An ancient woman with snow-white braided hair sits hunched in front of a crackling fire, skillfully and carefully etching lines with a sharp object into a large ox bone. These strokes slowly form vaguely familiar figures: a square with a mark in the middle for “sun”, a shape with three points shooting upwards for “mountain”, what looks like a running stream for “water”. Later, this diviner will heat up these inscribed bones until they crack so that she can interpret the resulting patterns: an answer from the gods.
Fast-forward 400 years: a craftsman deliberately carves intricate figures composed of individual lines and disconnected strokes into a bronze wine vessel, characters that bear significant resemblance to the ones from centuries ago, but are nevertheless slightly different.
Another 400 years later, the Qin emperor declares the unification of the writing system, whose individual characters are again modified versions of those from 400 years ago. However, like an ever-growing family tree, one can still detect a strong resemblance between these characters and their previous counterparts.
Five hundred years pass. In the Han Dynasty, this likeness is still present. During this time in history, an official script is established that eventually leads directly to the beginnings of a regular written language, which becomes the basis of modern day traditional Chinese characters.
This is the basic evolutionary path of Chinese characters. Many people believe that Chinese characters derive from pictographic origins; that is, each character is designed based on what it represents. However, this is only true for a very small percentage of characters. In fact, most characters are pictophonetic and arise from a “radical”, which provides the basic meaning and phonetic expression of the character.
For this reason, my mom always claims that Chinese characters are quite easy to learn. If one does not recognize a Chinese character, he only needs to be able to discern the radical in order to have a good chance of guessing not only the gist, but also the general pronunciation of the character!
Today, there are writing styles beyond the basic standard script. For example, cursive writing is commonly used in Chinese calligraphy, and is respected and well-known for its artistic, flowing strokes. Additionally, there is freehand cursive, which is less abstract than cursive writing, and thus more legible to the general public. Furthermore, large seal and small seal scripts are forms of writing often used for personal stamps and stationary. Lastly, there has recently been a surge in popularity of simplified Chinese, especially in mainland China. This type of script was adopted more than 50 years ago as a governmental attempt to increase accessibility of knowledge to the masses and to eradicate illiteracy.
Because Chinese script is the oldest script in East Asia, its influence can be seen in many Asian writing systems, such as Japanese and Korean, both of which consisted entirely of Chinese characters before adapting Chinese script to create their own writing systems. Indeed, the Chinese writing system is deeply entrenched in the history of East Asia, and continues to play a crucial part in the development of Chinese society.