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01 July, 2007:
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The Development of Characters 字体发展

Learn Chinese


Understanding that the notion of pictographic or ideographic characters is no more than a myth, there must be some explanation for Chinese characters. What exactly are they if not pictures or alphabet? A more accurate word in English for the Chinese type character is “logograph” or “logogram,” which means a sign (graph) that represents a word (logos).

Many people see Chinese characters and are reminded of Egyptian Hieroglyphics, 象形文字 xiang4xing2wen2zi4. Unlike Chinese characters, Hieroglyphics are not all logographs that represent spoken words. Some Hieroglyphics are purely phonetic symbols, like an alphabet; some are logographic, like Chinese; and some are determinative--words that specify the meaning of other graphs. While the two orthographies are not related in any way—Chinese developed independently—their histories do bear certain similarities.


In archaeological work done in both Egypt and China, artifacts have been unearthed that bear stylized drawings or proto-writing. In China, the earliest artifacts of this type were discovered in Shandong (山东) province, which lies between Beijing and Shanghai. These artifacts include shards of pottery that have been dated to approximately 2000 BCE. The pictures on these pieces are definitely not writing. They are a defined set of fairly realistic images that may have been used for ritual purposes, but were essentially decoration. The earliest Egyptian relics, which date to around 4000 BCE, are also considered decorative proto-writing.

Chinese tradition says that Chinese characters were created by a minister of the Yellow Emperor, 黄帝 huang2di4, named Cangjie, 仓颉. According to legend, he discovered the secret of writing by looking at animal tracks in the earth and stars in the sky. This discovery shook the confidence of the gods on high because writing was a powerful tool unknown to mankind. In similar mythological fashion, the Egyptians honored the deities Thoth and Isis for the gift of writing.

It is generally accepted that no one could have invented the entire writing system. However, if Cangjie was a real historical figure, then he may have played a role in stylizing and standardizing the proto-writing, and turning the ancient pictures into a true writing system.

Oracle Bones 甲骨

The earliest examples of actual Chinese writing are found on Oracle Bones, 甲骨 jia3gu3. Oracle Bones are pieces of tortoise shell or cow bone that were used for divination in the Shang Dynasty, 商朝 shang1chao2 (1766-1122 BCE). In comparison, the earliest Egyptian writing has been dated to the time of the Second Dynasty, which occurred during the third Century BCE.

In fact, many experts now believe that the Oracle Bone script is too refined to be China's original writing system. Counting many years of development prior to the Shang dynasty, it is is possible that Chinese started keeping written records at the same time as the Egyptians. As far as the Chinese are concerned, they have been keeping records in one way or another for as long as there have been Chinese people. According to mythology, before the development of writing, information was recorded using knotted ropes 用结绳来记事 yongjieshenglaijishi.

Whether or not they are the most ancient orthography, Oracle Bone inscriptions, 甲骨文 jia3gu3wen2, are the ancestors of modern Chinese characters. They represent true writing in that they are an orthographic representation of language (as opposed to a picture). Even after thousands of years of development, modern characters still bear a resemblance to the Oracle Bone script. It is even possible for an untrained reader of modern Chinese to recognize many of the ancient characters.

The Rebus and the Advancement of Writing

From Oracle Bones, it can be seen that Chinese characters were developed based on the rebus. Despite the intimidating and unfamiliar word, everyone who has been through elementary school is familiar with this principle. The rebus uses symbols to  represent a word because of their sound rather than their meaning. In English, we commonly play such word games using simple pictures and single letters. For example, you might draw a picture of an eye to indicate the subject “I,” a picture of waves to indicate “see,” and the letter U to indicate “you.” In this manner you can use basic pictures to symbolize words that are difficult to draw:

It seems somewhat strange to say that an entire language can be based on a principle that is generally used in the West to create games for children. However, the Chinese use of the rebus system is quite sophisticated.

Naturally, the first characters that could have developed were pictographs that are essentially pictures of objects. When a symbol was needed for a more complicated concept, an existing character with the same pronunciation could be used to symbolize the pronunciation of the word. In other words, the written language is truly a record of the spoken language. For this reason, about 90 percent of characters have a phonetic element, and the number of pictograph and ideograph characters is quite low.

In the Oracle Bone script, the skeleton of this system is revealed. Some characters are reused without change to represent other words with the same pronunciation but different sounds. Although, such recycling of characters creates an accurate record of speech, it also creates a written language that is difficult to understand.


Learn more about the rebus principle in writing systems by reading about the writing of the Naxi minority.

Radical Developments 部首发展

In addition to reusing characters for their sounds, Chinese uses the slightly more sophisticated system of radicals to clarify the meaning of a character. With the combination of phonetic elements and radicals, Chinese developed into a fully functional orthography that is radically different from that of any other world language.

From the Oracle Bone script of the Shang Dynasty, Chinese script developed into different styles in different places. These scripts were all built on the same foundation and principle, but diverged because China was divided into several warring states until the time of the Qin Dynasty, 秦朝 Qin2chao2 (221-207 BCE).

During the Qin Dynasty, the first emperor, Qinshi huangdi, 秦始皇帝, unified the warring states in China. He allegedly built the Great Wall, and he also standardized the writing system used throughout China. He had his code of laws carved on stone tablets in the capital using only one script, which is known today as the "Small Seal" script, 小篆 xiaozhuan.

With some slight alterations, the standard script used today is essentially the same as the Qin Script used over two thousand years ago.


While Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics bear some superficial resemblance to Chinese characters in terms of appearance and historical development, the similarities disappear quickly given more information about the methodology and tradition of the two systems. Also, it is important to note that while hieroglyphics originated before Chinese characters, they also stopped being used long ago. Modern Egyptian is actually a dialect of Aracbic, and it is written in Arabic script. Chinese writing, on the other hand, has enjoyed approximately three thousand years of continuous use.