The Birth of Writing in China, a Historical and Comparative Study of Chinese and Egyptian Oldest Scripts

This article is part of the Uni Series which consists of some essays that I have been writing for my bachelor degree in Japan in East Asia studies at the University of Tokyo. This one is the origins of the Chinese script.

“The origins of writing must always remain a mystery.” (Creel, 1967, 159). To this day indeed, we have not been able to trace back where, when, how or why written languages have started. Archaeological excavations and researches permitted however, if not to date the beginning of scripts, to pinpoint instead moments and places where they existed. We thus know that in Sumer, located in the South-East of Mesopotamia and in Ancient Egypt along the Nile river, writing systems had been invented and were used alread in the 26th century B.C. Those scripts, called respectively cuneiform and hieroglyphs both originally derived from symbolistic drawings of what surrounded humans back then and are considered the oldest scripts on Earth. Those forms of writings evolved considerably through centuries, until they extinguished in early Christian times. They remained forgotten through most of the Common Era until eventually getting deciphered in modern times, reopening gates into the culture of those civilizations.

About one millennium later than the Egyptians and Sumer, more precisely in-between the 14th and 11th centuries B.C., script also existed in East Asia. Little primary sources remain of it, but characters found on oracle bones demonstrate that this script was an archaic form of modern Chinese. In other terms, it demonstrates that the Chinese language has been created and evolving for three millennia… at least. Our knowledge on the birth of written languages keep evolving and expanding back and back into past millennia as new discoveries are brought back to the surface of the Earth. While we cannot make definitive assumptions about the birth of written languages, how much can we dig from the past to analyze Chinese ancient characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs? What do we learn about the culture of those ancient civilization by deciphering and analyzing the use of their scripts? This essay aims to present and analyze the original use of written language in China, and in a lesser degree in Egypt. Indeed, while our main focus remains China, the comparisons with Egypt aim at determining what was unique to China and what was universal about the creation of written language, and to reflect upon it.

In East Asia, the earliest form of writing had been found in the realm of the Shang Dynasty and is dated to 14th-11th centuries B.C. The Shang people lived in the Central-Eastern part of China.

Figure 1: Map of the Shang Dynasty kingdom (16th-11th centuries B.C.) (Kelly, 2015)

The Shang Dynasty succeeded the Xia Dynasty in the 16th century B.C., and ended with the rise of the Zhou dynasty in the 11th century B.C. (Ibid). Shang kings succeeded for about 500 years, ruling from Yinxu, the capital, located in current Henan Province, approximately in the Center-North of the Shang kingdom. It is in the vestiges of this capital precisely that the earliest forms of Chinese writings have been found, as we will develop further on in this essay.

Archeologists have found many artifacts giving insights of the culture and techniques of the Shang people. As many civilizations of the Bronze Age, they made bronze vessels with references to animals and the natural world on them. A Columbia University scholar writes: “[t]he designs on the bronzes are fascinating. Shang artists were obviously obsessed with real and imaginary animal forms” (Columbia, 2009). On the bronze items they simplified, symbolized body elements such as eyes, legs, horns to make one unified pattern. Charrets, weapons used for battle or rituals, and plethora of other bronze items were also found in Yinxu (Bronze Goblet, 18:00). The scholar Keightley (1983, 166) points out that bronze was most probably used in the region since the beginning of the second millennium B.C., so before the Shang Dynasty, but that the latter used bronze in a particularly sophisticated way.

The mastery of bronze was not the only cultural feature of the Shang people, as Keightley (1983, 168) also mentions burial, ritual, oracle-taking traditions quite similar to other contemporary cultures around them, as well as “kingship, priesthood, an organized military, urban settlement” and of course writing which seems to be unique features of the Shang culture.

Shang’s use of writing was a unique practice in East Asia, or so it seems, but not in the world. As a matter of fact, in Egypt for example, hieroglyphs were used almost more than two millennia before the development of the Shang Dynasty. Early hieroglyphs forms or proto-hieroglyphs have indeed been dated back to the 34th-32nd centuries B.C. (Mattessich, 2002, 3) and complete sentences back to the 29th-27th centuries (Mark (1), 2016). The former first hieroglyphs were found on the tomb of King Scorpion the First in Abydos, some 300 miles South of Cairo (Larkin, 1999). This arguably proves that Egyptians were the first civilization to invent writing (Reuters, 1998), although it is still debated whether the hieroglyphs used back then constituted a constructed language.

To mention a few other cultural aspects of those predynastic times, mortuary ritual practices such as mummification and burial in growing necropolises started then, houses were back then made of bricks and in fact a few villages were already growing into urban centers, and finally religion and trade with neighbors were also developing (Mark (2), 2016). The epoch from which are dated the earliest writings found in China and Egypt thus differ not just in time (almost 2,000 year discrepancy) but also in cultural context. Yet, similarities can still be found: both were ruled by a king, had important urban areas, a sense of spirituality and a tradition of rituals.

These cultural elements are important for the study of the origins of the written language. Indeed, it allows us to understand why and how the development of a written language could be important for them. Concerning the Shang people, Creel (1967, 161) writes:

“[R]eligion must have played a considerable part in the development of Chinese writing. The Chinese had, and have, the idea deities and the dead cannot (…) be spoken to directly, that is, they do not ordinarily understand human speech.”

Just like in the common era Buddhism and Confucianism played an important role in spreading the Chinese writing system across East Asia, early forms of religion may be a reason for the need of a writing system itself, or at least a reason for the development of its use. The earliest form of Chinese writing discovered, that we aim at analyzing afterwards, was characters carved around 1200 B.C. on mammal bones and turtle shells for oracle-taking purpose; it is generally called the oracle bone script (Lurie, 2011, 176). Those inscriptions were used seemingly by kings or the royal court to ask questions to spirits about the future (Columbia, 2009). They would write their question on bones and shells, then a priest would break them with a heated rod and interpret the way they broke as the reply from the spirits.

The oracle bones are the only primary source we have of the Shang Dynasty writings, but later sources confirm that in fact they had many other uses for their script. One was to send letters, notably war orders (Creel, 1967, 173). Second, they actually wrote books, which means they already had an extended use of their script. Unfortunately their texts were written on pieces of bamboo and wood that have now most probably have rotten and disappeared (Ibid, 172). The humid climate of the Shang kingdom explains why it is difficult to find documents of the 2nd millennia B.C. in China, while way more ancient documents were found in Egypt.

Oracles, letters, books, the literature of the Shang Dynasty was most probably already quite develop. What is less sure is about the spread of readership and of writers throughout the kingdom. As a point of comparison, in Egypt it is believed that only, or mostly the royal family, the scribes and the priests learnt how to read and write (Parsons, 2012)(Archeology Magazine, 2014). Kings and priests had to read out loud prayers for the gods, scribes kept writing records of the merchandises and wrote and read diverse documents for people. Just like in Chinese beliefs, Egyptians associated the deads with writings. Hieroglyphs were thus used by some scribes to communicate with the dead. One way was for example to write down celestial maps and prayers on sarcophagi lids so that the dead persons would find their ways throughout the sky in their afterlife. It is likely that writing and reading remained an exclusive knowledge of a limited elite in the Shang Dynasty as well. So far, no evidence has been found demonstrating that commoners could read or write.

An interrogation can be raised whether Egyptian or Mesopotamian writings could have influenced the development of the Chinese one. Because most of this remote past is unknown nowadays, it is hard to bring a simple answer, but it can be said that even if techniques or people could have possibly come from the West to the East, those could not represent in any case the foundation of Chinese civilization (Creel, 1967, 51). In other terms, while we are not sure if there has been cultural and human exchanges between China and the West (including the Middle-East) in those ancient times, Chinese culture is so different that the possible Western influence cannot be considered prominent. For our topic of interest, written language, linguistic experts have made it clear that Egyptian and Mesopotamian languages on one side, and Chinese language on the other were not related (Ibid, 39). Whether Chinese got the idea of writing from the West, or maybe vice-versa, is more difficult to discuss.

This realization does not merely indicate that the Chinese have created their language by themselves, but it also shows that in different part of the world, presumably at different times, the same idea of writing originated as connected to the idea of drawing. In Egypt just as in China, scripts indeed did not start by inventing arbitrary letters like many of our modern scripts, but were rather in-between the transcription of oral language and the use of simplified, symbolic drawings put together. As those scripts along with a few others later influenced other scripts, we can thus infer that the invention of written language in human history comes as much from oral language as from drawings.

It seems that the first Egyptian hieroglyphs found in Abydos were symbols used for their sounds. To use an example with English, they would draw a bee to express the sound of the letter ‘b’ (Larkin, 1999). This charade form of writing was not the whole picture, as hieroglyphs were also used for their meaning and connotations. Hieroglyphs were thus used phonetically and semantically by the people back then, which confirms the in-betweenness between assembled drawings and search for transcription of speech that was the Ancient Egyptian script. In fact, this is very similar to the Chinese use of characters. The oracle bones found in Henan have partially been deciphered now, revealing the multiple ways ancient Chinese characters were used. Some characters must be seen as drawings representing directly an object, others as onomatopoeia seeking to represent a sound or an action, and others were pictophonetic, comprising a part indicating how to read them and a part for their meaning (Wertz, 2016). We do not know for sure however which came first between the phonetic and the semantic use of symbols (or if they came jointly from the beginning) in Chinese and Egyptian writings. Most probably, the first written words were created semantically and were close to drawings, and then from these more and more characters were formed, this time using also the phonetic value of the previous characters.

The analysis of the phonetic versus semantic use of characters of the oracle bones shows that in the idea they match nowadays’ Chinese characters. In fact, oracle bones and modern Chinese are similar in many more regards. Let us analyze a precise oracle bone inscription to understand the similarities and differences.

Picture 2: An oracle bone with Modern Chinese and English translation (Wertz, 2016).

The ancient character of 其 is barely visible on this picture, but we can note that the character 日 is almost identical, while 今 seems to have remained quite similar. 雨 has gotten more complex with time, the ancient character merely being six vertical lines probably representing raindrops. Finally, 貞 has changed a lot. From those characters, we can note that modern Chinese is still using characters that are at least 3,000 years old and which, for some of them, have barely changed since then. While hieroglyphs, after surviving for at least three millennia, disappeared as the Roman Empire took over, in China however there is a close continuity of the written language from ancient times to nowadays. This does not mean that oracle bone and modern script are alike; as Creel (1967, 160) puts it: “[g]rammar and style have evolved to a point undreamed in Shang times. The form of the characters themselves has so altered that the most learned Chinese scholar is usually unable to recognize the most familiar character on the oracle bones unless he has made a special study of archaic Chinese.” Still, those oracle bones testify of the existence and continuity of the Chinese written language for millennia.

In fact, the oracle bone script is so complex that instead of telling us about the birth of China, it suggests that Chinese script origins have to be traced back much earlier. A scholar from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge University Library, 2012) writes that “[t]he script is highly advanced and fully mature, indicating a long period, perhaps millennia, of previous development.” Archeological discoveries give credits to such a statement. Keightley (1983, 323–383) devotes a chapter of his book gathering early appearance of what could be proto-Chinese, early form of characters without a constructed proper language. Some marks were found for example on potteries of the 50th-47th centuries B.C. in Pan-p’o, in what became later the western end of the Shang kingdom. Visually however they are quite remote from either oracle bone and modern Chinese characters, and it seems hard to assert whether or not they are the precursors of Chinese language. More complex symbols were found on another site further west, dated to the 24–20th centuries and still quite distinct from known Chinese scripts. The author calls them “marks and characters(?)” (Ibid, 335).

Quite recently however signs were discovered on tortoise shells in the site of Jiahu in Henan, presumably more oracle bones… but dated to the 66th-62nd centuries B.C. (Rincon, 2003). This discovery does not only renew the debate on written Chinese origins, but also questions if Chinese was not the first written language of the planet at all. Whether the marks found could be considered as proto-Chinese characters, or as characters at all is still highly debated. Indeed, only 16 different signs were found in Jiahu, making it impossible to draw conclusions on what they are and whether they are connected to oracle bone characters (Ancient-Symbols, 2014). Only further excavations could allow to bring elements of answer to those questions.

Picture 3: The Jiahu symbols, proto-characters, characters or drawings? (Ancient-Symbols, 2014)

Could it be that Chinese was created before Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform? It is possible, but so far no proof has been found. It is in fact difficult to know whether the dynasty preceding the Shang, the Xia Dynasty, actually existed or not (Mark (3), 2016), let alone to know if they could write. If we can infer with a certain degree of certitude that the Chinese script’s birth is centuries older than the oracle bone script, where, when and by whom remains a mystery. Most of the documents of the mid or early 2nd millennia B.C. must have disappeared by now due to the humid climate of China and the supports used by its people (wood, bamboo) to write on. Nonetheless, in regard to the constant new archeological discoveries, one can still hope that somewhere under the Chinese ground lies the secret of the birth of Chinese language, waiting to be discovered.

By way of conclusion, the Chinese and Egyptian scripts developed separately in the Shang kingdom and the Nile banks, yet they both borrow in a similar way just as much from the oral language as from drawings in their construction. Other similarities are that they were both used a lot for religious purpose and by the ruling elite. A point of cleavage however is the continuity of the Chinese language from ancient times to nowadays, versus the absence of connection between hieroglyphs and the arabic script used in Egypt now. To this day Ancient Egypt is considered the first civilization of the two to possess a script, but it is possible in fact that Chinese written language is just as old. The rainy climate of China and the fact inscriptions were often written on wood there make it harder to dig into Chinese’s most ancient past. Only future discoveries will allow to shed the light on the blurry and passionating birth of the Chinese script. In fact, and to add one last note to this essay, those discoveries do not merely concern China but the whole of East Asia and part of South East Asia as the Japanese, the Korean, the Vietnamese, the Tangut, the Khitan or the Jurchen all used or copied Chinese characters to create their own written language. History generally being considered as starting when writing starts, the birth of the Chinese script thus marks the beginning of East Asian history.

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