The essence of written Chinese
In 1899, China was in a state of turmoil. Different factions in the court were competing for influence, the Emperor was weak and sickly, the Boxer uprising was brewing, and China was about to plunge into decades of bloody warfare and unimaginable suffering.
Wang Yirong, however, had other things on his mind. The minor government minister in Henan was suffering from severe pains in the stomach, later thought to be malaria. He consulted his pharmacist, who prescribed one of the most effective cures known to the Chinese at the time – ground up dragon bones. These were in actual fact usually ancient animal bones, often from oxen, or turtle shells.
It was incredibly fortunate that this particular pharmacist prescribed this cure to his scholarly patient. Taking the bones, Wang Jung noticed the outlines of what seemed to be a kind of writing carved into them. This “dragon bone” medicine that was being carelessly used for stomach aches turned out to be one of the earliest known examples of writing that has a direct historical correlation with modern Chinese characters.
Since then, even older examples of early Chinese characters have been found, most recently in 2003. at Daxinzhuang, also in Henan. These are also thought to be from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100BC).
However, the uses of this “oracle bone” scripts was significantly different to what we understand the function of writing to be today. From what is currently understood, the bones and script were used in the practice of “pyromancy.” This funky name comes from the fact that bones were heated to obtain information from the spirit world. Ancient Chinese would write a question on the piece of bone, and after the priest or shaman would then ascertain from the cracks what the answer would be.
Historically speaking, writing was thought to be much more than a simple method of communication in all parts of the world. The elegantly written calligraphy in European bibles from the Middles Ages is a good example of this attitude. The reason why so much time was spent decorating and making beautiful the letters was because these words were not thought of as an abstract religious message – they were quite literally the words of God. Similarly, Scandinavian people believed that their system of writing, the runes, had supernatural origins.
It is quite fitting that these characters were used to communicate with the ancestors. Right up until very recent times, the ancestors have been worshipped and respected in Chinese society. In 2008, the government even re-introduced “Tomb-Sweeping Day” an annual event in which Chinese people visit the tombs of their ancestors to pay their respects. Because the study of written Chinese is so closely linked to the study of Chinese history, in a very tangible sense the ancestors are still talking to students of the language in the 21st century.
Through the several thousand years that have elapsed since the time of the Shang Dynasty, written Chinese has remained remarkable consistent in its appearance. It is still possible for Chinese people now to make some sense of scripts that may be several thousand years old.
In the last 1950s and 60s, though, there were significant changes made to the structure of Chinese writing.
Perhaps a thousand years after Wang Yirong’s oracle bone scripts were originally written, in around 600 BC, the mysterious Taoist sage Lao Zi left a legacy of unknowable and incomprehensible quotes for future generations to spend fruitless lifetimes trying to work out. At the root of his enigmatic principles were discussions of the Tao – an invisible force that flows through all things. The Tao, according to him, cannot be seen, touched, or understood. Yet if one is in tune with the Tao, one need not fear or want for anything. The following is a typically inscrutable quote from the great sage.
“The Tao begets one, one begets two, two begets three, and three begets all things.”
This is not a treatise on Taoism, and in any case, according to the sage himself the Tao is unknowable. We will therefore begin with a look at the Chinese characters for “one,” “two,” and “three.” Appropriately enough, they are written as 一 (yi, one) 二(er, two) and 三 (san, three).
As you can see from these characters, written Chinese, even in its modern form, is still basically ideographic. This means that each character contains a visual clue to its meaning. With regards to 一, 二, and 三, these clues are obvious. Some modern characters that still pictorially represent their meanings include 人 (ren) person, 口 (kou) mouth, and 门 (men) gate.
The structure of written Chinese is the key to the beauty of its calligraphy and its poetry. If you have a basic comprehension of the theory of the written language, Chinese poetry, idioms, and even single characters take on an incredibly rich meaning of themselves.
Consider this character, 好，which is pronounced “hao,” and means “good.”
You will notice it is made up of two parts, 女and 子.女, pronounced “nu” means “woman.” 子, pronounced “zi” means “son.” Thus, a woman and a son combined means “good.”
This character gives the western observer an insight into the patriarchal aspect of traditional Chinese society, due to the fact having a son rather than a daughter is seen as “good.” In traditional society, a son was crucial to carrying on the family lineage. Since girls joined their husband’s family when they married, daughters were seen as transient members of their family and a drain on resources.
All 54 000 known Chinese characters, or “Hanzi” 汉字 have similarly interesting historical origins. If you have nothing to do for the next thirty to forty years, I would highly recommend delving further into this field!
With regards to poetry, the ideographic aspects of Chinese give enormous possibilities for clever plays on structure, many of which are unable to be adequately translated into English.
One such poetic device is the antithetical couplet. Since the number eight is considered fortunate by the Chinese, couplets are normally four characters in each line. Ideally, the parts of each character must also correspond to characters in the second line.
In the early twentieth century, furious debates raged about the structure of written Chinese and whether it was suitable for the modern world. There were those who believed a wholesale abolition of traditional writing and romanization of Chinese was the only way the country could move forward.
Thank god this movement failed. The structure of Chinese is so intrinsically different to English that systems of Roman letters will never be able to fully convey the depth of meaning that characters can.
The ideographic nature of Chinese characters means that there is a lot more detail in the written form of the language than the spoken. Consider the word “ta.” This word has many different meanings in English, including “he,” “she” and “it.” Spoken Chinese has no way of differentiating these words, but written Chinese does. In fact, Chinese characters have more detail than English. Not only do they have a character for “he” 他 “she” 她 and “it”它, there is also a character that represents “it” when discussing an animal – 铊. However, all these characters are pronounced the same way – “ta.”
Eventually, a process of simplification did take place in mainland China. Today there are two systems used worldwide. The one used on the mainland is known is English, curiously enough, as Simplified Chinese. The system used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, is known simply as Traditional Chinese.
If you are considering investing in some calligraphy as a gift or for your personal enjoyment, there are many things to consider. Chinese calligraphy is an art form in its own right. It encompasses historical, religious, societal, and aesthetic realms. Most people who buy calligraphy are partial to traditional characters rather than simplified, and even in China today there is a lot of nostalgia for traditional characters.
And as for Wang Yirong, the hero of our story who found the first Shang Dynasty oracle bones, there is some doubt regarding whether the story of a stomach ailment and being prescribed “dragon bones” is true. According to famous author and China-watcher Peter Hessler, the jury is still out on this particular tale. However there is no doubt that he was the first major modern collector of the oracle bone scripts. But Wang’s story ends in tragedy. In 1900, when the Boxer movement briefly swept the nation, Wang took command of some of their forces. In true patriotic spirit, he later committed suicide by jumping down a well after European, American and Japanese troops ransacked Beijing.