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History of the Chinese Language

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Qimin Li

on 21 December 2014

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Transcript of History of the Chinese Language

History of the Chinese Language by Qimin Li
Chinese Characters
Chinese, specifically Mandarin, is the most spoken language in the world with about two billion speakers. It is followed by English in third place with 335 million. Unlike the English writing system, the Chinese writing system are represented by symbols used to convey meanings and sounds that indicate meaning.

We do not know exactly how long the writing system has existed, but inscriptions of Chinese characters on turtle shells were found. It can be dated back to the Shang dynasty, so it existed for more than 3,000 years ago.

Pictographic Characters
The usage of the pictographic method could be traced back to the usage of the oracle bone inscriptions. Similar to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, human body parts or observable forces of nature were drawn based on certain characteristics that became part of the character. However, only a small portion of modern Chinese use pictographic character, even then they are hard to distinguish because they've been standardized and simplified.


The Different Categories
A closer look into the language shows that not all of the characters are derived from objects such as the character for "sun" or "moon." Abstract feelings such as love or sadness cannot be expressed through pictures. This is why Chinese characters are separated into different categories:
1) pictographic
2) ideogram
3) associative
4) picto-phonetic
5) phonetic loan characters
Bronze inscriptions
Bronze inscriptions are the earliest historically confirmed forms of writing. During the Shang (1600-1046 B.C.E) and Zhou (1046-256 B.C.E) dynasties, bronze was the most precious metal. The length of the phrases during this time were relatively short, usually containing a maximum of three characters. The Characters were highly pictographic as they usually stood for a clan or the owner of the bronze item. They follow the same pattern as bamboo slips: the text is placed from top to bottom, right to left. However, a lot of the characters had inconsistent forms based on the geographic area. They were not aligned as some were flipped or turned a certain angle.
In the last stages of the bronze inscription, worm and bird scripts arose. They are a group of scripts that exaggerated a lot on the decorative character style that made it difficult to read.
The writing were short, mainly names of rulers or clan names. There were no signs of writing rules so they were highly pictographic.
1600-1100 B.C.E
The quality of writing, such as the lines of the characters are still poor, but inscriptions became as long as fifty characters.
1100-1046 B.C.E
1046-771 B.C.E
771-221 B.C.E
221-206 B.C.E
The text during Western Zhou Dynasty greatly increased to a length of 300 or more characters. The writing has also become more organized as does the structure of the characters. They use grids to keep the rows neat.
Worm and bird scripts were developed and from the beginning of Easter Zhou Dynasty, characters had a standardized size.
As they began developing a government and the position of lords and kings grew stronger the bronze inscriptions evolved to into a highly standardized small seal script. This became the writing script of the Qin Dynasty.
Small Seal Script
Qin Dynasty - Small Script
Before the Qin conquered the Warring States of the Zhou Dynasty, different styles of characters evolved independently, creating what is called the Great Seal Script. However, it prevented communication, trade, taxation and transportation, thus the first emperor of Qin ordered Prime Minister Li Si to unify all of the forms of the great seal script into one: small seal script. this script introduced new rules of writing such as proportions and symmetry. It eventually led to the first dictionary of Chinese characters known as The Erya.
This video on how to write small seal script shows how much the characters evolved to look a lot like the standardized Chinese characters used now. As you can see, the style during the Qin Dynasty is more lengthy, curvy and complicated.
An example of the writing style during the Qin Dynasty
Han Dynasty
The previous video showed us how sophisticated and uniform the characters became. So what other complications could they have faced? Well, since the birth of an official government, it was time consuming to perfect the long strokes of each character. It was said that in order to speed up the writing process, Cheng Mao turned the curvy and lengthy character form of the small seal script to one of angular strokes. Thus giving rise to the clerical script. However, this is all but a legend. The clerical script was created to aid officials, that much is true.
There were four modifications that made the clerical script more convenient.
(1) The curved strokes became straighter
(2) The number of strokes were reduced
(3) Some components were combined into one
(4) Some components were simplified
Small Seal Script
Clerical Script
Introduction to Cursive Script
The rise of the cursive script was both a blessing and a curse. During the rule of Emperor Zhang of the Han dynasty, he enforced many government reforms, which required fast communication with his government officials. However, writing in seal or clerical script was too time consuming (refer back to the video) that cursive script was used. Like in English, all of the characters are written in one stroke. When writing using the cursive script, the brush does not leave the paper until all of the desired characters are written, the ink runs out or when the calligrapher wishes to stop.
There are 10 general rules in writing in cursive script
Merging strokes that are separated in standard form
Changing the starting point of a following stroke
Dots merged in one single line
Straight Lines are represented by curved lines, sharp corners by loops
Reducing the number of strokes
Long lines shortened or symbolized by dots
Complex radicals simplified
Position of a stroke changes
Stroke order is altered
Starting point of initial stroke is changed
It's the Standard Script
The standard script was derived from
the clerical script that rose during the
Han dynasty. This script came in between the Eastern Han and Cao Wei and was first used by Zhong Yao, who later became known as the "father of regular script." Like many of the other scripts, it went through many developmental stages, beginning with Zhong Yao and matured during the Tang Dynasty, the golden age of Chinese calligraphy.
The standard script was not a popular form of writing during the periods in which it emerged from. It was only during the Southern and Northern Dynasties in the 5th century when it became the dominant writing form. However, in terms of maturity, the style was fully developed during the Tang Dynasty. Famous calligraphers such as Ouyang Xun, Chu Suliang and many more helped bring light to the elegance of this form.
The Eight Principles of Yong
Perhaps one of the most famous theories referring to the standard script was the "Eight Principles of Yong." It was created by a Buddhist monk named Zhi Yong during the Sui Dynasty. There are a total of thirty-seven stroke types in the standard script, eight of those lay the foundation for the other twenty-nine. In this example, the character "yong" is used to illustrate these strokes.
1. Resembling a pebble
2. Also known as "the briddle" because the motion of the brush is stopped as if someone pulled the reigns of a horse
3. Solid and rigid appearance of the stroke
4. Hook like shape of the stroke
5. A brisk brush stroke, sharply ended, just like a fang.
6. A thinning, steeply curved stroke
7. Slanting curved stroke (shaped like a bird's peck)
8. Stroke named after a Dao sword due to its similar shape






From Parent to Child
The standard script was not only influential to the Chinese, but it has helped other writing systems such as the Japanese. The Chinese writing system was first introduced during the 5th century, where many of the first Japanese texts were written in kanji (Chinese characters). However, there are still conflicting language barriers the same characters used in Japanese and Chinese can mean different things.
For example: "Abiko" is the name of a place in Japan. However, the three characters that make of this word is translated as "my grandchild" in Chinese. So, if one were to write "I come from Abiko," a native Chinese speaker could misinterpret it to mean "I come from my grandchild." How awkward is that?
The small characters changes from clerical script to standard, also called regular, script was called regularization. Since the smooth and straight strokes made the characters more legible, this form of writing lasted for more than 1,800 years. While the cursive script was also a by-product of the clerical, it did not become a standardized printing types. However like any writing system, the regular script underwent many changes that later developed into what is now being commonly used in mainland China: simplified characters. This slight variations in character were not widely accepted as the standard forms of character until the 1950s. After World War II and the civil war in China did a special organization called the Committee for Chinese Language Reform was established to overlook the normalization of the language. This led to the official publication of the "Scheme for Simplifying Chinese Characters." There is a total of 2,235 simplified characters and about half of them are currently used throughout one's daily life. Among the 482 basic characters out of 2,235, twenty percent were created in the 1950s, while the other eighty percent originated thousands of years ago. After tedious revisions of the writing system, the normalized forms consisted of two types: traditional and simplified.
Timeline Summary
A Closer Comparison
Simple Ideograms
Although using drawings to represent words was convenient, they would not be able to convey abstract words such as love, or hate. Thus this method of modifying an already existing character was adopted.
In this example, by adding an additional horizontal line to the pictographic character for tree, it helps convey parts of a tree in this new character.
Associative Compound Character
The associate character was another way to express and abstract concept. This is created when two or more pictographic characters are combined to illustrate it.
This pictograph describes a woman holding her child. It is to show the reason this character means good. It is a good thing that a new life is born. Respectfully, the character on the left means woman and the one on the right means child
This drawing is of a woman staying under a roof, or "house." The upper part of is a roof or a house, that covers the woman under it. In ancient China, it was said if you have quiet and elegant women at home, it will bring prosperity to your family. Knowing this, it makes sense as to why this character represents the concept of "stability", "quietness", "calmness", "silence".
Picto-Phonetic Characters
The trend for this method includes a pictograph that indicates the overall meaning of the character and another to indicate how the word is pronounced.
The radical, "mouth" indicates the overall meaning of the word. You use your mouth to ask a question. On the right, the pictograph is pronounced as "ma" meaning horse. So if they are placed together, "ma" is used when asking a question.
In this case, the character on the left "woman" is related to the overall character, which means "mother". The use of the character "ma," or horse, explains phonetically how the word is pronounced.
Phonetic Loan Characters
These characters are not new, but they replaced the meaning of an existing character.
A popular example would be the character for "to come." Originally, this was the pictograph for "wheat" as it was difficult to represent an action with a picture. It was a coincidence that the way to say "wheat" and "to come" are the same. The character was then borrowed to use as the action, and due to greater use of it this way, this character now represents the motion. Another character was then formed for "wheat."
There was one main with phonetic loan words, and that was homography. Homography was the result of many different meanings sharing the same symbol. In order to differentiate them, they would use differentiators, or radicals.
Like many others, the Chinese language has evolved both structurally and stylistically throughout the ages. Without knowing the different characters and how they came to be, understanding the writing system would be extremely difficult. Personally, I can only speak Chinese and know only a handful of the character, but if I had known the different characters used, learning them would be a lot easier. I went to Mandarin school from middle school up until my sophomore year of high school. But because I didn't understand the concept of each characters, it was hard to memorize the meaning of each. That's why it's fundamental to understand the history of a language in order to fully comprehend and become fluent in it. And although China has several different dialects from Cantonese to Shanghainese, they are all connected by a common factor: their writing system. Even though the language might change, from region to region, the character still have the same meaning, even if they are pronounced differently.
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