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Home History and Culture Chinese Characters
Chinese Characters
Learn Chinese - History and Culture

Legendary origins
According to legend, Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie (cāng jié 仓颉), a altbureaucrat under the legendary emperor, Huangdi (huáng dì 黄帝). The legend tells that Cangjie was hunting on Mount Yangxu (today Shanxi) when he saw a tortoise whose veins caught his curiosity. Inspired by the possibility of a logical relation of those veins, he studied the animals of the world, the landscape of the earth, and the stars in the sky, and invented a symbolic system called (zì 字)—Chinese characters. It was said that on the day the characters were born, Chinese heard the devil mourning, and saw crops falling like rain, as it marked the beginning of the world.

Oracle bone script (jiǎ gǔ wén 甲骨文)
altShāng Dynasty Oracle Bone Script on Ox Scapula, Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, Germany. Photo by Dr. MeierhoferThe oldest Chinese inscriptions that are indisputably writing are the Oracle bone script. These were identified by scholars in 1899 on pieces of bone and turtle shell being sold as medicine, and by 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced back to modern Xiaotun (xiǎo tún 小屯) village at ānyáng in Hénán Province, where official archaeological excavations in 1928–1937 discovered 20,000 oracle bone pieces, about 1/5 of the total discovered. The inscriptions were records of the divinations performed for or by the royal Shāng household. The oracle bone script is a well-developed writing system, attested from the late Shang Dynasty (1200–1050 BC). Only about 1,400 of the 2,500 known oracle bone script logographs can be identified with later Chinese characters and thus deciphered by paleographers.

Written styles
There are numerous styles, or scripts, in which Chinese characters can be written, deriving from various calligraphic and historical models. Most of these originated in China and are now common, with minor variations, in all countries where Chinese characters are used. These characters were used over 3,000 years ago.

the oldest script that is still in use today is the Seal Script (zhuàn shū 篆书). Scripts that are still used regularly are the "Clerical Script" (lì shū 隶书) of the Qin Dynasty to the Han Dynasty, the Weibei (wèi bēi 魏碑), the "Regular Script" (kǎi shū 楷书) used for most printing, and the "Semi-cursive Script" (xíng shū 行书) used for most handwriting. The Cursive Script (cǎo shū 草书) is not in general use, and is a purely artistic calligraphic style.


Chinese calligraphy
The art of writing Chinese characters is called Chinese calligraphy. It is usually done with ink brushes. In ancient China, Chinese calligraphy is one of the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholars. There is a minimalist set of rules of Chinese calligraphy. Every character from the Chinese scripts is built into a uniform shape by means of assigning it a geometric area in which the character must occur. Each character has a set number of brushstrokes; none must be added or taken away from the character to enhance it visually, lest the meaning be lost. Finally, strict regularity is not required, meaning the strokes may be accentuated for dramatic effect of individual style. Calligraphy was the means by which scholars could mark their thoughts and teachings for immortality, and as such, represent some of the more precious treasures that can be found from ancient China.


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