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Chinese Symbol History

Chinese language characters are hieroglyphic diagrams that imitate shapes of real objects. However, there has been several thousands of years of Chinese symbol history. So you may not be able to find easily today's modern Chinese characters resembling things because they have been symbolized and regulated for the sake of easy writing.

Creation of Chinese characters

Can Jie
Cang Jie created Chinese characters.

According to the records of ancient books, one of Yellow Emperor's Chancellors Cang Jie (仓颉) created Chinese characters. He lived at 6000 ¨C 7000 years ago and was said to have four eyes. Ancient book "Huai Nan Zi" said, "In the past, Cang Jie created characters, because of which grains fell from sky and night ghosts cried."

After the creation, Chinese characters have experienced four major periods in the development. They are Tortoise Shell and Bone Inscriptions, Bronze Inscription, Seal Script and Regular Script. The shapes and structures of the Chinese characters in each period are different.

The evolving process of Chinese symbol for "home" (家)

  • The current Chinese character for "home" is written like this:Chinese character for home. Kai Shu..

  • The way of writing this character at Qin-shi-huang's time (1st Qin Dynasty Emperor, 259 B.C.) is:Chinese character for home. Xiao Zhuan.. You can see that its top part is obviously a house roof.
  • Then what is the thing in the house? Actually it is the charcter for "pig". See the way of writing this character in West Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C.): Chinese character for home. Jin Wen.. Oh, this is really a picture of a pig. So here you will understand the Chinese symbol meaning of the character "Jia"(home), which means a house with a pig inside. This was exactly the way of life in primitive period of one who had a home: having a shelter, and breeding some livestock.
  • The way of writing this character in the Inscriptions on Tortoise Shells and Bones is like this:Chinese character for home. Jia Gu Wen..

    Actually at that time, there were several variations of writing the pig inside, one of which even has bristles at the back!

Tortoise Shells and Bone Inscriptions (Jia-Gu-Wen)

Jia Gu Wen ¨C characters inscribed on bones or tortoise shells

The earliest Chinese characters found in unearthed relics are "Jia-gu-wen" or "Tortoise Shell and Bone Inscriptions" that dated from Shang Dynasty of more than 3000 years ago.

Up to now, 150,000 pieces of Tortoise Shell and Bone Inscriptions have been unearthed. About 4500 characters have been found on these tortoise shells and bones and researchers have decrypted one third of the meanings. The contents of those Tortoise Shells and Bones Inscriptions relate to astronomy, calendar, weather, geography, nation, generations, family, persons, officials, war, prison, agriculture, cattle breeding, hunting, commuting, religion, disease, birth and disaster etc.

Bronze Inscriptions (Jin-wen)

Bronze Inscriptions or "Jin Wen" refers to the Chinese characters that were inscribed on bronze instruments. It started from the end of Shang Dynasty and became popular in the West Zhou Dynasty.

Mao Gong Ding or Mao Gong Tripod
Mao Gong's Tripod

A total of over 3000 Bronze Inscriptions have been found in relics, in which the meanings of over 2000 characters have been identified by researchers. The topics talked about in Jin Wen texts were mostly related to the activities of nobles including fetes, commissions, expeditions, hunting units and contracts etc.

The most representative Jin Wen texts are those inscribed on the Mao-gong-ding or "Tripod of Sir Mao", which is now preserved at the Taipei National Gu-gong Museum. See pictur

Small Seal Characters (Xiao-zhuan)

Xiao Zhuan on the Stone from Yi Mountain (Yi Shan Bei).
Xiao Zhuan characters inscribed on Yi Shan Bei.

Qin-shi-huang (the First Qin Emperor, 259 B.C. or 210 B.C.), after united China, found that Chinese characters in different areas were very complicated and in varied forms. So he initiated an act called "Write in same characters". He commanded Li Si to implement the work.

This was the very first time to standardize the writings of Chinese characters in history. This process changed the strokes of earlier Chinese characters from having many turns to being well-regulated and convenient for hand-writing. These standardized Chinese characters are called Xiao Zhuan or Small Seal Characters.

The right picture is a copy of Xiao Zhuan characters inscribed on the Stone from Yi Mountain (Yi Shan Bei). They look beautiful, don't they?

Regular Script (Kai Shu)

Kai Shu by Ou-yang Xun
Kai Shu by Ou-yang Xun.

Kai Shu, also called Regular Script, is featured for its square outlook and straight strokes, which is why it is named as Kai Shu, the Model Font. It started from East Han Dynasty (24 A.D. ¨C 220 A.D.). This is the font that are mostly used today.

There are quite a few well-achieved Kai Shu Calligraphers including Yu Shi-nan, Ou-Yang Xun, Chu Sui-liang, Yan Zhen-qing, Wang Xi-zhi and Liu Gong-quan etc. These calligraphers have left many stone inscriptions if their writings, which are the original models for today's people to learn Chinese character writings from.

Please note that the Regular Script addressed here only refers to the "Traditional Chinese". The so-called "Simplified Chinese" is a totally different thing created by the Communist Party, which has lost and damaged the essence of Chinese characters as a unique system of shape-imitation symbols. See my Chinese Language page for details on the comparison between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.

Find the ancient form of your Chinese name

Actually even nowadays, many calligraphers like to write in Xiao Zhuan font in calligraphy works because Xiao Zhuan has the combined merits of easiness in writing and the earlier Chinese characters' resemblance to shapes of real objects. This feature makes Xiao Zhuan characters look both beautiful and meaningful. This is also the font that many Chinese people like to use for their seals.

If you want to find the anceint form of your Chinese name or favorate Chinese characters, you can follow these steps:

  1. Find the Chinese character you want through an English-Chinese dictionary and copy it in to clipboard (highlight it using mouse and press <Ctrl>-C).
  2. Go to this Chinese Etymology site. Paste the Chinese character in clipboard into the search box in this web page and click the [Etymology] button, then you will see your name character's ancient forms.

As examples, I have listed below some characters' ancient forms. You can see the Chinese symbol's evolving history from them.

MeaningJia Gu WenJin WenXiao ZhuanKai Shu
sunChinese symbol for sun; Jia Gu Wen.chinese symbol for sun; jin wenChinese Symbol for sun; Jin wenChinese symbol for sun; Kai shu
moonChinese symbol for moon; Jia gu wenchinese symbol for moon; jin wenChinese symbol for moon; Xiao zhuanChinese symbol for moon; Kai shu
humanChinese symbol for person; Jia gu wen.Chinese symbol for human being; Jin wen.Chinese symbol for human being; Xiao zhuan.chinese symbol for human being; Kai shu
mountainChinese symbol for montain; Jia gu wen.Chinese symbol for mountain; Jin WenChinese symbol for mountain; xiao zhuanChinese symbol for mountain; kai shu
birdChinese symbol for bird; Jia gu wenChinese symbol for bird; Jin wenChinese symbol for bird; xiao zhuan.Chinese symbol for brid; kai shu
fishchinese symbol for fish; jia gu wenChinese symbol for fish; Jin wenchinese symbol for fish; xiao zhuanchinese symbol for fish; kai shu

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