Ancient Chinese Writing, Shang Dynasty, 1600 BC

Ancient Chinese Writing Shang DynastyAncient Chinese Writing, Shang Dynasty, 1600 BC

Ancient Chinese writing apparently began to develop during the Middle Shang Dynasty, located along the fertile Yellow River valley in northeast China.

The Shang Dynasty (aka Yin Dynasty) followed the Xia Dynasty and lasted from about 1600 to 1046 BC.  It is one of the first civilizations to use a writing system, along with Sumeria, Egypt, the Indus Valley Civilization and Mesoamerica.

Chinese writing has evolved, making its ancient core one of the longest continuously used writing systems in the world.

Oracle Bones Inscriptions

Although ancient Chinese writing also used silk, bamboo, and wood for writing surfaces, these perishable materials decomposed over time.  Some pictograph symbols found on pottery and jade from the third millennium BC are thought to represent family or clan ownership.

The oldest surviving written language records from Ancient China that use full sentences are inscriptions made on animal bones, mostly the flat shoulder blade bones (scapula) of oxen and turtle shells.

By 1400 BC the script included 2,500 to 3,000 characters, most can still be read to this day. The writing starts at the top right corner and moves down in a vertical line then moves left to the top of the next column.

Chinese writing oracle bone scriptInscriptions in the form of questions were made by priests on the bones to help foretell future events of good and bad possible outcomes.  Bronze Age metal tools or ink-filled brushes were used. A wooden stylus was used to write on wood with lacquer.

The bones were heated with a poker until they cracked.  The cracks were then interpreted by the king or priests of the royal court to give their divinations of the future, such as a rain forecast, health prognosis or a battle outcome, hence the name oracle bones.

It was thought that the spirits of one’s ancestors influenced the divination and communicated directly with the diviner.

China Shang Dynasty mapThousands of oracle bones were found at the UNESCO archaeological site of Yin Xu (Yin Ruins) at Anyang, the capital of the Shang Dynasty.

The shapes of oracle bone script characters (jiaguwen) are described as pictographic, resembling drawings of the objects they represent. Oracle bones were used through the Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 226 BC) and then were replaced by another divination form known as the I-Ching (The Book of Changes).

Chinese Chop Seals

Before paper, engraved seals known as chops were used to stamp impressions on clay tags.  A private message was written on narrow bamboo strips, which were rolled up and tied with string.

A knot was made and a lump of clay was pressed over the knot.  Then the chop was stamped on the clay tag over the knot leaving a seal impression for security.  At the destination, an unbroken seal was evidence that no message tampering had occurred before delivery.

Chinese chop seal Qing dynasty

Ancient Chinese chops were made from animal bones, wood, gold, clay pottery, and brass.  Today, chop seals made of wood, ivory, jade or stone are still used with red ink made of cinnabar, oil and silk strands or mugwort leaves to sign, identify and authenticate personal, business and official documents in China, Japan, and Korea.

Records of the Grand Historian

The Records of the Grand Historian, the first monumental general history, were written by the great historian Sima Qian around 94 BC. They consisted of 520,000 characters in 130 chapters written on bamboo slips, covering 3,000 years from the legendary Yellow Emperor to Emperor Wudi of the Han.

Evolution of Chinese Writing

The Chinese writing system evolved with new dynasties. Chinese logographs can be read by people who speak mutually incomprehensible dialects or languages, such as Mandarin or Cantonese, forming a common medium of communication for a vast country.

Chinese influenced other East Asian writing. Japanese kanji script is basically Chinese characters, while hiragana and katakana scripts are simplified Chinese characters used to represent sounds.  Korean started with Chinese characters called hanja adopted to fit Korean language words and sounds, until the creation of the alphabet hangul that is now used.

Image Credits

1. Oracle bone from the reign of King Wu Ding (late Shang dynasty), Anyang, Henan Province, China, National Museum of China, Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0
2. Tortoise plastron with divination inscription from Shang dynasty, dating to the reign of King Wu Ding, Anyang, Henan Province, China, National Museum of China, Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0
3. Chop Seal of Qing dynasty, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

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