What are Chinese Characters: History and Evolution of the Chinese Writing System

November 30, 2021

What are Chinese characters?

Chinese characters are called *hànzì* 汉字 and they are the written language of Chinese. Developed thousands of years ago, these characters have evolved into the writing system Chinese uses today. Together, we will look closer at what Chinese characters are, and dive into the history of Chinese characters. We will also take a look at both traditional and simplified Chinese characters and discuss their differences.

Let’s dive in!

Is a Chinese character the same as a word in Chinese?

Many folks who are learning Chinese may think each character represents a word. However, this isn’t always true. Yes, there are individual Chinese characters that are words on their own. Some examples would be kǒu 口 (mouth), nián 年 (year), and shū 书 (book). In fact, quite a few common words are represented by just one Chinese character.

However, many words are made up of at least two Chinese characters. These characters work together to form words that are perhaps more complex or abstract. While diàn 电 means electricity, things that need electricity may require a second character, like diànnǎo 电脑 (computer).

It is indeed useful to know what individual Chinese characters mean and to be able to identify those that can stand alone. That said, it is also important to also remember that what we may consider a word in English will often require more than one character in written Chinese.

Do Chinese characters represent ideas?

Chinese characters were once believed to be ideographic. Ideographs represent ideas rather than linguistic structures. This meant that, for some time, it was believed that Chinese characters represented ideas and were not components for language and grammar.

However, as more resources were uncovered and more analyses were done, it became clear that Chinese characters are actually logographic. This means that each character corresponds to one unit of language, rather than a unit of thought. So in fact, Chinese characters do not represent ideas.

The History and Evolution of Chinese Characters

The history of Chinese characters dates back thousands of years. In fact, their date of origin is still unknown. However, more than a century’s worth of work has been committed to learning more about this written language’s roots.

When were Chinese characters invented?

While it is still unknown exactly when Chinese characters were invented, a number of archaeological discoveries are helping scholars to pinpoint a date.

Some of the earliest Chinese characters date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1050 B.C.). They appeared on artifacts uncovered outside Anyang, the location of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty. The inscriptions of these early Chinese characters were etched into the shoulder bones of oxen, and into the plastrons (or shells) of turtles. Used by diviners to help the king make contact with the dead, these artifacts are now known as oracle bones.

It is important to note that the writing system found on these oracle bones indicate that a written language was already quite well developed at the time of inscription, suggesting that the origins of Chinese characters themselves preceded the artifacts discovered.

In fact, it is believed that by 1400 B.C. the Chinese script already had 2,500-3,000 characters, most of which still can be understood today. There also have been artifacts containing characters discovered outside of Xi’an that date back to 4800-4200 B.C., though those findings are still being researched.

Following oracle bones were collections of bronze containers, typically used as sacrificial vessels, called bronzes. On these bronzes, people would inscribe significant events like sacrifices, battle results, and so on. These artifacts date back to as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). These inscriptions continued to be used until the rise of brush and ink. From there, various forms of Chinese character scripts were born, thanks to the artistic freedom and creativity brush and ink allowed.

What were the stages and forms of Chinese character writing?

Chinese characters have changed and evolved over the years, but so too have the methods used to write them. Think of how handwriting has changed in your own language, and how it can even vary from person to person. The way folks wrote centuries ago is quite different now. The same is true for Chinese character writing. Still, the script we see now has roots in those original artifacts.

By examining this brief history of Chinese characters, we can see clear stages in the evolution of Chinese characters.

First came the jiǎgǔzì 甲骨字 (oracle bone characters). These characters, carved into bone or shell, were also often quite literal depictions of the words they described. As the language evolved, so too did the characters etched into the oracle bones.

Then came the jīnzì 金字 (metal characters). These characters and this type of script were found on the bronzes. Over the years, they evolved into zhuànshū 篆书 (seal characters), or decorative characters used on seals and signets.

Seal characters can be further sorted into two categories: dàzhuànshū 大篆书 (large seal characters), primarily used during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256 B.C.), and xiǎozhuànshū 小篆书 (small seal characters), created during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.).

Interestingly, the small seal characters were created during the Qin emperor’s efforts to standardize Chinese characters which fell under a series of sweeping reforms intended to consolidate the empire. The reform was to standardize Chinese characters focused on the 3,000 most common characters.

This standardized form of writing helped to form the basis for modern-day script. It is interesting to note that you have likely seen examples of small seal characters today. All of its strokes were of equal thickness, and all characters were all of equal sizes. While this made small seal script impractical for everyday use, it made it a lovely script for things like engravings and seals.

From the seal scripts, we move to lìshū 隶书 (clerical script). This was the official script used during the Han Dynasty (207 B.C. - 220 A.D.). This script was simplified from the aforementioned small seal script. Looking at it today, you can see clear similarities to the scripts and styles we use today.

At roughly the same time, xíngshū 行书 (running script) and cǎoshū 草书 (grass script) arose. The running script is an example of a handwriting script, while the grass script is an example of a shorthand script. Both were used to write Chinese characters quickly. However, this made them quite illegible. Chinese language learners would likely struggle trying to read either of these scripts today.

Another script to emerge around the time of clerical script was kǎishū 楷书 (standard script). Kǎishū 楷书 arose near the end of the Han Dynasty and was very popular in subsequent centuries. This script is the script which is still in use today.

Evolution of Chinese characters examples

Now that we have taken a look at the styles in which Chinese characters were written throughout history, let’s take a closer look at the characters themselves and how they have evolved.

When were Chinese characters simplified, and who simplified them?

Many Chinese learners have studied simplified characters, but when were Chinese characters simplified?

First, let’s remember that the characters found on oracle bones were often quite literal depictions of what they represented. The word for moon (yuè 月) would have looked quite like a crescent moon, and the word for sun ( 日) would have looked like a sun with rays shining out.

Chinese radical for 'sun'

As the written language progressed, the aforementioned logographs came into play from the bronze period onward. More complex characters developed, especially to accommodate larger and more complex vocabularies. Eventually, these characters evolved into what we know now as traditional characters (fántǐzì 繁体字).

Now, these traditional characters may seem intimidating, as they often have far more strokes. In fact, over the centuries, folks had already been simplifying characters on their own, in notes or personal documents. However, those simplifications had never been officially recognized. The idea to officially simplify Chinese characters was introduced at the start of the 20th century by linguist Lufei Kui, and again later in the 1930s and 1940s by the Guomingdang.

Chinese characters were officially simplified to the form which we know now after the 1949 Revolution. The new government hoped to increase literacy across the country, and in turn improve the nation’s economy. To do that, the Communist Party developed a system that would make learning to read and write more accessible for hundreds of millions of people. The first round of simplified Chinese characters was released in 1956, with other rounds to follow in the 1960s-1970s.

More than 2,000 complicated characters were simplified. However, the transition was not met with unanimous acceptance. There were those - especially among revolutionaries and intellectuals - that insisted the traditional Chinese characters should continued being used. By and large though, the simplified characters played their role, seemingly helping to increase literacy rates across the country.

So how are the two types of characters - traditional and simplified – different?

Differences between traditional and simplified characters

Let’s first start with a few notes about both traditional and simplified characters.

Simplified characters, jiǎntǐzì 简体字, are what many Chinese language learners study these days. This is because the simplified character set is the writing system used in Mainland China. It is also used in Singapore and Malaysia. Thanks to the simplification process of the 1950s, most characters require far fewer strokes to write, and are easier to read for those new to the language.

Traditional characters, fántǐzì 繁体字, are still in use, though. The traditional character system is used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and in various areas where groups of Chinese immigrants have gathered. (You may know these areas as “Chinatowns”, where traditional characters will be used on signs, restaurant menus, printed materials, etc.) While seemingly more difficult to read and write, the additional strokes often portray components that add historical or cultural importance to the character.

Advocates of traditional characters will argue that the simplification process eliminated useful components from the characters. These components can, in fact, aid the character-learning process, too, as they often provide clues to a character’s meaning and pronunciation.

Traditional characters are not to be confused with classical Chinese. While many classical texts were written in traditional characters, the term “classical Chinese” refers to formal literary Chinese, not the actual characters themselves.

Before we dive into the differences between traditional Chinese characters and simplified Chinese characters, it is important to note that not all characters have been simplified. While there are certainly traditional Chinese characters with dozens of strokes, many were already sufficiently simple in their original forms. This is why there are many shared characters between the traditional and simplified systems.

However, as mentioned above, more than 2,000 characters were indeed simplified. There were a few specific considerations when simplifying these characters. Let’s take a look at those categories.

1) Characters that were components (or parts) of traditional characters.

Let’s look closer at the character 习 (habit). In traditional characters, this word is written as 習. At the top, you can see two of the simplified version (习) side by side. So instead of writing the entire traditional character, the simplified version is simply one of the top components. Note, though, that characters in this category may stand on their own, but they are not radicals.

xi character traditional and simplified

2) Characters in which the left-side radicals were simplified, but the stand-alone character was not changed.

A good example of this is the word yán 言 (speech, word). The stand-alone character, 言, was not changed. However, in traditional characters, 言 would also appear as a radical on the left side of other characters, like shuō 說 (to speak). When simplified, the left-side radical becomes 讠, and the simplified character becomes 说.

Yan simplified radical

3) Characters that were simplified as both stand-alone characters and as character components.

Here, a great example is jiàn 见 (view, opinion), written here in its simplified form. In traditional, this characters is written as 見. We can see that in this case, the stand-alone character was simplified. Unlike the second category above, here the same simplified form is also a component of other characters, for example in the word for xiàn meaning “cash, money”: 现 (simplified) vs. xiàn 現 (traditional).

jian character traditional and simplified

Remember we mentioned above that folks had been simplifying characters for years before the official standardization? Well, the final consideration used when officially standardizing characters was to use those already-existing simplifications and short-hand versions. From these, the official set of simplified characters was created. For example, consider weì 卫 vs. 衛 (to defend, guard).

No matter their differences, traditional and simplified characters both serve an important purpose in unifying Chinese speakers. Chinese characters create a common medium for such a large country. No matter the dialect spoken - some of which are mutually incomprehensible - everyone uses the same characters.

For any Chinese language learner, getting the hang of reading and writing Chinese characters is a must. While it may seem intimidating, it will also further your understanding of this vibrant language, and the history and culture interwoven with it.

Post contibuted by Alexandra Sieh