An old missionary student of China once remarked that Chinese history is “remote, monotonous, obscure, and-worst of all-there is too much of it.” With an area of 9,596,960 sq. km, China ranks fourth among the world’s largest countries after Russia, Canada, and the U.S., but with a population of 1,367,485,388 (in 2015), China is the world’s most populous country. China also has many different dialects that are often mutually unintelligible, so the writing systems facilitate communication.
While spoken Chinese has changed quite a bit over the centuries, Chinese scripts have remained relatively constant. For example, while the spoken word used to express the meaning of a character may change from dialect to dialect, everyone familiar with one of the two scripts is able to read and understand the same newspaper article. This is because Chinese writing systems are logographic. Logograms or logographs, also known as “ideograms” or “hieroglyphs” are symbols that represent a whole word or an idea, as opposed to phonograms that represent sounds. One advantage of logographic writing is that it allows people of different cultures to communicate with each other, even if their spoken languages are unintelligible.
On the other hand, it takes many years of education to master a large enough set of logographs to be able to express complex ideas or concepts and the less educated find themselves functionally illiterate.
In this newsletter, will explore how these writing systems came about and how they support a multiplicity of dialects that are spoken in different regions of China.
Chinese civilization is the longest consistent civilization in human history so far. Set apart from the rest of the world, fiercely proud of its own traditions and resisting foreign includes, Chinese history starts in a characteristically independent manner.
It began about 1600 BC, with the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.), the earliest archaeologically recorded dynasty in Chinese history, during the same era that saw the destruction of Troy and the reign of Rameses the Great, King Tut, and the Hebrew patriarchs. The Shang dynasty ruled during the period of the Bronze Age in China, which began around 2000 B.C.) Like in many other ancient societies, rituals functioned in China as an instrument of social cohesion furthering pro-social behavior. Most of the paraphernalia for early rituals were made in bronze. Most bronzes may be described as ritual vessels for the worship of ancestors whose names often were inscribed in the bronzes.
You see, while Europeans believed that the King’s right to rule was by divine right – derived directly from the will of God, the Chinese believed that it was granted by the spirits of his ancestors who controlled the destiny of the domain. Therefore, the King consulted his ancestors often about policy and did so through questions inscribed in “oracle bones”, like the breast bone of a turtle or the shoulder blades of oxen.
The King also was expected to please the sun and rain gods, because they controlled the outcome of the harvest. Therefore, he offered sacrifices of wine and cereals to these great forces of nature. The sacrifices were held in elaborate bronze vessels and heated over the fires on the temple altar. During the Shang dynasty, bronze vessels were the symbol of royalty, in the same way as the gold crown was the symbol of royalty in Europe.
Thus, it may be said that the Chinese writing system dates back to the Shang era — bronze vessels and oracle bones—shoulder blades and turtle shells inscribed with signs and symbols, many of which are recognized as Chinese characters to this date.
Chinese Writing Systems
In the Chinese writing systems, each character represents morphemes and words and this is intrinsic to this language. Japanese shares the kanji characters, but also has phonetic characters. Korean has stopped using the hanja (kanji) characters. Therefore, while the Chinese writing system is not the only living logographic writing system in the modern world, it is the only one that is used by hundreds of millions of people still today as their primary writing system.
The Chinese Kaishu (楷書), or Standard Script appeared toward the end of the Han dynasty (220 CE). It is the traditional script used today in various Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and the Americas. The most important change in Chinese writing occurred in mid-20th Century, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) introduced the Simplified Script characters, Jiǎnhuàzì (简化字), replacing the traditional characters, first in 1956 and then in 1964.
Not every character was simplified, only the ones considered most complex or involving many strokes. The figure to the right illustrates how some characters were simplified.
The Simplified writing system is used in the PRC, Singapore, and Malaysia. The Traditional writing system is used in the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese communities.
There are seven main Chinese (漢語) dialects: Mandarin (官話), Cantonese (廣州話, 廣府話), Hakka (客家話), Wu (吳語), Min (閩語), Xiang (湘語), and Gan (贛語). Pŭtōnghuà (普通話, Common language), the variety of Mandarin spoken in the capital, Beijing, is the official language of Mainland China. Cantonese is the common language in Hong Kong and in overseas Chinese communities. Mandarin, Taiwanese (a variety of Min), and Hakka are the major languages of Taiwan. Six of the seven main dialects are spoken in the Southeast of China, south of the Yangtze River, and Mandarin is spoken in most of Northern China and in a section of Western China.
Wu (吴语) has approx. 77 million speakers. It is not an official language anywhere, but it is spoken in China (PRC) Taiwan (ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries where Wu Chinese migrants have settled.
Hakka (客家话) has approx. 34 million speakers. It is also not an official language anywhere, but it is spoken in China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries where Hakka Chinese migrants have settled.
Min (閩方言) has approx. 20 million speakers. Min (閩方言 in pinyin: min3 fang1 yan2) is the general term used to designate a group of Chinese dialects spoken in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian as well as by migrants from this province in Taiwan, Guangdong, Hainan and two counties in southern Zhejiang and the Zhoushan archipelago off of Ningbo. There are many Min speakers also among overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia.
The map on the left indicates the regions where the dialects of Mandarin and Southern Chinese are spoken.
The following table provides an overview of the languages and writing systems of China of the major regions of China:
Languages and writing systems of China of the major regions of China
The following includes information on related character encoded systems.
|Chinese Writing System||Where used||Character encoded systems (Codesets)|
|Chinese Simplified||Mainland China (PRC), Singapore and Malaysia||GB18030 (one, two or four-byte encoding)|
|Chinese Traditional||Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and most overseas communities||Big Five|
The UTF-8 character set may be used to display both character sets.