Ancient China Alphabet

Ancient Chinese writing system emerged during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). Some writing might have existed earlier, but there’s no evidence of it.

It is possible that some symbols were written on bamboo, silk, or some other perishable material.

Chinese script started developing along with the practice of divination. The earliest inscriptions that contain full sentences were found on the oracle bones dated in the late Shang period.
Excerpt from a 1436 primer on Chinese characters

The language of those inscriptions later evolved into today’s standard logographic system.The development of writing had a large impact on Chinese culture.

The administration of the state started relying on written records. Individuals who had the need to capture personal thoughts through prose and poetry could now do it.
Egyptian and Chinese characters

Writing and Divination

  • Ancient Chinese were concerned about their future, and they actively tried to predict it. The most popular way of predicting the future was the use of oracle bones.
  • Oracle bones were scraped and cleaned oxen shoulder blades or turtle plastrons, inscribed with divination marks. A person would ask a question, and the diviner would carve it into the bone. The bone would then be placed near the fire, and at some point, it would crack. The diviner would then try to interpret the lines formed by cracking and answer the person’s question.
  • The new form of divination that emerged during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-226 BCE) relied on the written text completely. It was the I-Ching, also known as The Book of Changes.

Evolution of Chinese Script

Ancient Chinese script has been developing for ages. Scientists have identified several scripts that were phases of that evolution.
Mongolian text from The Secret History of the Mongols in Chinese transcription

  • Jiaguwen was the pictographic script that was used on Oracle bones around 1600-1000 BCE. An inscription showed an object that represented a concept.
  • Dazhuan was a more refined pictographic script that emerged around 1000-700 BCE. It was also known as Greater Seal script. The pictures were written on bronze and most likely wood.
  • Xiaozhuan (Lesser Seal script) is a more logographic script, which means that the symbols represent concepts rather than objects. It was developed around 700 BCE, and people still use it today.
  • Lishu was developed for bureaucratic purposes around 500 BCE, and it was used extensively during the Qin and Han Dynasties. This script was also known as the clerky script.
  • Paper was invented during the Han Dynasty. Before that, texts were written on bamboo scrolls.
  • Some cursive, ornate scripts, such as Caoshu (Grass Script), Kaishu (Standard Script), and Xingshu (Running Script) were developed too during the Qin and Han dynasties. These scripts were used in poetry and calligraphy.

Chinese logographic script – which is essentially different from phonetic scripts that are in use in most languages of the world – had a great influence on the whole Chinese culture.

Since it is not based on the value of sounds, it does not reflect pronunciation differences that occur between different regions and epochs. Literate people could – and still can – easily read works written by people whose spoken dialect they couldn’t understand as well as old classic texts.

Countries like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam adopted the Chinese script and developed it further to reflect their spoken languages.

Chinese script also served as the basis for Khitan, Jurchen, and the Yi Script of the various indigenous peoples. The Tangut Script of Tibet is also based on Chinese Script.


What is the difference between a pictographic, logographic, and phonetic script?

A pictographic script displays objects that represent concepts; logographic represent the concept itself, while the phonetic script represents words as they are spoken.

Where was the first evidence of Chinese writing and script found?

The earliest evidence was found on ancient oracle bones.

Which ancient Chinese logographic script is still in use today?

It is Xiaozhuan, also known as the Lesser Seal script.

What is the other name for the Lishu script? Why?

The Lishu was also known as the clerky script because of its use in bureaucracy.

How are Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts linked?

Not only that all of them are logographic; Japanese and Korean scripts were developed from the Chinese script.