Three Forms of the Early Chinese Script

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.2, 2018


Three Forms of the Early Chinese Script



Zhao Minli


The Chinese script has been an important vehicle for the transmission of Chinese civilization for thousands of years. Jiaguwen(oracle bone and bronze inscriptions), jinwen(inscriptions on metal sacrificial utensils) and diancewen(writing on bamboo slips) were the three main script forms in early China. The three used different writing instruments, had different means of writing, performed different cultural functions, and had different developmental histories. Each has a unique value in the history of Chinese culture. Jiaguwen and jinwen were both transmitted through material objects; they show later generations the heights that early Chinese writing techniques and institutional culture could achieve. However, as special scripts with an aura of sacredness, they had only a limited influence on the transmission of China’s spiritual civilization. We need to fully appreciate the characteristics of the three script forms, especially the twofold function of early diancewen literature as the vehicle of the memory of historical fact and cultural spirit, and study the script at different levels. Diancewen must be complemented with jiaguwen and jinwen, and the three must share discoveries and corroborative evidence with the riches of contemporary archeological finds. In this way, we can start from China’s material civilization and plumb the depths of its spiritual archeology, opening up fresh fields in the historical study of early civilizations.