How Chinese Characters Evolved

Egyptian hieroglyphs (left) came into being 4,100 years ago, but Chinese characters (right) have a history of 5,000 years. (Fuzzyyol-Flickr / Sun Mingguo)
Egyptian hieroglyphs (left) came into being 4,100 years ago, but Chinese characters (right) have a history of 5,000 years. (Fuzzyyol-Flickr / Sun Mingguo)

Chinese characters make up the oldest written language in the world. But the current way of writing Chinese is not the way Chinese has always been written. The Chinese characters of today evolved through several stages in history. Some of the older forms of writing are still used in art, calligraphy, logos, or stamped onto official documents.

Egyptian hieroglyphs came into being 4,100 years ago, but Chinese characters have a history of 5,000 years. Newer discoveries suggest that history can be extended to 7,000 years. In ancient times, Chinese characters started out as carvings dug into animal bones used for divination, and as designs on bronzeware and pottery. The same Chinese characters from back then have been in continuous use through to today, outlasting other ancient languages.

Chinese characters contain traces of ancient history built into them. For example, the character for boat (船 chuán), if you were to break down its pictorial elements, alludes to the story of Noah in Genesis. What makes this more remarkable is that the character existed 400 years before the Bible was written. Similar examples are abundant throughout the language.

The formation and evolution of Chinese characters

There are various legends about how Cang jie (倉頡 cāngjié), a historian working under the Yellow Emperor, created Chinese characters. Ancient people believed Chinese characters were inherited from Heaven. They evolved over the process of time. The general trend in their evolution was from pictographic shapes to symbolic strokes.

To get a better picture of this evolution, the picture below shows how four characters evolved over time.

Chinese characters

This shows, from top to bottom, how the characters for sun, moon, vehicle, and horse evolved from their earliest forms on the left, to their later forms as you go right. (Image taken from Chinese Characters, ISBN 7-119-01101-4)

The Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文. jiǎgǔwén), inscribed on ox scapulae and turtle plastrons known as oracle bones, was in use during the Shang Dynasty (~1600 B.C. ~1046 B.C.). The strokes of characters were straight and the angles were sharp.

The Bronze Script (金文 jīnwén), inscriptions on bronze objects, was discovered on excavated relics of the Zhou Dynasty (~1027 B.C.~221 B.C.). They had no great structural difference from the bone inscriptions, but were distinct in style, written with round corners. They were cast into the bronzeware using molds.

The Seal Script (篆書 zhuànshū) was in use during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (~475 B.C.-221 B.C.). This type of writing was inscribed into drum-shaped stones.

The Lesser Seal Script (小篆 xiǎozhuàn) was standardized during the time of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.) under whose reign this and many other standardizations occurred.

The Official Script (隸書 lìshū), which evolved into being during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) marks a break from the more pictorial to a more symbolic way of writing. It was the transition period of Chinese characters from a more ancient form to a modern form, similar to what exists today.

Regular Script (楷書 kǎishū) broke further from the pictographic shape and marked the maturity of the Chinese language. In addition, other forms of script styles developed, including cursive forms.

Function as an artistic tool

Chinese characters have been used as art in the form of calligraphy (書法). Famous Chinese calligraphers include Wang Xizhi (王羲之 wángxī zhī), Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿 yán zhēnqīng), Liu Gongquan (柳公權 liǔ gōngquán), Ouyang Xun 歐陽詢 ōuyáng xún), and many others.

Their way of working with the strokes and lines of Chinese characters are considered rare treasures. The art of calligraphy has added everlasting splendor to Chinese characters and is an important part of Chinese traditional culture.

chinese characters

The characters 長樂 (Zhǎng lè) literally means lasting or forever happiness. (Image courtesy of Sun Mingguo)

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