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Chinese Characters and Chinese Language

2018/7/19 11:01:37428 People viewed this article

Chinese script originated in the 28th century BC, when people kept records by tying knots. Administrators used this method to record things already done and needing to be done.


The earliest pictographs written on bamboo slips and made on tortoise shells and animal bones can at least be dated back to the early Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC). Although the earliest inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells were found at the ruins of the capital of Shang dynasty can only be dated back to 1300 BC, experts believe that the scripts on the shells and bones were kind of simple, mainly for rituals. Commonly used scripts were more complicated, beautiful and written on bamboo slip, but no so early bamboo slip being found until now, because it is easy to be rotted. (The earliest bamboo slip and writing brush unearthed in China can only be dated back to around 2600 years ago.)  The then political center of China was in the current central China, warm and wet, very hard to keep bamboo slip for a long time.


The earliest character is Dazhuan (大篆, Great Seal characters) which was created by Bo Yi  (伯益  ?-1973 BC) according to legend and were usually inscribed on the bronze wares. In 213 BC, Li Si (李斯), prime minister of the Qin dynasty, for the first time standardized the official script. This was called Xiaozhuan (小篆, Lesser Seal characters) and totally 3000 characters.


In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Official Script (隶书 Lishu) which is simplified from Lesser Seal characters (Xiaozhuan) were widely used. Li means official. Lishu was made a standard script then. It was easier to be written and read. It was separated from the original pictograph and can be said that Chinese writing reached its maturity at this time. 


Xu Shen (许慎 58 -149 AD, in Han dynasty) wrote the book “Analytical Dictionary of Characters” (说文解字) which contains 10506 characters and it is the first time to classified Chinese characters into six categories in terms of composition.


For nearly 2000 years since the Han dynasty, no radical changes have occurred in the structure or shape of Chinese characters. 


The most widespread form of spoken Chinese is Mandarin, which may regarded as modern standard Chinese. Mandarin in its various forms is spoken by about 70% of the population of China. Originally being the language of the court in Beijing during the imperial period, Mandarin was then called Guan Hua (official speech). After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese government adopted and simplified the Beijing dialect of Mandarin as the basis for a national language, renaming it Putonghua 普通话 (Generally Understood Speech).


Other leading forms of spoken Chinese include Wu, tongue of about 95 million people in Jiangsu, Zhejiang Provinces and Shanghai; Cantonese spoken by over 75 million people residing in Guangxi, Guangdong Provinces, Hongkong and Macao of China and Southeast Asia; Fukienese, with some 70 million speakers distributed in Fujian, Taiwan Provinces; Hakka, the language of about 35 million speakers in Guangdong, Guangxi Provinces; Xiang, the dialect spoken in Hunan Province, and Gan, popular in Jiangxi Province. All of these dialects are mutually unintelligible. These dialects are also divided into many subdialects.


The various forms of Chinese differ least in grammar, more in vocabulary, and most in pronunciation. Different tones distinguish words otherwise pronounced alike. The number of tones varies in different forms of Chinese, but mandarin has Four Tones: High Tone, Rising Tone, Tone combines a falling and a rising inflection, and a Falling Tone.


Chinese is also strongly monosyllabic. Chinese often uses combinations of monosyllables that result in polysyllabic compounds which have different meanings from their individual elements. For example, the word for “explanation” Shuo Ming (说明) combines Shuo 说(“Speak”) with Ming 明 (“Bright’). This practice has greatly increased the Chinese vocabulary and also makes it much easier to grasp the meaning of spoken words.


In 1956, an alphabet based on Roman letters which is called Pinyin was developed in Mainland China, which can standardize the pronunciation of Mandarin easily.