The Evolution of Chinese Characters

In this Chair’s Blog I want to encourage you if at all possible to visit an exhibition being held from the 20th to 30th April at the Royal Mint Court called, ‘The Evolution of Chinese Characters’. The event opened on World Chinese Language Day, April 20th and the opening ceremony featured a speech by our very own Frances Wood, a speech you can read in full below.

Chinese characters are simultaneously a wonder and a mystery to most westerners. You might wonder how people like me can live in China on a day to day basis without learning the characters. It is estimated that an educated Chinese will know 8,000 characters! It has been calculated that you need approximately 2,500 characters to read a newspaper. Fortunately for us slower students there are now handy apps that can instantly read and translate characters for you. To be honest with you, I rarely use them because China is so thoroughly bilingual with signs and information throughout the country in Chinese and English. As if we English needed any more excuses to be reluctant language learners!

However there are significant rewards for anyone who does take the time and effort to learn to read the written script. Chinese characters operate in a completely different way to English letters. English is a phonic language. The twenty six letters represent sounds. Through phonetics, letters combine to make units of sound called words.

Chinese characters make sounds, but they do not represent sounds. Chinese characters are ‘logographic’. That is a character represents a concept or idea. An example will show this. Here is a character 上 . The sound for this character is shàng. Can you guess the idea which 上 represents? Yes, that’s right, it’s a group of ideas around the idea of ‘up’. The range of associations around a key idea can be wide. For example ‘上班 shàngbān’, a phrase I use every day, means ‘go to work’.

From this example you can see that some Chinese characters are ‘ideograms’ where the shape of the character represents an idea. Other Chinese characters are pictograms where the shape represents an image of the idea. An example might be ‘雨 yǔ’. Can you guess the meaning. Yes, that’s right, 雨 yǔ, means ‘rain’. In this respect Chinese is remarkably similar to other ancient languages, for example the Sumerian script from Mesopotamia.

’, loong, dragon in traditional characters

So far, so straightforward, but Chinese has had over 5,000 years to evolve. Many different influences have effected the characteristics of Chinese characters. One of these is the ‘media’ they are written in. You may know that the earliest characters were scratched into turtle shells and animal bones. Archaeologists have found such characters dating back to the New Stone Age! Then in the Shang Dynasty, around 1250 BCE to 1200 BCE, we find carvings on animal bones and turtle shells that are known as Oracle Bone Script or Jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文 (literally “shell and bone writing”). Some of the Jiǎgǔwén form the basis of modern characters, but only some of them!

Successive eras in Chinese history have brought changes to both the characters themselves and the way they are written in different scripts. For example the Han Dynasty (207 B.C. – 220 A.D) saw the development of a script called Kǎishū 楷书. Interestingly, this script evolved at the time of a significant growth in literacy and changes to the characters were focused on making them accessible to a wider range of the population. Kǎishū 楷书 became the foundation of modern Chinese.

However, we cannot leave our whistle stop history of the evolution of Chinese characters without discussing developments in New China, from 1949 onwards. As we’ve just seen with the Han period, there was a great urgency amongst the new communist government to make all of the Chinese people literate. An essential part of this process was a further evolution of characters. It was argued that traditional characters were difficult to learn because they were composed of too many strokes. Others argued that each stroke was important because the strokes carry contextual information that make the character more meaningful. What to do?

The typically ingenious Chinese solution was to create two ways of writing and reading the language which exist alongside each other. The first round of simplification took place in 1957 followed by further programmes in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Altogether more than 2000 characters were tweaked to make them more easily read. Here’s an example. The traditional character 見, means to ‘catch sight of’ or ‘meet’. ‘See you tomorrow’ in Chinese is ‘ 明天见〔見〕, míngtiānjiàn. But you can see straight away that 見 has been simplified to ‘见’, with the removal of some of the upper set of strokes. There’s reason to belief this evolution of Chinese characters has been highly successful, with literacy rates in China now at 97% of the population.

仓颉 ~ Cāng Jié

Talking to you about the evolution of Chinese characters also allows me to introduce an amazing character. Many things in China have an origin story or origin character. The characters of the language are no exception. Let me introduce 仓颉 , Cāng Jié! Cāng Jié was an advisor to the legendary Yellow Emperor, 黄帝, Huángdi. Huángdi exists in an undefined space between mythology and history, but many see him as the founder of China. Cāng Jié was the Emperor’s advisor and historian. Huángdi asked Cāng Jié to find a way to record everything that was happening in the kingdom. The legends describe how Cāng Jié then set about observing everything in the new world, to find its special essence and from there to devise signs or symbols that could represent this essence, thereby creating the Chinese language. To help him to achieve this challenging task Cāng Jié had a very useful personal characteristic – four eyes! Even today his inventiveness is remembered in the idiom ‘苍颉造字 ‘ (‘Cangjie created characters’).

Let’s return from our wandering through the fascinating pathways of the history of Chinese characters to the current exhibition. The exhibition is full of fascinating artefacts reflecting the stories we have told here, and more! In addition the exhibition comes right up to date with the way that characters are continuing to evolve in the dynamics of contemporary China. For example you can see the way that designers are incorporating characters into textiles and fashion items.

There is no doubt that new chapters in the development of the characters are opening as Chinese takes its place as a truly global language. And on that note we should listen to the words of Minister Yang Xiaoguang of the Chinese Embassy in the UK whose opening speech highlighted the rich contributions of both China and the UK to human civilization. He expressed hope for enhanced mutual learning and understanding between the two nations, contributing positively to cultural exchange and cooperation. And that is of course the aspiration of SACU itself.

So let me close this blog by giving you a chance to enjoy the wonderful speech made by SACU’s Frances Wood as her contribution to the inaugural proceedings :

“ ‘It’s a great honour to be here and a particular honour because having worked in the Chinese section of the British Library I was surrounded by all of these examples and so its a delight to be able to go back and look at scripts. But, first of all, I’d like to thank the Embassy very much for putting on this exhibition. It looks beautiful in here, I’m very impressed with the way that this 18th century building can turn into quite a good exhibition hall. It was also very nice to meet friends I bumped into last year in Beijing in the Book Fair and to meet new friends and to thank people like Tongji University for producing the exhibition.

I think all of us who deal with Chinese know that script and characters are essential. They are so very different from the way that people write in the West. I came here in a rush from a meeting of the Society for Anglo Chinese Understanding which exists, as its name suggests, to create better understanding between the Chinese people and people in the UK and of course one of the potential barriers to understanding is the language and the characters. Therefore I think that exhibitions like this and the lessons that people learn in Chinese can go a long way to improving understanding and I hope that through exhibitions like this, and through learning Chinese we can come to understand a culture in which calligraphy was prized to such a high degree.

I believe you all know that in the Ming Dynasty a piece of calligraphy would sell for far more than the best landscape paintings. Calligraphy was valued above painting in terms of both people’s appreciation and the amount of money they were willing to spend on it. Calligraphy was vital, not just to the upper classes who could afford the best, but to everybody. I think one of the things I find most interesting in this exhibition is that, perhaps out of deference to western ignorance, there’s quite a lot about technology and about what’s happening to characters now. Its easier for our fingers to trail around a computer and then get from English into Chinese than it is to learn actually how to take up a brush and do our own strokes. I’m impressed with the way that the organisers behind this exhibition have moved into the modern era.

I’m also pleased to note that in the first section on block printing, that there’s a page from the Diamond Sutra, the world’s first securely dates printed book, printed in 868 in china and now living in the British Library. I think that soon it might go back onto exhibition. If you look at it the characters are absolutely stunning. Those of you who are familiar with the history of printing in China will know that by the time you get to the 18th/ 19th centuries the style of characters used in wood blocks is called ‘Song ti’- Song style, and they’re quite narrow, but if you look at the characters in the Diamond Sutra print, they are what you would call ‘Tang’ style and I wish that people had continued with this style because they’re such beautiful broad strokes. If you look at the character ‘ren’ for example it’s just two wonderful broad and flowing strokes. Even ‘yi’,, the character for one is wider than the narrower Song style.

I do hope that people will be able to come and see this exhibition, lots of English people especially, because if you’re Chinese you probably know this already. For example, for English people to look at the Chinese typewriter, which is one of the most fascinating and odd things ever, it shows you how complex it is to allow different languages to use the same technology. A computer is different because it’s got an enormous memory, but in a typewriter you need separate trays for separate vocabularies. I remember that typewriters in China were not used as widely as in Europe because of the nature of the language. I can remember being in China and often finding that menus were typed so someone had got a tray of characters to do with food and typed it out. But with that tray you couldn’t type a poem for example. So we should look at the Chinese typewriter with wonder for how it was invented. I hope you all enjoy seeing the beauties of Chinese scripts from the past alongside the potentials for the future. It’s a wonderful exhibition and thank you so much for inviting me to be here.”

Thank you for this inspirational introduction. If any SACU members make a visit to the exhibition and would like to share your thoughts please send them to me.