The Script Writing of Ancient China

The pictographic ancient Chinese writing

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones, Yin Capital at Anyang
Popolon / Wikimedia

Ancient China is one of the places where writing appears to have developed independently, along with Mesopotamia, which developed cuneiform, and Egypt and the civilization of the Maya, where hieroglyphs developed.

The earliest examples of ancient Chinese writing come from oracle bones at Anyang, a Shang Dynasty capital, and contemporary bronze inscriptions. There may have been writing on bamboo or other perishable surfaces, but they have, inevitably, disappeared. Although Christopher I. Beckwith thinks the Chinese may have been exposed to the idea of writing from Steppe nomads, the prevalent belief is that China developed writing on its own.

"Since the oracle bones belonging to the Shang dynasty were discovered, it is no longer doubted by sinologists that Chinese writing is an autochthonous and very ancient invention of the Chinese...."
"The Use of Writing in Ancient China," by Edward Erkes. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 127-130

Origins of Chinese Writing

The Cambridge History of Ancient China, by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, says the likely date for the earliest oracle bones is about 1200 B.C., corresponding with the reign of King Wu Ding. This speculation is based on the earliest reference to the origins of writing, which dates to the 3rd century B.C. The legend developed that a scribe of the Yellow Emperor invented writing after noticing bird tracks. [Source: Francoise Bottero, French National Center for Scientific Research Chinese Writing: Ancient Indigenous Perspective.] Scholars in the Han Dynasty thought the earliest Chinese writing was pictographic, meaning the characters are stylized representations, while the Qing thought the first writing was of numbers. Today, the earliest Chinese writing is described as pictographic (picture) or zodiographic (graph of the name of the thing), words that for non-linguists mean similar things. As the writing of the ancient Chinese evolved, a phonetic component was added to the pictographic, as is true of the paired writing system of the Maya.

Names of the Chinese Writing Systems

Ancient Chinese writing on oracle bones is called Jiaguwen, according to AncientScripts, which describes the characters as pictographic. Dazhuan is the name of the script on Bronze. It may be the same as the Jiaguwen. By 500 B.C. the angular script that characterizes modern Chinese writing had developed in the form called Xiaozhuan. Bureaucrats of the Qin Dynasty used Lishu, a script still sometimes used.

Pictographs and the Rebus

During the Shang Dynasty, the writing, which was pictographic, could use the same graphic to represent homophones (words with different meanings that sound the same). Writing could be in the form of what is called a rebus. The rebus example AncientSites lists is two pictures together, one of a bee, and one of a leaf, to represent the word "belief". Over time, signs known as determinative symbols were added to clarify the homophones, phonetic symbols were standardized, and symbols were put together to form new words.

Chinese and the Sino-Tibetan Language Family

Writing and spoken language are different. Period. The cuneiform of Mesopotamia was used to write a variety of languages, including languages from the Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic families. As the Chinese conquered their neighbors, their writing was exported to neighboring countries where it was applied to the indigenous languages. This is how the Japanese came to use Kanji.

The spoken language of Chinese is thought to be a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family. This connection between Chinese and Tibetan languages is made on the basis of lexical items, rather than morphology or syntax. However, the similar words are only reconstructions of Old and Middle Chinese.

Ancient Chinese Writing Implements

According to Erkes (above), the usual objects used in writing were a wooden stylus, to write on wood with lacquer, and the brush and ink (or some other liquid) used to write on oracle bones and other surfaces. Inscriptions also produced Chinese scripts by means of tools that removed rather than wrote on surface material.

Suggested Appreciation Activities for Chinese Writing

Ancient writings seem so much more artistic than modern computer-generated script or the scrawls most of us now use when we need to leave a handwritten note. To appreciate the elegance of the ancient Chinese writing system, observe and try to emulate it:

  • Try writing letters with a brush and ink.
  • Compare the characters in a column of Chinese writing with Japanese Kanji -- preferably for the same text (possibly something connected with their shared religion of Buddhism)
  • Look at old Chinese characters and rewrite them, then copy them without the determinatives. (The AncientScripts site has samples to work from.)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "The Script Writing of Ancient China." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). The Script Writing of Ancient China. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Script Writing of Ancient China." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).