Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

stages of human thought, are expressed by phonetic characters. We can be fairly certain, at any rate, that the period of “borrowed characters” did not last very long, though it is thought that traces of it are to be seen in the habit of writing several characters, especially those for certain plants and animals, indifferently with or without their radicals. Thus 蝌 蚪 “a tadpole” is frequently written 科 斗, without the part meaning “insect” or “reptile.”

In the very earliest inscriptions that have come down to us, the so-called 古 文 ku-wên or “ancient figures,” all the above-mentioned forms occur. None are wholly pictorial, with one or two unimportant exceptions. These early inscriptions are Styles of writing. found on bronzes dating from the half-legendary period extending from the beginning of the Shang dynasty in the 18th century B.C., or possibly earlier, down to a point in the reign of King Hsüan of the Chou dynasty, generally fixed at 827 B.C. They have been carefully reproduced and for the most part deciphered by painstaking Chinese archaeologists, and form the subject of many voluminous works. The following may be taken as a specimen, in which it will be noticed that only the last character is unmistakably pictorial:

EB1911 China - early bronze inscription.jpg

This is read: 申 作 寶 鼎—”Shên made [this] precious ting.” These ancient bronzes, which mainly take the shape of bells, cauldrons and sacrificial utensils, were until within the last decade our sole source of information concerning the origin and early history of Chinese writing. But recently a large number of inscribed bone fragments have been excavated in the north of China, providing new and unexpected matter for investigation. The inscriptions on these bones have already furnished a list of nearly 2500 separate characters, of which not more than about 600 have been so far identified. They appear to be responses given by professional soothsayers to private individuals who came to them seeking the aid of divination in the affairs of their daily life. It is difficult to fix their date with much exactitude. The script, though less archaic than that of the earlier bronzes, is nevertheless of an exceedingly free and irregular type. Judging by the style of the inscriptions alone, one would be inclined to assign them to the early years of the Chou dynasty, say 1100 B.C. But Mr L.C. Hopkins thinks that they represent a mode of writing already obsolete at the time of their production, and retained of set purpose by the diviners from obscurantist motives, much as the ancient hieroglyphics were employed by the Egyptian priesthood. He would therefore date them about 500 years later, or only half a century before the birth of Confucius. If that is so, they are merely late specimens of the “ancient figures” appearing long after the latter had made way for a new and more conventionalized form of writing. This new writing is called in Chinese 篆 chuan, which is commonly rendered by the word Seal, for the somewhat unscientific reason that many ages afterwards it was generally adopted for use on seals. Under the Chou dynasty, however, as well as the two succeeding it, the meaning of the word was not “seal,” but “sinuous curves,” as made in writing. It has accordingly been suggested that this epoch marks the first introduction into China of the brush in place of the bamboo or wooden pencil with frayed end which was used with some kind of colouring matter or varnish. There are many arguments both for and against this view; but it is unquestionable, at any rate, that the introduction of a supple implement like the brush at the very time when the forms of characters were fast becoming crystallized and fixed, would be sufficient to account for a great revolution in the style of writing. Authentic specimens of the 大 篆 ta chuan, older or Greater Seal writing, are exceedingly rare. But it is generally believed that the inscriptions on the famous stone drums, now at Peking, date from the reign of King Hsüan, and they may therefore with practical certainty be cited as examples of the Greater Seal in its original form. These “drums” are really ten roughly chiselled mountain boulders, which were discovered in the early part of the 7th century, lying half buried in the ground near Fêng-hsiang Fu in the province of Shensi. On them are engraved ten odes, a complete ode being cut on each drum, celebrating an Imperial hunting and fishing expedition in that part of the country. A facsimile of one of these, taken from an old rubbing and reproduced in Dr Bushell’s Handbook of Chinese Art, shows that great strides had been made in this writing towards symmetry, compactness and conventionalism. The vogue of the Greater Seal appears to have lasted until the reign of the First Emperor, 221-210 B.C. (see History), when a further modification took place. For many centuries China had been split up into a number of practically independent states, and this circumstance seems to have led to considerable variations in the styles of writing. Having succeeded in unifying the empire, the First Emperor proceeded, on the advice of his minister Li Ssŭ, to standardize its script by ordaining that only the style in use in his own state of Ch‘in should henceforward be employed throughout China. It is clear, then, that this new style of writing was nothing more than the Greater Seal characters in the form they had assumed after several centuries of evolution, with numerous abbreviations and modifications. It was afterwards known as the 小 篆 hsiao chuan, or Lesser Seal, and is familiar to us from the Shuo Wên dictionary (see Literature). Though a decided improvement on what had gone before, the Lesser Seal was destined to have but a short career of undisputed supremacy. Reform was in the air; and something less cumbrous was soon felt to be necessary by the clerks who had to supply the immense quantity of written reports demanded by the First Emperor. Thus it came about that a yet simpler and certainly more artistic form of writing was already in use, though not universally so, not long after the decree abolishing the Greater Seal. This 隸 書 li shu, or “official script,” as it is called, shows a great advance on the Seal character; so much so that one cannot help suspecting the traditional account of its invention. It is perhaps more likely to have been directly evolved from the Greater Seal. If the Lesser Seal was the script of the semi-barbarous state of Ch‘in, we should certainly expect to find a more highly developed system of writing in some of the other states. Unlike the Seal, the li shu is perfectly legible to one acquainted only with the modern character, from which indeed it differs but in minor details. How long the Lesser Seal continued to exist side by side with the li shu is a question which cannot be answered with certainty. It was evidently quite obsolete, however, at the time of the compilation of the Shuo Wên, about a hundred years after the Christian era. As for the Greater Seal and still earlier forms of writing, they were not merely obsolete but had fallen into utter oblivion before the Han Dynasty was fifty years old. When a number of classical texts were discovered bricked up in old houses about 150 B.C., the style of writing was considered so singular by the literati of the period that they refused to believe it was the ordinary ancient character at all, and nicknamed it k‘o-t‘ou shu, “tadpole character,” from some fancied resemblance in shape. The theory that these tadpole characters were not Chinese but a species of cuneiform script, in which the wedges might possibly suggest tadpoles, must be dismissed as too wildly improbable for serious consideration; but we may advert for a moment to a famous inscription in which the real tadpole characters of antiquity are said to appear. This is on a stone tablet alleged to have been erected on Mount Hêng in the modern Hupeh by the legendary Emperor Yü, as a record of his labours in draining away the great flood which submerged part of China in the 23rd century B.C. After more than one fruitless search, the actual monument is said to have been discovered on a peak of the mountain in A.D. 1212, and a transcription was made, which may be seen reproduced as a curiosity in Legge’s Classics, vol. iii. For several reasons, however, the whole affair must be regarded as a gross imposture.

Out of the “official script” two other forms were soon developed, namely the 草 書 ts‘ao shu, or “grass character,” which so curtails the usual strokes as to be comparable to a species of shorthand, requiring special study, and the 行 書 hsing shu or running hand, used in ordinary correspondence. Some form of grass character is mentioned as in use as early as 200 B.C. or thereabouts, though how nearly it approximated to the modern grass hand it is hard to say; the running hand seems to have come several centuries later. The final standardization of Chinese writing was due to the great calligraphist Wang Hsi-chih of the 4th century, who gave currency to the graceful style of character known as 楷 書 k‘ai shu, sometimes referred to as the “clerkly hand.” When block-printing was invented some centuries later, the characters were cut on this model, which still survives at the present day. It is no doubt owing to the early introduction of printing that the script of China has remained practically unchanged ever since. The manuscript rolls of the T‘ang and preceding dynasties, recently discovered by Dr Stein in Turkestan, furnish direct evidence of this fact, showing as they do a style of writing not only clear and legible but remarkably modern in appearance.

The whole history of Chinese writing, then, is characterized by a slow progressive development which precludes the idea of sharply-marked divisions between one period and another. The Chinese themselves, however, have canonized quite a series of alleged inventors, starting from Fu Hsi, a mythical emperor of the third millennium B.C., who is said to have developed a complete system of written characters from the markings on the back of a dragon-horse; hence, by the way, the origin of the dragon as an Imperial emblem. As a rule, the credit of the invention of the art of writing is given to Ts‘ang Chieh, a being with fabulous attributes, who conceived the idea of a written language from the markings of birds’ claws upon the sand. The diffusion of the Greater Seal script is traced to a work in fifteen chapters published by Shih Chou, historiographer in the reign of King Hsüan. The Lesser Seal, again, is often ascribed to Li Ssŭ himself, whereas the utmost he can have done in the matter was to urge its introduction into common use. Likewise, Ch‘êng Mo, of the 3rd century B.C., is supposed to have invented the li shu while in prison, and one account attributes the Lesser Seal to him as well; but the fact is that the whole history of writing, as it stands in Chinese authors, is in hopeless confusion.

Grammar.—When about to embark on the study of a foreign language, the student’s first thought is to provide himself with