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From oracle bones to modern script

XU YANG | 2017-11-02
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

 

Evolution of Chinese Characters
Editor-in-chief: Zang Kehe
Publisher: East China Normal University


 

Since they first emerged, Chinese characters have undergone 3,000 years of development. However, there is a lack of systematic analysis of their evolution. The book series the Evolution of Chinese characters, altogether five volumes, fills in the gaps in research.


Academics agree that the use of Chinese characters has not been interrupted in its ages of evolution. This is largely due to the consistent nature of ideographic writing, which also helped characters influence the cultures of neighboring countries.


However, the nature of Chinese characters brings complexity and challenges to related research. Zang said that for a long time, the discussion of Chinese characters remained at the level of simple descriptions and sample investigations, falling behind other linguistic studies and basic humanities disciplines, largely due to the lack of materials and difficulties integrating resources.


The Chinese writing system witnessed its first boom in the Zhou Dynasty. This was largely due to the extensive need of characters driven by the prosperity in economics, trade, art, culture and national integration. Then the emergence of the clerical characters that occurred no later than the Warring States period marked a milestone in the evolution of Chinese written language.


When it came to the following Qin Dynasty, the small script was regarded by scholars as the official form. This style has a standardized and balanced structure, as well as fixed and smooth strokes. Though the small seal script was developed relatively late in Chinese history, it represented the most notable achievement in Chinese calligraphy. Also, some scholars deduced that the writing system was confined to royal use.


Around the Han Dynasty, the clerical and cursive writing styles gradually prevailed. The clerical script reached its artistic peak in the Han Dynasty. Like the seal characters, clerical script had a far-reaching influence. Even in the Sui and Tang dynasties, clerical script appeared in important ceremonial rites such as tombstone inscriptions. In the book, Zang said that cursive writing became an official style in the Han Dynasty. Though the two scripts had the same root, they developed in two directions: the clerical script developed clear and simple strokes while the cursive writing had flow lines that were difficult to recognize.


In addition to investigating the evolution of Chinese characters, the book also analyzed its method of dissemination from the perspective of media transformation. The oracle bones, bronze ware, silk, bamboo scripts and jade, all evidenced the use of different kinds of characters.


The book also mentioned the importance of papermaking to the spread of the writing system. Before the invention of paper, characters were written on bamboo scripts and for official use only. It was not until the Wei and Jin dynasties that characters came to be used among ordinary people as paper replaced other writing materials, which greatly promoted the spread of characters.