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Oracle bone from the Bīn group of diviners from period I, corresponding to the reign of King Wu Ding (Shang dynasty). Source: Public Domain

How Did the Chinese Develop Their Writing System? (Video)


The Chinese writing system, originating during the Shang Dynasty around 1600 BC, is a testament to China's rich cultural heritage. Unlike alphabetic systems found in many Western languages, Chinese characters are ideographic, directly representing concepts or ideas rather than phonetic sounds. This unique approach, rooted in pictographic origins, contributed to the system's complexity and distinctiveness.

Initially, during the Shang Dynasty, the script consisted of pictographs, where characters resembled the objects they represented. Over time, these pictographs evolved into more abstract symbols, forming the basis of the Greater Seal script and later the Lesser Seal script. Despite these developments, the essence of ideographic representation remained, allowing for a diverse array of characters, each with its own unique meaning.

The mastery of writing conferred elite status in ancient China, creating a societal divide between those who could read and write and those who could not. This division influenced various aspects of Chinese society, including education, governance, and social mobility. The Chinese writing system's complexity also fostered cultural exchange and trade with neighboring regions, such as Japan and Korea.

Upon contact with China, Japan and Korea adopted Chinese characters and incorporated them into their own writing systems. This cultural exchange facilitated not only the spread of writing but also the transmission of ideas, technology, and religion.

Top image: Oracle bone from the Bīn group of diviners from period I, corresponding to the reign of King Wu Ding (Shang dynasty). Source: Public Domain

By Robbie Mitchell

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I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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