A Brief Introduction to Written Chinese

In this article, we look at Chinese in its written form; how the characters have developed and are formed and the legendary history behind the language’s writing system.

Written Chinese: Beautiful and Functional
Unlike most other languages, you can instantly recognise a piece of writing as Chinese whether you understand it or not.

That is down to the use of symbolic characters to form letters, words and phrases in writing, which can often be seen to resemble the thing that is being described.

In standard Chinese, and often in English too, these characters are called Hanzi. You may also hear them referred to in English as Han characters.

A Thing of Legend
The origin of the script is buried in the past. According to legend, the characters were invented by Cang Jie, a historian under the Yellow Emperor. As the legend goes, Cang Jie had four eyes and eight pupils, and it is said that the day he invented the characters, the sky rained millet as he made the deities and ghosts cry. The Cang Jie method of character input was named after the figure.

The Historic Development of Chinese Characters
Chinese characters have developed significantly over the ages to provide us with the modern, written Chinese we see in use today.

Oracle Bone script (甲骨文- jiǎgǔwén): This is the earliest confirmed evidence of Chinese characters being used. It was used by the Shang and Zhou dynasties to record communication with royal ancestral spirits and divinations of future events.

Bronze script (金文- jīnwén): This also dates back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties, used alongside Oracle Bone Script at the time.

Seal script (篆書- zhuànshū): In the Qin dynasty, this script was adopted as the formal script for all of China. It gains its name, Seal Script, from its use for decorative engraving and seals during the Han dynasty.

Clerical script (隷書- lìshū) and Cursive Script (草書- cǎoshū): These scripts both came into use during the Han dynasty.

Semi-cursive script (行書- xíngshū): This new script evolved during the late Eastern Han period..

Standard script (楷書- kǎishū): This script forms the basis of what is widely used today. It was developed as a neater and more formal method of writing semi-cursive.

Simplified script (简体字jiǎntǐzì): This is the most modern of the Chinese scripts and the one we see most widely used today in mainland China and Singapore.

The Chinese Writing System
The Chinese writing system is a logographic script rather than an alphabetic script, though there are several transcription systems that now use the Roman alphabet that have been developed over the last few hundred years.

'Simplified Chinese' used for writing in mainland China and Singapore was only introduced in the 1900s and has not been adopted by all the Chinese speaking community – the more complicated traditional forms of the characters are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Though there are several theories and myths on the origin of the written form, the earliest evidence dates from the mid to late Shang dynasty (1500 – 1000 BC), the oracle bone script (甲骨文).

Formation of Written Chinese Characters
There are two types of characters that make up written Chinese; single component and compound. Within compound characters, part of the character tells you about the sound/reading of the character; the other part signifies the meaning of the character.

Unlike English, written Chinese is not starkly different now to when it was first developed. Despite the many changes that have been made during the development of Chinese characters over time, it is still possible for someone capable of reading traditional characters to understand texts written 1000s of years ago without much difficulty.

Chinese words can be made up of one or more characters. Though a character on its own can be a word, characters are more often representative of morphemes rather than complete words. Chinese likes even numbers, e.g. 2 or 4 characters, and will shorten or duplicate some morphemes to make it more balanced.

Modern Technology: A Blessing and a Curse for Written Chinese
Modern technology is widely used around the world for conveniently. However, this modern blessing also has its downsides for the evolution of written Chinese.

Many people now don’t remember how to write a large amount of characters as a phone or computer is frequently used instead. This could threaten the continued use of handwritten Chinese among future generations.

One last thing that crops up a lot...

The verbal and written forms of Chinese are referred to differently.

Someone can speak Mandarin or Cantonese (or both), but they don't call the written form this. If someone speaks Cantonese, they probably write in 'Traditional Chinese'. If someone speaks Mandarin, they probably write in 'Simplified Chinese'. 

Here's a very basic guide to where which variations are spoken - of course this is a very simplified description!

Hong Kong
Spoken: Cantonese
Written: Traditional Chinese (Hong Kong style)

Mainland China
Spoken: Mandarin
Written: Simplified Chinese

Spoken: Mandarin
Written: Simplified Chinese

Spoken: Mandarin
Written: Traditional (Taiwan style)

Spoken: Mandarin
Written: Simplified Chinese (Singapore style)

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