The History of Chinese Writing (and Handwriting!)
By John Renfroe
This is the first of a two-part series. In part 2, we'll cover modern handwriting, including the modern cursive scripts—semi-cursive (xíngshū 行書/行书) and cursive (cǎoshū 草書/草书).
If you're struggling with learning characters, check out our free 1-hour video on how to learn characters more effectively, without so much pain and frustration!
As you probably know, the Chinese characters we all know and love today look quite different from what they did originally.
But what most people don’t know is just how complex the evolution of the script was. Most of us will have seen some sort of chart like this at one point or another:
But that’s a massive oversimplification!
It makes it look as though there were neat stages, and each stage had a very particular type of writing. As we’ll see in this article and its sequel, that’s not the case!
We’ll break the evolution down into two main stages—Ancient and “Modern,” where “modern” means basically post-Qin (220 BCE)—and we’ll look at the main styles of script in each major period in those two stages.
The Ancient Stage
The Ancient Stage spans a massive period of time, and the vast majority of major changes occurred during this time. This stage spans from the earliest extant writing of the late Shang period (ca. 1350 BCE) through the Qin unification and standardization of the script, broken up into 4 main categories, based on both time and graphic style:
- Shang script
- Western Zhou and Spring & Autumn script
- Six States script (that is, the script of the six primary players of the Warring States period apart from Qin)
- Qin script (from the Spring & Autumn period through the Qin Dynasty)
Let’s dive in!
The Shang period
The earliest writing we have that can conclusively be called “Chinese” comes from the late Shang. There are some examples of possible proto-writing that come from much earlier, but with a massive gap in time between those examples and the Shang script, and no intermediary stages, the jury is very much still out on whether those examples are even related to Chinese characters. So, we’ll start with the Shang.
I can almost hear you: “What!? Bamboo script from the Shang?”
Well, while there is certainly evidence that bamboo was used as a medium for writing during the Shang, unfortunately, none of it has survived (or if it has, we haven’t found it yet). But the evidence is certainly there: the oracle bone script form of 冊 shows a bamboo scroll, and 筆/聿 shows a hand and brush being used for writing:
Since none of it survives, we can’t really say what it would have looked like, although we do have some clues as we’ll see below. With the massive amount of archeological research being done in China, hopefully we’ll see Shang bamboo texts come to light within our lifetimes—it would definitely be of massive significance to paleographers, and indeed to anyone who studies Early China!
Oracle Bone Inscriptions
While it’s probably more aptly referred to as “shell and bone script” since not all inscriptions were oracular in nature, we’ll stick with “oracle bone script” or OBS here due to convention. These are turtle shells, or more accurately plastrons—the ventral part of the shell, not the dorsal part, which is the carapace—and animal bones, mostly scapulae, with inscriptions written on them. Most of these inscriptions are divinatory, although as we’ll see, some are not.
In 1899, a scholar named Wáng Yìróng (王懿榮/王懿荣) was brought some so-called “dragon bones” to be ground up into powder—thought to be a remedy for malaria. As director of the Imperial Academy, a paleographer, and a collector of early Chinese bronzes, he recognized the markings on the bones not as mystical marks on “dragon” bones, but as being similar to inscriptions on bronze vessels from the Zhou period.
Wang committed suicide a year later due to his involvement in the Boxer Rebellion, but a collection of rubbings of the bones was published in 1903, and “oracle bone fever” began. Collectors and scholars were scouring antique shops, but antique shop owners kept the origins of the bones a secret in order to protect their booming businesses. Then, scholar Luó Zhènyù (羅振玉/罗振玉) discovered their real origin near Ānyáng (安陽/安阳), at the ruins of Yīn 殷, the last capital of the Shang. After that, uncontrolled excavations ensued for decades in order to fuel the massive market for “oracle bones.”
This resulted in collections of these shells and bones being scattered all over the world. Some ended up in Japan, the US, the UK, and other places. However, many collections have been published, so there is a vast amount of data available to scholars. Over 100,000 shells and bones with inscriptions on them have been excavated, though most of them are fragments.
Oracle bone script is a somewhat peculiar type of Shang script, even though it’s by far the most plentiful available to us in the 21st century. Because scribes had to produce vast quantities of divinatory inscriptions, they developed some conventions for making them more quickly. Carving characters into bone and shell is difficult, but a few things can make it a bit easier:
- Brushes were used to write onto the shell or bone before carving. There are bones that still have traces of cinnabar where the brush was used.
- Shapes that would have been rounded in normal brush writing of the day—and in bronze script—were made squarish for ease of carving.
- Likewise, solids become outlines, and thick strokes become straight thin strokes.
Consequently, it’s best to think of Oracle bone script as a “peculiar version” of the popular script of the time, whereas normal brush writing would have been the popular script proper, and bronze script would be the formal script of the Shang.
Throughout history, the ruling class looked down upon the “popular” script, but the influence of the popular script on Chinese writing as a whole was massive, as we’ll see.
However, as I mentioned earlier, some of the excavated bones weren’t used for divination, and as such, they also weren’t subjected to the same kinds of simplification as the oracular inscriptions. An excellent example is 宰丰骨 (below), which features much more brush-like writing. This style is likely more representative of the popular script of the time than the oracle bone inscriptions, but unfortunately, examples like this are quite rare.
There are over 10,000 extant bronze vessels from the pre-Qin period, and nearly a quarter of them are from the Shang. Most of the inscriptions on Shang bronzes are only about 5-6 characters in length, but some of them run up to around 40 characters.
Bronze script is the “formal” script of this period. It’s more pictographic than oracle bone script, and that’s even more true with clan name inscriptions, as we can see below.
It’s possible that these clan name inscriptions preserve features of an even earlier and more pictographic stage in the evolution of the writing system, as Shang writing (both “normal” bronze script and oracle bone script) already exhibits a fair degree of simplification compared to these.
Western Zhou and Spring & Autumn
The Zhōu 周 conquered the Shang in about 1046 BCE and established a capital called Hàojīng (鎬京/镐京), in present-day Xī’ān. 西安. Later, in 771 BCE, The Marquess of Shēn (申侯) sacked the capital and installed a new king in Luòyì (洛邑), in present-day Luòyáng (洛陽/洛阳). This marked the end of the Western Zhou period and the beginning of the Eastern Zhou. The first part of the Eastern Zhou period is called the Spring and Autumn (Chūnqiū 春秋) period. The second is called the Warring States (Zhànguó 戰國/战国) period, but we’ll cover that later.
Oracle Bone Inscriptions
The Zhou initially kept up the Shang practice of using bones and shells for divination, so there are about 300 examples of oracle bone script from the early Western Zhou period. The writing on these Zhou oracle bones is fairly similar to late Shang OBS.
The Western Zhou period was the golden age of bronze inscriptions. The overwhelming majority of extant writing from this period comes from bronze vessels. Early Western Zhou bronze script forms resembled Shang writing, but the main tendency in evolution during this time was towards linearization and streamlining, likely due to the influence of handwriting. That is, the “formal” script being cast on these vessels started to adopt characteristics of the popular script, or handwriting, of the time.
By “linearization,” I mean things like thick strokes gradually becoming more fine and linear, as you can see in the progression below:
Another example of linearization would be squarish or rounded elements gradually being replaced by lines, as you can see with 王 here:
By “streamlining,” I mean that complicated shapes were gradually simplified. A good example is this look at the evolution of bèi 貝/贝:
Take note here how much less pictographic, and more stylized, the script has already become by this time. Shang forms of 貝/贝 clearly resembled a cowrie shell:
Late Western Zhou forms, not so much.
Spring and Autumn bronze script basically resembles Western Zhou bronze script, though it continues those trends. Also, near the end of the Spring & Autumn period, as individual states under Zhou rule became more powerful, their writing also started to diverge somewhat. These differences became much more pronounced in the Warring States period, as we’ll soon see.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really anything in the way of brush writing from the Western Zhou period. However, we have recovered over 5000 examples of brush writing from the late Spring & Autumn period (and early Warring States), in the form of covenant texts. This is the earliest extant cache of brush writing in large amounts.
These covenant texts are jade and stone tablets, mostly recovered from the ruins of Xīntián (新田), near modern day Hóumǎ (侯馬/侯马) in Shānxī Province (山西省), and they’re referred to as the Hóumǎ Covenant Texts (Hóumǎ Méngshū 侯馬盟書/侯马盟书). The writing is mostly cinnabar, though some tablets were written using ink.
Six States Script
As I mentioned before, as individual states under Zhou rule were becoming more powerful, their writing also diverged. This is even more apparent in the Warring States period. During this period, literacy was fairly common—writing had spread to the masses, and with that spread came massive changes in the writing system, especially the popular script.
History buffs may wonder why I’m talking about six states here, when there were 7 major states (and other minor states) during the Warring States period. Well, that’s because scholars consider the Qin script separately. It was a relative backwater in the Spring and Autumn and early Warring States periods, and so its script developed much more slowly than that of the other states, resulting in a more conservative style of writing (vis-a-vis Western Zhou script) than the other states. That, plus the fact that it became the standard script after the Qin unification, causes scholars to consider it separately from 六國文字. So we’ll discuss the Qin script in the next section.
There are tons of artifacts with writing extant from the Warring States period, including seals, coins, pottery, and more, but for our purposes here, we’ll stick with bronze inscriptions and bamboo texts, two of the most plentiful.
During the Western Zhou and Spring and Autumn periods, and into the early Warring States, most bronze inscriptions were fairly formulaic: this is who commissioned the vessel, this is the occasion, and “may my descendents cherish and use it” (子子孫孫永寶用/子子孙孙永宝用 is a very common phrase on bronzes).
However, in the Warring States period we see a shift. An excellent demonstration of this is the biānzhōng (編鐘/编钟) bells of Marquis Yǐ of Zēng (曾侯乙 Zēng Hóu Yǐ). In contrast with the usually short, formulaic inscriptions from earlier periods, these bells contain nearly 2800 characters, focused almost entirely on matters of musical pitch.
Apart from outliers (heh) like this, however, many inscriptions became considerably shorter, often consisting of just the date of manufacture and the name of the person who commissioned it, and not much else. Some examples of the older style of more lengthy inscriptions do exist, though, such as the Zhōngshān Wáng Cuò Dà Dǐng (中山王厝大鼎), with 469 characters:
Another difference from earlier bronze inscriptions: before the Warring States period, most inscriptions were cast on the bronzes. After the mid Warring States period, they were usually engraved after casting.
As I mentioned earlier, bamboo texts were used as a medium for writing as early as the Shang period, but none have been recovered yet (one can hope!). However, archeologists have recovered thousands of bamboo strips from the Warring States period, and they’ve become an incredibly important resource for the study of the writing system—a massive cache of “popular script” written with a brush, as opposed to the formal script of the bronze vessels.
While we’re very fortunate to have access to these texts, the unfortunate thing (if you can call it that) is that they all come from just two of the main states—Qín (秦) and Chǔ (楚). We’ll deal with Qin in the next section, so here are a few images of the Chu bamboo texts:
One thing you’ll notice is that the writing has departed significantly from earlier brush writing like the Houma texts above—they’re much more “loopy” and stylized by this point.
Another interesting thing about Six States script—not just bamboo script, but bronze and others as well—is the sheer amount of variant character forms we see. Here’s an overview of some of the forms of 信 from this time period:
This can make it incredibly tricky for scholars to determine which word is being written!
Fortunately for us, however, there was much less variation, more regularity, and more conservatism in the Qin script, from which all later writing descends directly.
The Qin Script
Despite Qin having been a bit of a backwater initially, they eventually expanded their territory, finally completing their task of conquering the other states in 221 BCE. One of the first things they did was to implement standards throughout their empire—standards for weights, measurements, laws, and of course, writing.
The traditional story goes that Chancellor Lǐ Sī (李斯) was commissioned by the emperor Qín Shǐhuáng (秦始皇) to look at all of the scripts of the other states and unify them to create a standard. What actually happened, however, was that they simply made the Qin script the standard for everyone else to follow.
We’re fortunate to have tremendous quantities of information about the Qin script, both in the form of paleographic evidence and in the form of the Shuōwén Jiězì, a Han-era dictionary meant to record Qin script.
We’ll be looking here at examples of Qin script from the Spring and Autumn through the Qin dynastic period. As with the other six states, we have a wide variety of different types of artifacts containing Qin script, but here again, we’ll look at the most plentiful: stone inscriptions, bronzes, and bamboo texts.
Fortunately, Qin stone inscriptions from all three major periods (Spring & Autumn, Warring States, and Qin Dynasty) of Qin history. Unfortunately, the stones themselves from the Warring States and dynastic periods have been lost (though rubbings are still extant), but we do still have actual artifacts from the Spring & Autumn period. Note how little the script changed in Qin as you look at the inscriptions below—it’s remarkable how stable the script was over such a long period of time before standardization ever occurred.
The Stone Drums (石鼓), so called because they’re shaped like drums, contain poetry. There are 10 stones, excavated during the Táng Dynasty (618 to 907 CE), each with about 70-80 characters inscribed. These date from the Spring & Autumn period.
The mid Warring States period left us with some particularly interesting stone inscriptions: the Curses Against Chǔ, or zǔ Chǔ wén (詛楚文/诅楚文). These are declarations by a king of Qin against a king of Chǔguó (楚國/楚国), directed at spirits.
After conquering the other states and founding the Qin empire, Qín Shǐhuáng (秦始皇, the first emperor of China) had an imperial edict engraved on a number of stones. One of them, the Yìshān (嶧山/峄山) edict, survives today in the form of a rubbing:
We have tens of thousands of bamboo strips from Qin—the two biggest discoveries being the Shuìhǔdì (睡虎地) texts discovered in 1975, and the Lǐyé (里耶) texts discovered in 2002. On those strips are hundreds of thousands of characters written in Qin brush script—the popular script.
Something to take note of is how similar the formal and popular scripts have become over time. Whereas in the Shang period, the two were often quite different, by the time we reach the Qin dynasty, they’re already pretty similar. In fact, in many cases, the main difference comes down to the fact that bamboo script is written with a soft brush, while the stone and bronze scripts were inscribed on hard materials.
The Shuōwén Jiězì
The Shuōwén Jiězì (說文解字/说文解字) is a character dictionary published in the Han Dynasty, in 121 CE. However, I’m including it in the Qin section because it’s meant to record the Qin formal script—each entry starts with the xiǎozhuàn (小篆; “small seal script”), the standard created by Qín Shǐhuáng (秦始皇).
Despite this, there are actually some differences between small seal script as recorded in the Shuowen, and authentic Qin script. One very noticeable difference is how 非 is written:
However, due to the exceptionally high cultural status of the Shuowen, its version of seal script has become the de facto standard for seal script ever since. Fortunately, the differences between the Shuowen’s 小篆 and real formal Qin script are fairly minor.
The Formation of Clerical Script
Tradition has it that clerical script (lìshū 隸書/隶书) was created during the Qin dynasty as a faster way of writing, in order to cope with the needs of government officials—they needed, the story goes, a faster way of writing than seal script (xiǎozhuàn 小篆), and clerical script was the solution they came up with.
Of course, we now know this to be inaccurate. It should be no surprise, at this point in our journey through the history of the writing system, that clerical script actually derives from earlier popular script written with a brush, like the various types of bamboo script we’ve seen above. It wasn’t created out of thin air as an alternative to small seal script.
Since the Qin script was the standard after 221 BCE, early clerical script often resembles Qin bamboo script very closely, and in fact, many scholars consider the Qin bamboo script to belong to the “clerical script” category (a classification that makes a lot of sense to me). In fact, an extremely important reference work on clerical script includes writing from Qin (Qín Hàn Wèi Jìn Zhuàn Lì Zìxíng Biǎo 秦漢魏晉篆隸字形表/秦汉魏晋篆隶字形表).
Take a look at an entry from that book showing clerical script forms of 教 from the Qin through the Western Jin (265-315/6 CE) period.
Note how similar even some of the latest forms are to the earlier forms.
That isn't to say, however, that all character forms remained stable—I just wanted to point out how the Qin popular script can easily fit into the “clerical” category.
I’ll talk more about the clerical script and its development in the next installment, where I’ll also go into the various types of modern handwriting (yes, “modern” basically begins with clerical script when we’re talking about Chinese characters!), including cursive and how to learn to read and write it!
See you then!