Dr. K.Y. Chen's Laboratory - The Five Original Writing Systems


chinesetopPreamble (from Keightley)

The origins of Chinese writing are closely associated with the great shift from Neolithic culture to Bronze Age civilization. This shift is of particular interest in China, where it occurred roughly in the second millennium B. C., because it lies at the genesis of one of the world's great civilizations and because it largely occurred in isolation. The writing system that emerged was, like most of the features of China's Bronze Age civilization, indigenous. The origins of writing in China are also of particular interest because there have been few cultures where high literacy, high civilization, and aesthetic prowess have been so intimately combined. Literacy in China involved not only a profound knowledge of the written classics but also the ability to wield a brush effectively, either to paint a landscape, usually with a poem inscribed at its side, or to write Chinese characters in a way that conveyed not just their meaning but also their aesthetic vitality and the taste of their composer. As Michael Sullivan has put it:

From the merchant who hoists up his newly written shop-sign with ceremony and incense to the poet whose soul takes flight in the brilliant sword-dance of the brush, calligraphy is revered above all other arts. Not only is a man's writing a clue to his temperament, his moral worth and his learning, but the uniquely ideographic nature of the Chinese script has charged each individual character with a richness of content and association the full range of which even the most scholarly can scarcely fathom.

A man absorbed with writing was absorbed not just with words but with symbols and, through the act of writing with the brush, with a form of painting and thus with the world itself. To the lover of high culture, the way in which something was written could be as important as its content. There is still a third reason why the origins of Chinese writing are of interest: namely, the seminal and overriding importance of Chinese script in the general history of East Asia. It is hard for us today to conceive of the cultural dominance that imperial China exerted over Korea, Japan, and much of Southeast Asia. China was to this area what the Near East, Greece, and Rome were to Europe. China was the source of all high culture, and its influence, including that of its writing system, was accordingly great during the early periods when civilization was developing in the neighboring countries. This influence derived in part from China's early start. China was developing an advanced Bronze Age civilization by about the middle of the second millennium B.C., well before the surrounding areas reached such a stage. The influence also derived from the remarkable attractiveness of Chinese civilization, including its writing system. The majestic words with which Edward Gibbon opened his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind"might equally well have been applied to the empire of China in the middle of the second century before Christ, and certainly to several high points of the dynastic cycle since. China's impact on Japan from the Nara period of the seventh century onward, to cite but one example, was immense. Nara was modeled on the T'ang capital of Ch'ang-an, and its administration, law codes, court rituals and ceremonies, and even Buddhist religion, were all based on Chinese prototypes. The Chinese writing system, with its multistroke characters and its emphasis on elegant calligraphy, was a key element in this wave of sinification.