A Brief History of the Chinese Writing System

The study of Chinese character components has traditionally played a role in teaching Chinese. Although the importance of the component has never been in question,

limited classroom time left little opportunity for teaching components.

Clavis Sinica is designed to encourage individual learning and promote the memory retention skills of the learner. Providing the student with this tool can ensure the teaching of an important component of Chinese writing is not neglected.

Chinese is the oldest continuous language and is spoken by more people than any other language in the world. As such, this language contains many characteristics that differentiate it from other languages. Some of these traits make Chinese so far removed from European languages as to create a wall which confounds students from Western countries. The Chinese script is often considered to be the most troublesome aspect of the language. Early Western scholars were at a loss and described the unfamiliar Chinese written language as simply “characters”.

Centuries before Marco Polo (1254-1324) and other Western travelers first met China, the Chinese writing system had already reached full maturity. Not only did the Chinese script form the foundation of a sophisticated system of communication, it also had amassed nearly two thousand years of literature.

The earliest recorded form of Chinese writing consisted of the pictographic drawings of simple objects. This pictographic script was used by shaman in their prophesying for the rulers of the various kingdoms in Northern China as early as the 18th century B.C. The sacred writing was scratched into either oxen scapula or tortoise shells prepared for that purpose. These surfaces were then baked over an open flame.

From the cracks that formed as the surfaces were heated, the shaman would foresee events that were of importance to the early Chinese kingdoms.

As the wealth and power of these small kingdoms grew, so did the necessity of record keep. Records were scrawled into bamboo slats that were fastened together forming a book of sorts. As the desire for written communication on a deeper level continued, some of the initial pictographic images were combined. The newly formed characters were able to convey more complex ideas.

Writing in this pictographic form eventually became too cumbersome as the number of characters increased, and the necessity to communicate more abstract ideas grew. As a result, the Chinese script began to evolve. It grew from a purely ideographic writing system to a method that included phonological components as well.

These characters consisted of a phonetic component which gave indication to the pronunciation of the word that was formed, and another component which indicated a general category of meaning for the word. This latter component has been generally referred to as the component; although, noted Sinologist Bernhard Karlgren and many other scholars contend that this is “a misleading term, as it wrongly conveys the idea of etymological root”.

 The early Chinese did not yet have a standardized writing system; indeed, written script varied greatly from region to region, and even from scribe to scribe. To standardize this script, the grand recorder of the Zhou dynasty around 800 B.C. catalogued the characters that existed at that time, fixing their form and shape. This ancient script became known as the “greater seal” characters (Tazhuan 大篆).

During the second half of the Zhou dynasty, known as the Spring and Autumn (772-481 B.C.) and the Warring States (463-221 B.C.) periods, confusion reigned throughout the early kingdoms. Scholars began to make up characters to replace those they could not remember. Over several hundred years the script in use began to differ from that of the Zhou standard.

When the Qin (221-207 B.C.) finally succeeded in unifying China under one all-powerful ruler in the 3rd century B. C., the Emperor Qin Shih Huang (秦始皇) commissioned his prime minister Li Si (李斯) to assemble a new official index of written Chinese. The Qin index consisted of 3300 characters which became known as the "lesser seal" characters (Tsiao-zhuan 小篆). This standard script survived well beyond the short-lied Qin dynasty, and was indeed a credit to the legalist rulers of that era.

Some four hundred years later a great scholar, Xu Shen (许慎), assembled a lexicon which would become the standard for the next thousand years and beyond. Even today the work of Xu Shen is quoted as the standard all others follow. His Chinese etymological dictionary , the ShuoWenJiezi (《说文解字》), contained not only the authority on the written form of the Chinese script, some 10,516 individual characters, this renowned volume also indexed these characters under 540 rational keys. These rational keys, or components, form the foundation for understanding and learning the Chinese writing system.

In the 18th century, the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi (康熙 1661-1722) assembled 40,000 characters indexed by 214 of these components in the 42 volume Kangxi Zidian (《康熙字典》). It is this rational component which composes the foundation to organizing and understanding the Chinese script. But before one can understand the importance of the components, it is important to develop a better understanding of the construction of Chinese characters.

Chinese characters fall into six major classifications. The first of which are imitative drafts (象形[xiàng xíng]). These characters come from simple pictographic origins, and are abundant in the oracle bone script as are the characters that compromise the second classification, the indicative symbols (指事[zhĭ shì]). In these characters, the shape of the assembled strokes is an attempt to indicate a certain meaning to the reader much like using an ampersand to indicate union, or a red octagon to signify stop.

The third category is composed of logical aggregates (会意[huìyì]) which are a result of combining two or more characters from the previous classifications. A common example of this type of character is 好([hăo], good). In this word 女[nǚ] meaning woman, and 子[zĭ] the character representing child, are combined to form a character symbolizing goodness. These first three classifications compromise approximately three percent of the characters in common use today.

The fourth category, like the third, combines two or more characters from the other categories to form Picto-phonetic character (形声[xíng shēng]). One component hint to the phonetic pronunciation of the character, while the other points to a general category of meaning. It is this rational component that forms the component.

The final two classifications deal with Mutually Explanatory Characters (转注[zhuăn zhù]) and graphic-borrowed character (假借[jiă jiè]). These two methods have resulted in the creation of many characters throughout history.

The fourth classification, phonetic complexes, comprises nearly 97 percent of characters in use today. The key component to these and all Chinese characters is the component. It is by the component that characters are indexed in Chinese dictionaries. It is also interesting to note that over a hundred of the 214 components listed in modern dictionaries are themselves common characters.

It becomes obvious that any student of Chinese who becomes familiar with the more commonly used elements would be able to read and understand many independent characters and grasp the general meaning of a great deal more. Upon this component foundation students of Chinese can expand their vocabulary and understanding of this ancient language; breaking down the wall that confounds the novice learner of Chinese and opening the expansive opportunities offered by this language of great history and vast literature.