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By Danpin Zhang
Most early language writing systems were hieroglyphic, like Egyptian and
Chinese. They began as pictures. For example, the symbols for the various
animals were simplified pictures of the animals. Over time, the Egyptian
language became extinct. In Europe and most other regions of the world, the
symbols came to be directly associated with sounds and were further simplified
and produced as the alphabets.
Getting back to China, those pictures developed in a different way. Chinese found that it was hard to record things accurately with pictures. They could not tell the difference between a horse and a donkey with a rough drawing. Then, pictures evolved into abstract forms. When Chinese need to describe color, time, speed, positions, feelings, numbers etc, they created more abstract symbols for nouns, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and so on. Ancient Chinese believed that a person called Cangji created Chinese characters. According to a book edited in Chunqiu Times (770-476 B.C), Cangji had an inherent talent of writing, he wrote as soon as he was born. It also says Cangji had four shining eyes with powerful perception. Some more formal history books during Chunqiu Times believed that Cangji was the first official historian who worked for the first emperor Huang and he did a great job in standardizing the language.
The earliest Chinese symbols can be traced back to Stone Ages. What we know from reliable texture research is that Chinese written language was formed about 3300 years ago. Historically China was an isolated country. 3300 years is not a very long time, but this period had a written history that recorded the development of Chinese society continuously with the same language that evolved under no influence of other cultures until the beginning of the last century. Ancient Chinese were strongly conscious of researching the past and recording their own times objectively and had a lofty responsibility to pass the knowledge to their descendants. In every dynasty, there were many scholars dedicated to doing research of history and discussing the faithfulness to truth of the chronicles and wrote their own idea and thus left more literature. Today we have numerous volumes of historical documents including official versions and unofficial versions that tell us memorabilia as well as the words and deeds of influential people in past times. Abundant studies and debates also happened on the evolution of Chinese characters about how they formed; why they should be written in these ways but not those ways. Over thousands of years, Chinese characters have grown into a mature language that the biggest portion of population of the world is using.
Basically, Chinese characters are ideograms. They represent a thing or a concept with graphs. Some of today’s Chinese nouns still have marks of earlier picture form. The following symbols mean eye, person, woman, mountain, and water.
目, 人, 女, 山, 水
An American may see a sheet of paper full of Chinese characters as an unrelated and disordered clutter. In fact, Chinese characters are logically constructed and organized. There are some interesting examples that demonstrate how characters are formed and interpreted.
男, 休, 信, 明, 劣, 尖, 歪
A dictionary edited in the Eastern Han dynasty (A.D.25-220) includes 9353 characters, in which the editor analyzed the origin, pronunciation, handwriting and the evolution of every character. A dictionary from the 18th century contained 47043 characters. Ancient scholars and today’s linguists are familiar with the story of every character as if they know the flowers and plants in their gardens. Not only is the Chinese language an instrument of record, the characters themselves are a profound knowledge. The evolution of characters involves historical events and witnessed the development of Chinese society. When we study characters thoroughly, we’ll find so many fascinating historical records and literature.
Although we have around 60000 characters, only about 3000 characters are frequently used in most trades and there are only about 400 syllables in Chinese pronunciation. The number of characters and syllables are so limited and most of them are related, so it is really easy to learn Chinese. There is a famous text book edited in Nanbei dynasty (A.D.420-588) for children to learn words. It is an article that contains 1000 characters, of which 993 are not repeated. A qualified Chinese student in sixth grade can read most of the professional articles if he has a reasonable common sense. In recent years, Chinese technicians have developed more than 10 methods for inputting Chinese on a keyboard with a roman alphabet. It’s said that Chinese is the language with quickest input speed.
Like all other languages, Chinese written language is also based on sound. What makes Chinese unique is that its pronunciation cannot be seen directly from its symbols. This character makes it possible for people in different regions to speak differently while using the same written language. China is a big country with many dialects. A lot of times people from different parts of China can’t even communicate with each other but they read the same language in written form. The consistency and uniformity of the Chinese written language have made great contributions in keeping China as a whole country throughout the history.