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Ancient Chinese Characters History

Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the oldest attested stage of Chinese, and the ancestor of all modern varieties of Chinese. The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscriptions on oracle bones from around 1250 BC, in the late Shang dynasty.

The best … Ancient Chinese characters … Every point written is a picture of a bird … enlarged to see clearly.

The characters are split into groups. The first is the ancient pictographs, these characters are derived from drawings of objects in everyday life probably over 10,000 years ago. During the period 5,000 to 6,000 years ago the pictures were augmented with indirect and abstract symbols, this class is called the zhǐ shì ‘refer to things’.

Different kingdoms in the China area devised their own characters and it all became quite confusing. It was the discovery of writing on oracle bones from the late Shang dynasty (c. 1200BCE) that has greatly added to the knowledge of the characters used in ancient days.

At this time the characters remained mainly pictorial, it was then and in the later Han Dynasty that characters began to include components that indicate how they should be pronounced – the phonetic part. Up until then looking at a character gave no hint as to how to say it. Nowadays about 80% of characters have a phonetic part indicating how it might be pronounced, these are called the 形声 xíng shēng ‘appear sound’ class of character. The phonetics over the centuries has changed and recognizing the phonetic part is not a totally reliable guide to pronunciation.

As well as phonetic components there are a relatively small number of ‘meaning’ or ‘determinative’ components; these radicals indicate that the character which uses it is in a particular class of thing – for example, the 木 wood radical is used in over 1,500 characters all with an association with plants or wood and 心 heart radical is used in many characters indicating an emotion.

Since the Han dynasty, the core characters have remained pretty much unaltered for over 2,000 years but new characters are needed and archaic ones have fallen out of use. The classic script which came into use c. 400CE has been used for official documents ever since. The writing of officials and scholars was not used by everyday people and the term ‘Chinese Latin’ has been used to make the allusion to Europe when only the educated elite would use Latin, not the vernacular language.

Over the centuries the original pictures have been simplified for ease of writing with a brush. In the list of characters below on the left in brown is the original script ‘picture’ from the Shang or Zhou dynasties – 3,000 years ago. In blue is the modern script which uses lines and avoids curves as much as it can. This simplification can make deciphering the origin of characters difficult.

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