Development of Written Language in Ancient China

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Writing is an integral part of Chinese civilization, so where did it come from? In this lesson, we'll look at the surprising origins of writing in Chinese history.

Chinese Language and Civilization

When asked to define the concept of civilization, many historians look to the advent of writing. Writing is one of the cornerstones of civilization, and perhaps nowhere was this more true than in China. Chinese civilization has long held a deep obsession with the written word, influencing its culture in forms ranging from poetry to imperial recordkeeping.

So, looking for the origins of writing in Chinese history is no small task. You may as well be looking for the origins of Chinese civilization itself. Well, considering the incredible longevity of Chinese culture, it's no surprise that to study the development of writing we have to go way, way back.

Earliest (Possible) Inscriptions

So, when did writing first appear in China? That's a good question, and one which scholars have debated for a long time. There are some people who think that Chinese writing may have truly ancient roots, dating as far back as the Ban Po settlement, inhabited between 4,500 and 3,750 BCE.

At Ban Po, archeologists have discovered a number of pottery shards, which is pretty normal for a village of this time. What's interesting, however, is the frequent repetition of images and symbols inscribed onto these shards. While no one's been able to interpret them, some people think that these images are used consistently enough to represent a very early form of written language.

Divining a Language

The Ban Po shards are interesting, but claims that they represent a written language are controversial at best. There just isn't enough evidence. Eventually, however, that ceases to be true. In the Shang Dynasty (1,600-1,046 BCE), a genuine written language bursts onto the scene.

So where do we find this language -- books, scrolls, the walls of tombs? Nope. The writing of the Shang Dynasty, China's first writing system, is found exclusively on bones. Why?

Shang Dynasty oracle bone

Shang society was obsessed over predicting the future, and had a special class of priests (or possibly priestesses) devoted to the art of divination. Here's how it worked: the diviner would write a question onto the bone of an ox shoulder or turtle shell, toss it in the fire, and wait for it to crack. The crack was then interpreted as either a yes or no answer to the question. So, in order for the divination to work, the diviners had to have a written language to use. This was China's first true system of writing. We call it Jiaguwen.

In all honestly, this ancient writing script was likely developed outside of just divining the future and may have been written on scrolls, wood, and even silk. Unfortunately, those rapidly decomposable materials have been lost to time so all we have left are the oracle bones, and there are quite a few of them. The Shang rulers liked knowing the future, and they clearly appreciated the nearly magical role of writing in the ritual.

Development of Chinese Characters

So, what did Jiaguwen look like? Was it an alphabet like English? No, it wasn't. Jiaguwen was a pictographic language, which means that each symbol represented an idea or object, not a sound. For example, the Jiaguwen character for a fish would not have represented the phonetic sounds of the Chinese word for fish, but instead represented a fish itself. As a result, most Jiaguwen characters look pretty similar to the things they represent.

The problem was that it was hard to make complete sentences this way. Even that last sentence would be very difficult to represent using pictographic characters. It wasn't efficient, and as the Chinese emperors began transforming writing into a tool for imperial recordkeeping, the written language needed to evolve.

From around 1,000-700 BCE, Chinese society developed a pictographic script with new characters, some of which represented the ideas and abstract concepts that help create sentence structure (not just physical objects in the world). The new scripts that emerged in this time began appearing on impressive bronze bells and plates that distinguish the era.

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