Written Chinese dates back to 5500 to 5000 years BP

BY WANG HUI | 08-08-2019
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Carved characters that date to the Liangzhu era have been discovered on a black pottery vessel from the Chenghu Site (left) and on a grey pottery cup from the Maqiao Site (middle). The picture (right) illustrates the relationship between the pointed-bottom vessels and the character “酉”and other related characters in oracle bone script. Photo: FILE


Chinese scholars have held different opinions and used different terms regarding the origins of written Chinese. Guo Moruo (1892–1978) and Yu Xingwu (1896–1984) conducted research into the origins of the Chinese writing system according to the marks incised on pottery of the Yangshao culture era (c. 5000–3000 BCE) found in the archaeological sites of Banpo and Jiangzhai. They believed that the genesis of Chinese characters dates to around 6,500 and 6,000 years before present (BP). Some scholars interpret the carved signs on pottery unearthed from the Shuangdun Site in Bengbu, Anhui Province, as precursors to Chinese characters, thus pushing the date of the earliest Chinese character to as early as 7,000 years BP. Some scholars even doubt that the distinct markings on oracle bones found in the Jiahu Site, a Neolithic site that dates to around 8,000 years BP, represent a systematic writing that led to the development of the Chinese character. There are also some experts who believe that the earliest form of the Chinese character appeared in the late period of the Dawenkou culture (c. 4300–2500 BCE), and the formal writing system came into being 3,600 years ago during the late Xia and early Shang dynasties. Although most scholars believe the marks incised on pottery unearthed from the archaeological sites of Liangzhu (c. 3300–2000 BCE) and Longshan (c. 2500–2000 BCE) represent the original forms of the Chinese character, some still believe that they have nothing to do with ancient written Chinese. 


The terms used to interpret the original forms of the Chinese character vary, such as tao qi fu hao (signs on pottery), ke hua fu hao (incised signs), yuan shi wen zi (primeval characters) or jian dan wen zi (simple characters). This article neither agrees to summarize the marks on pottery as “signs,” which shows no relationship with writing, nor agrees to equate the “primeval characters” and the “simple characters” with the original form of written Chinese, because using “characters” as the subject of a term indicates that the term has been identified as the formal Chinese characters already. 
The possible reasons for the various interpretations of the origins of Chinese characters lie in the lack of study in related basic concepts and the failure to make a practical criterion to define the early forms of Chinese characters. This article distinguishes the basic concepts of wen zi hua (a type of drawing designed with characters), textual signs, non-textual signs and formal Chinese characters. Wen zi hua refers to narrative drawings that contain elements of characters, but which are not characters. Among all the signs carved on ancient pottery, the pure geometric graphs are non-textual signs. As for the textual signs, they are similar to the oracle bone script and bronze script on structures. However, they are not formal characters because it is difficult to tell whether these individual graphs represent a word, a phrase, a sentence or even a story. 
Based on the classification and research of carved marks on pottery, stoneware, turtle shell and other animal bones excavated from numerous archaeological sites of the middle and late Neolithic period, it can be deduced that apart from the Liangzhu culture in the southeast and the Longshan culture in Shandong Province, there were no traces of Chinese characters during this period. 
This article proposes to set a standard for formal Chinese characters, which depends upon whether signs or graphs constitute characters, words or sentences. According to this standard, the origin of Chinese characters date back to 5,500 and 5,000 years BP. 
Based on the criteria of Chinese characters, if symbols or signs are recognized as Chinese characters, they should be able to constitute a phrase or a sentence. In this way, whether the characters contain a linear arrangement of graphs is crucial to distinguish the forms of formal characters from non-formal characters. For instance, if some graphs constitute a phrase that contains a syntactic relationship between subject and predicate, or between the subject, predicate and objects, they can be recognized as the examples of the earliest Chinese characters, used by prehistoric people for recording. Obviously, these linear arrangements of graphs are different from a drawing or a graphic symbol, let alone simple incised marks. 
Since the earliest textual signs that constituted a phrase or a sentence appeared in the Liangzhu culture, it can be deduced that formal Chinese characters had been used between 5,300 and 4,300 years BP. Archeologists have found four characters on a black pottery vessel unearthed from the Chenghu Site in Wu County, Jiangsu Province. Among these four characters, the “戌” and “五” are easily recognizable. These four characters are arranged in a line, completing a complex phrase. Scholars have had different interpretations of this phrase, yet most of them agree to define the characters as primeval characters. This article deduces that these four characters are “戉(越)五簇(族).” The “” is a commonly used character found in the late Neolithic cultures located in southeastern China, including the Songze culture and Liangzhu culture. It might be a totem or an emblem for a tribe. Although the “越” first appeared as the name of a state in the ancient documents of the Spring and Autumn Period, it’s origin might date to an earlier period. 
Archeologists also found a few characters on a grey pottery cup from the Liangzhu culture era, excavated from the Maqiao Site in Shanghai. Among them, three characters—“入田……戉(越)”—are recognizable. These three characters are similar to those carved on the oracle bones from the Yinxu Site (in modern Anyang, Henan Province). The characters may represent a verb–object structure or a sentence with its subject omitted. The existence of these text signs arranged in a form of phrases or sentences indicates that Chinese characters had come into being in the Liangzhu period. 
Comparing the characters in oracle bone script found from the Yinxu Site with the other archeological excavations, it is easy to discover that there are graphs that have been incised on the Yinxu oracle bones, which represent the shape of prehistoric objects (e.g., pointed-bottom bottle of the Yangshao culture). This finding provides evidence for the origin of Chinese characters. Through the comparative study of the characters in the form of oracle bone script—e.g., “酉” “丙”—and the pointed-bottom bottles and the “丙”-shaped vessels, scholars found that these vessels hadn’t appeared until the period between 5,000 and 4,800 years BP. This serves as confirmed evidence of the approximate date when Chinese characters would have come into use. 
According to archeological research, there are many “living fossils” among the characters of the Shang Dynasty written in oracle bone script and bronze script, which appeared earlier than the Xia Dynasty and resembled the shapes of certain objects. The character “酉” and the text signs that consisted of this character showed up in the late Yangshao period. The character “丙” and the text signs that consisted of this character date back to the Banpo culture, which belonged to the period of the Yangshao culture. It is notable that the characters such as “酉” and “丙” that were frequently used in the oracle bone script resemble the shape of a type of pointed-bottom vessel, which dated back to 5,500 and 5,000 years BP. Therefore, it can be concluded that Chinese characters originated between 5,500 and 5,000 years in the past. 
Wang Hui is a professor from the School of History and Culture at Shaanxi Normal University. 
edited by REN GUANHONG