Chinese language

The Evolving History and the Foundation of the Chinese Language

China possesses one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. Archeological findings and scientific research indicate that the history of Chinese script being first recorded can be traced back to the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th BC). Amazingly, the Chinese language has never been disconnected throughout such a long history, and Chinese characters remained remarkably consistent in meaning and usage. The consistency of the language enables the Chinese archeologists and history workers to easily understand the descriptions that were carved on the ancient historic relics unearthed in China. 

The major differences between ancient and modern Chinese languages are mainly reflected in the different usages and written forms. Simply put, ancient Chinese characters are more compact in structure and were popularly used in a highly condensed fashion, while the modern Chinese language appears to be more lengthy and wordy. From a writing perspective, the written forms and the meaning of Chinese characters have both experienced several rounds of changes in history; however, the changes are not fundamental. Modern Chinese characters tend to be composed of straight lines and strokes while the ancient Chinese characters mostly contain circular and curved lines and strokes.

One of the most frequently asked questions by Beginner-level learners is about how modern Chinese characters evolved from the ancient scrips. There has not been a definite conclusion as to the exact time the Chinese characters were first taking shape. Images and diagrams were found on the surface of many unearthed ancient relics in China while those were not the matured characters, instead, they were created to record or indicate something, which is called pictograms. Pictograms are considered the original shape of ancient Chinese characters. The most ancient characters we can see today are the texts engraved on the oracles and bronze relics in the Shang Dynasty (1700 B.C. – 1100 B.C.). The oracle scripts are deemed to be the original form of the Chinese characters.

Since the characters in the Shang Dynasty had already been well developed, the time that the initial characters were created is believed to be far earlier than the Shang Dynasty, which would be in the Xia Dynasty or even earlier, namely the Neolithic age of over 4,500 years ago.

Chinese characters were gradually accumulated from scattered individual characters and eventually became a system of written characters. Archaeological research indicates that it took approximately 2,600 years from the mid-term of the middle of Neolithic age when the original Chinese characters were produced until the time when it was developed into a primary character system.

With the introduction and development of printing technologies in the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD), block printing was widely used, which advanced the application and evolution of Chinese characters.

Approximately 4,500 individual characters were found from the unearthed oracle relics, of which over 2,000 had been recognized through archaeological research. The oracle scripts shown on oracle pieces record the social, political, economic, and cultural information.

At Chicago Mandarin Chinese Center, we produced a large number of short videos helping learners at all levels the writing structure, the evolving history, and the usages of the most commonly used Chinese characters. We also produced flashcards, writing worksheets and quiz exercises further helping the learners memorize the useful Chinese vocabulary words daily.

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