Cangjie (倉頡), an official historian of the
Yellow Emperor, is traditionally credited with inventing the
Chinese writing system in about 3000 BC. According to legend,
he had four eyes and four pupils, and that when he invented
Chinese characters, the demons cried and the sky rained
millet. The Yellow Emperor, who reigned between 2697-2597 BC
or 2696-2598 BC according to tradition, is regarded as the founder
of Chinese civilization.
At the time of the Yellow Emperor, records were kept using
knots on ropes. The emperor thought this system was unsatisfactory
and charged Cangjie to create a writing system for Chinese. Cangjie
did not know how to proceed at first, but was eventually decided to
base characters on the special characteristics of animals, birds and
other natural phonomena. The emperor was very pleased with the new
script and had textbooks produced and sent to the different parts
of his empire so that Cangjie could teach people his script.
In 1999 in Jiahu (贾湖) in Henan (河南) province
artifacts inscribed with symbols resembling Oracle Bone Script characters
were discovered. The Jiahu site dates back to around 6,600 BC, and some
believe that the symbols are Chinese characters, or perhaps a form of Chinese
proto-writing. Others argue that the gap between these symbols and the
Oracle Bone Script is too long for them to have remained more or less
unchanged, so they are unlikely to be ancestors of Chinese characters.
Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén)
The oldest inscriptions that are recognised unequivocally as Chinese
date from about 1200 BC and were found in Anyang, the capital of
the Shang Dynasty (商朝 - 1600-1046 BC) in 1895. They consist
of short texts inscribed on ox scapulae and turtle plastrons
and are known as oracle bones (甲骨 - jiǎgǔ),
and the script is known as the Oracle Script (甲骨文)
or "shell bone script".
Some characters in the Oracle Bone Script with their modern equivalents.
The Bronze Script is the name used for inscriptons on bronze artifacts,
such as bells and cauldrons, dating from the Shang and Zhōu Dynasties. The
earlier inscriptions were writing in the wet clay molds used to cast the
bronze; many later inscriptions were inscriped into the bronze after it
This was not a single script but rather a number of different scripts
which developed in different ways in different regions, particularly
from the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋時代
[春秋时代] chūnqiū shídài)
or 771 to 476 BC. From the late Spring and Autumn Period to early
Warring States Period, a number of artistic scripts, such as the Bird Script
(鳥書 niǎoshū) and Worm Script (蟲書 chóngshū)
Some characters in the Bronze Script with their modern equivalents.
Seal Script (篆書 [篆书] zhuànshū)
Seal Script is a style of Chinese calligraphy that developed during the
Zhōu dynasty (c. 1046-256 BC) and the Warring State Period of the Qin Dynasty (c. 481/475-403 BC). The Qin
version became the standard formal of the Qin dynasty, and continued to be
used during the Han Dynasty for decorative purposes and name seals. The name
篆 (zhuàn) means "decorative engraving" and this script is still
used for name seals/chops. The Qin version of the Seal Script is also known
as the Small Seal Script (小篆 xiǎozhuàn).
Some characters in the Seal Script with their modern equivalents.
Sample text in the Seal Script
Clerical Script (隸書 [隶书])
The Clerical Script or Chancery Script is a style of Chinese calligraphy
that developed during the Qin dynasty, became the dominant style during
the Han dynasty, and was used until the Jin Dynasty (265–420 AD). It is
still used for headlines, signs and adverts. This script is thought to
have developed from a relatively simple "vulgar" script which emerged
during the Warring States period and became popular with ordinary people,
as well as with government scribes, during the Qin dynasty at a time when
literacy was spreading.
Sample text in the Clerical script
Standard Script (楷書)
Some characters in the Standard Script.
Sample text in the Standard Script
This sample text shows the Standard Script with zhùyīn
the phonetic alphabet used in Taiwan to show the pronunciation of characters
in dictionaries, books for children, textbooks for people learning Chinese,
and in some newspapers.
The Running Script or Semi-cursive Script is a cursive style of Chinese calligraphy
that developed from the Clerical Script from the 1st century AD. It is easier to
read that than Draft Script as the characters are not as abbreviated.
Some characters in the Running Script.
Sample text in the Running script
Draft script (草書)
The Draft or Cursive Script is a style of Chinese calligraphy that developed
during the Han Dynasty. At first it was a cursive version of the Clerical Script
known as 章草 (zhāngcǎo) in Chinese, and as ancient cursive,
draft cursive or clerical cursive in English. The script developed further
during the Jin Dynasty, and has been used as a form of shorthand and as a
calligraphic script since then. It is quick to write because some parts of
characters are omitted, some strokes are merged, some parts are replaced with
simpler alternatives, and some of the strokes are modified. For those not familiar
with this style of writing, it can be difficult to read.
Some characters in the Draft Script.
Sample text in the Draft Script
Simplified characters (简体字)
In an effort to increase literacy, about 2,000 of the characters
used in China have been simplified. These simplified characters are
also used in Singapore, but in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia
the traditional characters are still used.
The simplified characters were officially adopted in the People's
Republic of China in 1949.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with
reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)