Writing in Ancient China: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Leila Brollosy Pullum

Leila has taught a variety of elementary school grade levels over the last four years and has her master's degree in educational studies.

The exact date of when the Chinese began writing is a mystery. However, scholars have found evidence of early Chinese writing from the 10th century BCE. This lesson will uncover the history about writing in ancient China and its impact on the modern world.

The Earliest Ancient Writings

In 1953, men digging out the foundation for a factory in a Chinese village came across an amazing discovery. They found pottery with symbols and markings that were anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 years old. This sparked a debate: were those markings just symbols or did they represent real writing? While most scholars don't know what the markings were, they do agree the first evidence of full sentences was found on oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE).

Oracle bones were often the shoulder blades of oxen scraped clean and dried. These bones with written carvings engraved on them would be used by Chinese fortune tellers to tell the future. A fortune teller would write a question on it and heat the bones up until they cracked. The crack would indicate a secret message that the fortune teller would then decode.

Oracle bones show the earliest evidence of Chinese writing.

Development of Writing

The script on the bones is the first type of writing the Chinese used. The script is pictographic, meaning pictures are used to represent concepts and words. If a person wanted to write about a royal feast they might draw a picture of a palace or a king and an animal roasting. Another type of script, called lishu, was developed in 500 BCE and used in the Qin and Han Dynasties for all types of government documentation. The Chinese also developed cursive scripts for poetry and calligraphy. The development of writing would characterize Chinese culture and art.

The Chinese writing system is one of the most complex in the world. It requires memorization and an understanding of how to combine characters that describe concepts, not just words, to the reader. Since learning how to read and write Chinese is so difficult, it became a way to tell the difference between the elite class from the lower class in Chinese society up until the mid 20th century. The people who could read and write had valuable skills, and because the ability was rare, they became the elite members of society.

The written language also spread as Chinese culture spread. The written languages of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese were all inspired by Chinese characters at one time. The only country to still use some Chinese characters in their writing is Japan.

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