Written Chinese (中文)

A brief introduction to written Chinese, including its structure, types of characters and the structure of the characters.

Legendary beginnings

Cangjie (倉頡), an official historian of the Yellow Emperor, is traditionally credited with inventing the Chinese writing system. 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.

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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.

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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.

Some characters in the Oracle Bone Script with their modern equivalents

More details of the Oracle Bone Script


Bronze Script (金文 jīnwén)

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 was cast.

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) emerged.

Some characters in the Bronze Script with their modern equivalents.

Some characters in the Bronze Script with their modern equivalents

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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.

Some characters in the Seal Script with their modern equivalents

Sample text in the Seal Script

Sample text in the Seal Script

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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.

Some characters in the Clerical Script

Sample text in the Clerical script

Chinese sample text in the Clerical Script

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Regular Script (楷書 [楷书] kǎishū)

The Regular Script first appeared during the Eastern Han and Cao Wei Dynasties in about 200 AD. It is associated with Zhōng Yóu (鍾繇), who lived between about 151-230 AD, and is known as the "father of the regular script". By the 7th century AD it had developed into the mature form that is still used. It is also known as the Standard Script.

Some characters in the Regular Script.

Some characters in the Standard Script

Sample text in the Regular Script

This sample text shows the Regular Script with zhùyīn fúhào (注音符號) 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.

Chinese sample text in the Standard Script

More information about the Regular script

More information about zhuyin fuhao


Running script (行書)

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.

Some characters in the Running Script

Sample text in the Running script

Chinese sample text in the Running Script

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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.

Some characters in the Draft Script

Sample text in the Draft Script

Chinese sample text in the Draft Script

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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 and Macau the traditional characters are used. Both types of characters are used in Malaysia, with the simplified ones most used for educational and official purposes.

The simplified characters were officially adopted in the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Sample text in simplified characters

Chinese sample text in simplified characters

More information about simplified characters

Transliteration of sample texts

Rénrén shēng ér zìyóu, zài zūnyán hé quánlì shàng yīlǜ píngděng. Tāmen fùyǒu lǐxìng hé liángxīn, bìng yīng yǐ xīongdì guānxì de jīngshén hùxiāng duìdài.

This transliteration is written in Hànyǔ pīnyīn (汉语拼音), one of the numerous phonetic transcription systems for Mandarin Chinese.

Details of phonetic transcription systems for Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese.

Translation of the sample texts

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)



Information about written Chinese

Recommended books

Books about Chinese characters and calligraphy
Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Taiwanese and Cantonese language learning materials


Chinese pages

Written Chinese: Oracle Bone Script, Simplified characters, Bopomofo, Types of characters, Structure of written Chinese, Evolution of characters, How the Chinese script works, Xiao'erjing, General Chinese

Spoken Chinese: Mandarin, Dungan, Wu, Shanghainese, Wenzhounese, Yue, Cantonese, Weitou, Min, Jian'ou, Taiwanese, Teochew, Fuzhounese, Puxian, Hakka, Xiang, Gan, How many people speak Chinese?

Other Chinese pages: Chinese numbers (數碼) | Chinese classifiers (量詞) | Electronic dictionaries | Chinese links | Books: Chinese characters and calligraphy | Cantonese | Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien and Taiwanese

Semanto-phonetic writing systems

Akkadian Cuneiform, Ancient Egyptian (Demotic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), Chinese, Chữ-nôm, Cuneiform, Japanese, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Naxi, Sawndip (Old Zhuang), Sui, Sumerian Cuneiform, Tangut (Hsihsia)

Other writing systems

Page last modified: 15.03.23


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