CHINESE characters are the oldest continuously used writing system, sometimes called China's fifth great invention. It was a major factor in unifying China, where different dialects are spoken but everyone reads the same script.
Around 1.4 billion people speak or are learning Chinese worldwide. The total number of characters remains unknown because new characters emerge all the time, but estimates are around 100,000. The characters are mysterious, complicated, beautiful and rich in culture and art.
An exhibition "Magnificent Chinese Characters" at the Shanghai Public Art Center explores the origin and evolution of the characters. The 13-day exhibition runs through November 18.
Most exhibits come from the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, central China's Henan Province, site of the Yin ruins where oracle bones and oracle bone script were discovered. They are the earliest form of Chinese writing, believed by some to date back to the late Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC).
The earliest writing was used for royal divination; questions were carved on bones or tortoiseshell, which were then heated until it cracked. The cracks were then interpreted and answers divined.
There is no consensus on when the earliest known Chinese characters originated.
In recent years, inscriptions have been found on Neolithic pottery and on bones at various sites, such as Banpo and Hualouzi near Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province. These simple, often geometric marks are similar to some of the earliest known Chinese characters, potentially indicating that the history of Chinese writing extends back over six millennia.
But at Damaidi in the northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, more than 3,000 pictorial cliff carvings dating to 6000-5000 BC were discovered, leading to bold speculation and reports that Chinese writing was 8,000 years old.
Chinese characters, in isolated graphs and pictures, are found periodically. Scholars hold various interpretations.
Origin of Chinese characters
According to legend, Chinese characters were invented by Cang Jie, an official historian of the Yellow Emperor (2697-2599 BC). This story gained popularity in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). According to legend, the Yellow Emperor who united 72 tribes in China, hoped to set up a shared code system among the tribes, and entrusted the work to Cang.
Another version has it that Cang's inspiration came from an unlikely source - tortoise veins, observed while hunting in today's Shanxi Province in North China. Then he studied the animals of the world, the landscape of the earth and the stars in the sky, and invented a symbolic system called zi - the first Chinese characters.
A portrait of Cang, the "ancestor of writing," features in the exhibition.
But there are many other stories about the origins of communication. It is also said that tribes used to tie knots to record events, such as wars, disasters, disease and celebrations. Some people claim characters were derived from these knots.
The exhibition features an oracle bone from the late Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) about war divination and a cattle scapula recording divination results and ritual sacrifices.
These are the most precious exhibits, says Wang Shuangqing, director of the design division of the exhibition department of the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang.
Oracle bone inscriptions are records of divinations said to have been performed in communication with royal ancestral spirits by means of scapulimancy (divination using scapula or broad shoulder blade bones).
"Ancient people revered nature and heaven and they relied on some medium to communicate with their ancestors," Wang says.
Kings sought guidance on weather, crops, disease, military success, natural disasters, ritual sacrifice and childbirth.
Oracle bone inscriptions
There were oracle bone inscriptions about an accident during a hunting activity of a Shang Dynasty king and divinatory results of eclipses.
The common practice was to drill holes and slots on oracle bones first, then burn these holes and slots with burning wood branches, and the flaw and patterns created would tell the divinatory results. The divinatory inscriptions would be carved near the flaws finally.
Turtle shell and ox scapula were the most commonly used materials at that time, Wang said.
Visitors to the exhibition will find the characters of Chinese Zodiac signs and other characters on oracle bones. Coming right back up-to-date, they are also able to play multimedia scapulimancy games of oracle bones.
So far, about 130,000 pieces of oracle bones have been found, with 4,000 characters found and 1,500 can be recognized. Most of the bones were excavated in Anyang.
At the beginning of the 14th century BC, King Pangeng of the Shang Dynasty established his capital two kilometers north of the city. The city, known as Yin, was the first stable capital in Chinese history.
The capital served 12 kings in eight generations until it was wiped out along with the dynasty that founded by King Wu of the Zhou in 1046 BC.
Bronze inscriptions, known as jin wen, is another type of early Chinese script which was represented by the inscriptions cast or etched on bronze objects of the West Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). They mainly recorded ancient affairs about sacrificial ceremony, war and alliances.
A number of bronze vessel replicas and photographs are on display, as well as examples of style of bronze inscriptions and their strokes.
Written inscriptions cast in a bronze vessel of the West Zhou Dynasty recorded the success of King Wu in overthrowing the Shang Dynasty. The vessel used to store rice is the only historical remain of this major event.
Another wine vessel was cast with the name of Fu Hao, a wife of Shang king Wu Ding. There are also vessels made to offer sacrifices to ancestors by kings in the Shang Dynasty and vessels with written inscriptions serving as land transfer contracts in the West Zhou Dynasty, which are important historical documents of land policy at that time.
Inscriptions cast in a bronze vessel of the early West Zhou Dynasty recorded the experience of country governing.
Standardizing the writing
During the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States period, there were many states in China and each had their own form of writing. In 221 BC, the state of Qin united China and standardized writing by making its own writing - with small seal script the only one authorized.
Li Si, Prime Minister (or Chancellor) of Qin and a notable calligrapher, took charge of systemizing the written Chinese language by promulgating as the imperial standard the small seal script which had been in use in the state of Qin. In this process, variants within the Qin script were proscribed, as were variant scripts from the different regions which had been conquered.
The standardization of Chinese writing promoted the development of economy and culture and contributed to the birth of a multi-ethnic country.
Visitors to the exhibition can see the photos of bronze vessels used for measurement of cereal with edict of Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC) and the stele of Taishan Mountain, said to be written by Li Si.
There are also introductions of different written styles in different periods, like the clerical script, the regular script, which is used mostly for printing, and the semi-cursive script, used mostly for handwriting.
Research on Chinese character began in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). The "Erya" is the oldest surviving Chinese dictionary or Chinese encyclopedia known. The book's author is unknown, however. It was considered the authoritative lexicographic guide to Chinese classic texts during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220).
Chinese linguist Xu Shen of the Han Dynasty contributed etymological dictionary "Shuowen Jiezi." Although not the first comprehensive Chinese character dictionary (the "Erya" predates it), it was still the first to analyze the structure of the characters and to give the rationale behind them.
The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to some Chinese character art works. Stone tablets with clerical script, calligraphy works, seals and poems can be found here in photos.
Lin Shiqing, a retired teacher in his 60s, said he was fascinated by the profound culture and glamor of Chinese characters while touring the exhibition.
"We use Chinese characters every day, but we don't know the rich culture, profound history and fun stories behind it, which is a big regret," he said.