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Origin of Chinese Characters

Different from Western characters, Chinese characters are square and indicate either pronunciation or meaning or both. Chinese characters provide a convenient tool for imagery thinking. If you want to learn more knowledge of Chinese characters when you travel to China, you should read the following before your journey.

With language, ancient humans began accumulating knowledge through which human culture came forth. With characters, they recorded the language and communicated with each other, which distinguished man from animals. It is characters that drew a line between the primitive and civilized periods of human society.

There are various sayings in ancient Chinese documents concerning the origin of Chinese characters, such as "tie knots," the "Eight Diagrams," "picture," and "carved characters," among others. The legendary story about Cang Jie creating characters is generally recorded in ancient books. According to ancient records, Chinese characters were created by Cang Jie, a history officer of the legendary Yellow Emperor.

Huainanzi (Masters in the Kingdom of Huainan) says that it was because of the characters Cang Jie made that the Heaven rained grains and ghosts cried at night. Xun Zi and Shi Jing (The Book of Odes) and other ancient books also record the legend of Cang Jie creating Chinese characters. By the Qin (221-206BC) and Han (206BC-220AD) dynasties, the legend had become more widespread and had more far-reaching influence.

Historians in the past once tried to prove whether there was a person named Cang Jie in history, and if he did exist, when he lived, but they failed to draw a conclusion due to lack of irrefutable proof.

Some people guessed that Cang Jie was the historiographer of the Yellow Emperor. Xunzi thought Cang Jie must have been a prehistoric wise man who sorted out and standardized the characters that had already been in use.

Evidently the legend of Cang Jie cannot be accepted as the truth, for any script can only be a creation developed by people to meet the needs of social life over a long period of trial and experiment. Chinese characters are a huge and complicated system, and they could only have come into being after a long period of creation and development.

According to modern researchers, the ancestors of the Chinese people tied knots in rope to record events. Later, they adopted sharp weapons to inscribe signs, and developed the earliest form of Chinese characters. Archeologists have found inscribed signs on Neolithic pottery shards in Banpo Village in Shaanxi Province which are hot for tourists to learn the ancient Chinese history and always contained in China tour deals. These signs, dating back to some 6,000 years ago, were possibly the seeds of later Chinese characters.

Inscribed signs, a little younger than those found in Banpo Village, were also found on pottery along the lower reaches of the Yellow River. There, archeologists found a sign with shapes of the moon and a five-peak mountain underneath a circle. Experts in ancient characters say the pictograph symbolizes the interval in which the moon disappears and the sun rises. Mythology researchers have another interpretation. Their understanding is that the moon shape symbolizes the red clouds as the sun rises, and thus the picture portrays a sunrise over the sea.

Most of the signs inscribed on pottery were painted red, creating an imposing and mysterious impression. The hypothesis is that pictographs were used in sacrificial rituals dedicated to the sunrise or as prayers for good harvests. They were inscribed in an orderly way, and the strokes are full of strength. Similar signs and designs have been found in other regions in China, indicating they had become generally recognized. These are the earliest symbols, or pictographs, in China and are more than 5,000 years old.

In Qinghai Province in western China, pottery objects of approximately the same period and inscribed with images of birds, insects and animals have been unearthed. These, too, are regarded as pictographs. According to philologist Tang Lan, Chinese characters originated from pictures; the older the characters, the more they look like pictures. Since pictures have no fixed forms, the ancient Chinese characters were generally free in form.

Xu Shen, a philologist of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), divided Chinese characters into six categories. Modern scholars have since reduced them to three types, of which the pictographic character is one. The picture signs are the embryos of both calligraphy and painting, which gave rise to the Chinese saying that calligraphy and painting have the same origin. At first, the pictographic characters differed from region to region. As time went by, however, they become more standardized, abstract and united, and the earliest Chinese written language, Jiaguwen (shell and bone writing) appeared.

It is said that Cangjie created Chinese characters. When you plan a China custom tour in Shangluo City, Shaanxi Province, you can find a statue of Cangjie.

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