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A brief history of Chinese characters

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The origin of Chinese writing is commonly placed around the XIV century b.C., around 3400 years ago. The first real "characters" are those found on the bones used for divination under the Shang and Zhou dynasties, which form the so-called jiagu wen ( ). On the right, an example of oracular inscription on ox bone. The study of this language began at the beginning of this century, but hundreds of symbols among the 4500 found on oracular bones haven't been translated yet. The following phase in the evolution of Chinese characters is represented by the symbols encarved on bronze vessels from the Zhou dynasty onward (XI century b.C), a writing known as jin wen ( ). Characters began to be written with brush and ink around the V-IV century b.C., first on wood, bamboo or silk. The latter was still used also after paper substituted wood tablets.
The need for a codified writing brought to the creation of many different styles that substituted one another century after century. The first was the da zhuan or Big Seal style ( ), used from the VIII century b.C. The xiao zhuan ( ), Small Seal, was created by the Prime Minister of the first Chinese emperor. It was substituted by li shu ( ), Administrative Style, a far easier and clearer writing that marked a turning-point in the development of modern characters, now more and more abstract and far from the original pictographs. This trend continued with kai shu ( ) or Exemplar Style (on the left), created during the Han dynasty. Cao shu ( ) or Cursive was also born under the Han dynasty, around the I century c.e.
The evolution of the character qu (to go) is illustrated below, from oracular bones to inscriptions on bronze, to Small Seal style, Administrative Style, Exemplar Style and Cursive. The original pictograph showed a man going out of his cave.
Modern characters resemble those written in Exemplar Style.


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By Diana Lavarini & Anna Del Franco, 1999.
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