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The Chinese writing system is one of the oldest known written languages with evidence dating back to over 4,000 years ago. Legend has it that Chinese characters were invented by Canjie, a bureaucrat under the Yellow Emperor who invented the system after being inspired by the logical relation of veins on a tortoise. Over the years, this has developed into the 30,000 character system that we know of today.
The oldest Chinese characters are Oracle bone inscriptions 甲骨文jiǎgǔwén which belong to the Shang dynasty period and consisted of elaborate carvings on bones. This developed into Bronze inscriptions方樽 fāngzūn where bronze works such as bells and cauldrons from the later Shang and early Zhou dynasties were engraved with highly variable characters. The same character was often written in different ways in different places, but unlike the oracle bone inscriptions, their size and orientation were regular. The standard style of writing during the later Zhou and early Qin dynasties was seal script 篆书zhuànshū. This was more regular in form (the same characters were nearly always written the same way), and the shapes of all the characters evolved into more square based forms. During the later Qin Period and Han dynasties, the government gradually incorporated modifications made by the common Chinese known as official script 簡體中文Jiǎntǐzhōngwén. It was easier to write than seal script. It had straight lines where there were curves, and simplified versions of radicals. By the end, the characters had very similar forms to those used today. Finally,
gradual development stabilised around 250 C.E and developed into regular script 正書 zhèngshū. The changes since then have consisted mainly of cleaning up, streamlining and straightening undulating strokes.
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham