who created it. "Huainanzi" is an exaggerated and extraordinary scene, "Cangjie writes a book, while the sky rains millets, and ghosts cry at night."

Of course, it is a myth that Cangjie created characters. It is believed that the origin of Chinese characters can be traced back to ancient painted pottery, oracle bone inscriptions, carved symbols, and pictographs, such as the more than fifty carved symbols at the Banpo site. These symbols are neat and standardized, and have the characteristics of simple Chinese characters. They may be regarded as the buds of Chinese characters.

From an archaeological point of view, the oldest Chinese characters that can be seen so far are those carved on oracle bone inscriptions or cast on bronzes in the Shang Dynasty. At present, archaeologists have discovered more than 160,000 oracle bones with more than 4,000 characters inscribed on them. Of the more than 4,000 characters, about 3,000 have been verified by scholars, and more than 1,000 of them have consistent interpretations (the rest cannot be explained or scholars have serious differences in interpretation and interpretation).

Logically speaking, the writing of the Shang Dynasty has been relatively formed, which means that it can be reasonably inferred that the era when the writing was first produced should be far before the Shang Dynasty, that is, in the Xia Dynasty or even earlier. Although enterprises cannot accurately determine the time when students were born in a timely manner, oracle bone inscriptions, as a mature and systematic writing technology, undoubtedly laid a solid foundation for the development of Chinese character culture in later generations.

The evolution of Chinese characters

Oracle bone inscriptions are typical pictographs, most of which evolved from pictographs. The inscriptions after the oracle bone inscriptions are the bronze inscriptions that first appeared in the late Shang Dynasty and prevailed in the Western Zhou Dynasty. In a narrow sense, both bronze inscriptions and oracle bone inscriptions belong to "ancient writing", and the structure of "Bronze Inscriptions" is not much different from oracle bone inscriptions. However, compared with oracle bone inscriptions, bronze inscriptions are more pictographic and normative, and gradually break away from the category of pictures.

During the Western Zhou Dynasty, the official historian of King Xuan of Zhou did not innovate on the basis of the mainstream bronze inscriptions of the Warring States Period in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods. Dazhuan characters are mainly written on wooden slips, bamboo slips or silk. Although there is no essential difference from oracle bone inscriptions and bronze inscriptions, the glyphs are relatively fixed and neat, and the structural strokes are more rounded and beautiful than bronze inscriptions.

Due to the decline of emperors in the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, the characters of various countries are different in fonts, structures, and strokes. It was not until Qin Shihuang unified China and implemented "cars on the same track and books on the same text" that Chinese characters were unified. In this sense, the evolution of Chinese characters is actually a process of gradually standardizing and stabilizing the shapes and fonts of Chinese characters.

In the Qin Dynasty, Prime Minister Li Si worked hard to simplify and beautify the writing of the era. This is called "Xiao Zhuan" (also known as "Qin Zhuan") in Chinese history. In addition to the simplification of the big seal script in form, Xiaozhuan also fixes the strokes of each character. At this time, the characters gradually became neat, harmonious, square, and beautiful, which laid the foundation for the standardization of characters later.

However, although the Xiaozhuan script of the Qin Dynasty was standardized, it was very complicated to write. Therefore, there was a folk font called "Qinli" at that time. This font changed Xiaozhuan into squares and changed it into a straight style. The writing was relatively simple, so it was very popular at that time.

After the Han Dynasty, the "Han Li", which evolved from the Qin Li, further simplified the Xiaozhuan font, which greatly improved the legibility of Chinese characters and the speed of writing teaching. Therefore, the society of the Han Dynasty mainly adopted official script as the official script, and brush writing itself became the mainstream of our country at that time. On the basis of official script, the evolution and exploration of Zhangcao, Jincao and Kuangcao in the history of calligraphy education. At the same time, regular script, which is a self-contained form of official script, has gradually become popular.

Regular script, also known as "book" or "real book", originated in the Eastern Han Dynasty, was perfected in the Six Dynasties, and matured in the Tang Dynasty. With the continuous efforts of calligraphers such as Zhong Yao, Wang Xizhi, Wang Xianzhi, Yan Zhenqing, Liu Gongquan, and Ouyang Xun, regular script changed from crochet to straight. Because of the square font and straight strokes, regular script has been the standard font of Chinese characters for more than a thousand years. . In addition, between regular script and cursive script, there is "cursive script", which is not as serious as regular script, nor hard to read like bold, so it is a popular font.

Simplification of Chinese characters

Since modern times, a major change in Chinese fonts has been the application and popularization of simplified characters, which is also closely related to the historical background at that time. In August 1935, the Ministry of Education of the National Government promulgated the first list of simplified characters and the "Provincial and Municipal Educational Administrative Organs Promoting Simplified Characters Measures" issued by the Ministry. This is the first simplified word list ever published by the government. Although it was withdrawn by some people half a year later, the significance is still very important.

At the beginning of the founding ceremony of the People's Republic of China, 80% of the population was illiterate. A low level of culture has become an important obstacle to the development and progress of the country. The new China's literacy campaign that followed aimed to quickly change the cultural backwardness, and also made the simplification of Chinese characters a top priority.

In January 1956, the State Council passed the plan to simplify Chinese characters, which was not only the need of building a new China at that time, but also the inevitable requirement of the development of Chinese characters itself. It is the centralized arrangement and official recognition of simplified characters in regular script, and plays an important role in the history of Chinese character development. According to the scheme, 54 radicals were simplified, and 544 traditional characters were simplified into 515 simplified characters.

As the first major research achievement in the reform and development of a new Chinese character, this simplified Chinese character teaching reform adopts the simplified Chinese characters that have been widely used by enterprises in the society for a long time and has been established by convention. Folk folk characters, minus-stroke characters, hand-written characters, etc. After the plan can be announced, it will greatly facilitate the literacy of children and students, adult literacy and daily writing, and play a great role in alleviating the difficulty of literacy for many people and popularizing cultural knowledge and health education. In addition, the text is changed from vertical to horizontal, which also comes from this text reform.

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