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date: 30 May 2017

The Chinese Writing System

Abstract and Keywords

The Chinese script is one of the major writing systems of the world and has over three thousand years of recorded history. Native accounts of its origin have been extremely influential and remain part of the general discourse, even though newly discovered archaeological materials in many cases challenge the traditional view. The earliest known examples of Chinese characters survive on oracle bones, and these are essentially ancestral to all modern forms of written Chinese, even though the script went through great changes during the following millennia. One of the most important such changes was the Qin-Han transition from the scripts of the Warring States period to that of the dynastic era. In the medieval period, the Chinese script was adopted for other languages in East and Central Asia, and in some cases was modified to create new Sinoform scripts (e.g., Khitan, Jurchen, and Tangut).

Keywords: Chinese writing, script, history of writing, orthography, literacy, ideograph

The Chinese script is among the main writing systems of the ancient world, and with its over three millennia of documented history is the only one that has been in continuous use essentially in the same form until today. The earliest surviving examples of Chinese writing go back to the late Shang 商 (ca. 1300–1046) period, around 1300 bce, which is considerably later than some of the inscriptions written in Egyptian and Mesopotamian scripts. This had led to the hypothesis that the Chinese script may have been imported from West Asia (e.g., Mair 1992), but to this day there is no credible proof supporting this theory. Instead, the available evidence suggests that the Shang script was an indigenous invention dating not much earlier than our earliest extant examples.

Starting with Jesuit contacts with China, from about the early seventeenth century there was a growing interest among Western scholars with regard to how the Chinese script compared with other writing systems of the world and what its nature was. Initially, Chinese characters were understood in the West as being able to communicate ideas directly without the need to be vocalized, that is, without the medium of language and speech. These arguments usually emphasized how people in various parts of China, and even in neighboring countries, who spoke different dialects or languages and thus were unable to understand each other verbally, could resort to writing as an efficient means of communication (e.g., Bacon 2008: 122–123; Nieuhof 1669: 157–161). Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (1760–1844) was the first to criticize this understanding, arguing that Chinese characters in fact represented words of spoken language and not ideas independently of language (Du Ponceau 1838: xxxi–xxxii). With the development of the academic discipline of linguistics came the belief that languages in general shared similar characteristics and that true writing was a graphic representation of language, which by definition was inseparable from pronunciation. In the second half of the 1930s, a (p. 32) heated debate developed in Western Sinology precisely on the issue of whether Chinese writing was ideographic or logographic, that is, whether the characters represented ideas or words (Creel 1936; Boodberg 1937; Creel 1939; Boodberg 1940; Lurie 2006). The debate subsequently subsided, but the issue is still of interest, even if most scholars today would agree that Chinese characters record Chinese language, whatever variety or dialect it may be, and that scripts in general cannot communicate ideas directly. Having said that, there is sometimes perhaps too much emphasis on the phonetic aspect of the script and its indebtedness to spoken language, disregarding the rich substratum of extraphonetic possibilities that can be, and indeed often have been, utilized in literary or political writings.

Before the archaeological discoveries of the modern age, the history of the script was seen in light of traditional accounts written during the Eastern Han 漢 dynasty (25–220). We know no earlier descriptions of the origins of writing, even though by this time the script had been in use for about a millennium and a half. The Eastern Han description of the origin of writing was so influential that it remained in use for the following 1,900 years and to some extent is still used today. Archaeological discoveries, especially those in the first half of the twentieth century, were invariably interpreted against this model, leading to a number of difficulties. In most cases, it is easier to abandon much of the traditional terminology, because the old terms do not seem to be identifiable with what is in front of us and, at the same time, they carry a wealth of additional connotations attached to them during the last two thousand years.

Native Accounts of the Early History of Chinese Writing

The earliest native accounts of the history of the Chinese writing system date to the Eastern Han period, around the late first century ce. These appear in the “Postface” of the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 (Explanation of Simple Graphs and Analysis of Composite Characters, hereafter Shuowen), completed by Xu Shen 許慎 (d. ca. 149) around ad 100 (Boltz 1993: 429), and the roughly contemporaneous “Yiwenzhi” 藝文志 (“Monograph on Arts and Writings”) of the Han shu 漢書 (History of the Former Han) (Hulsewé 1993: 129–130), even if the latter had probably been adopted from earlier sources. Although these two accounts display a number of important differences, in many respects they are quite similar, and it is likely that they ultimately go back to the same source. The version in the Shuowen is more elaborate and contains details not available in the Han shu, perhaps as the result of the Shuowen’s more pronounced interest in the script, as opposed to the literary focus of the “Yiwenzhi.”

(p. 33) According to the Shuowen account (see also Chapter 6), the first signs were the work of the mythical ruler Pao Xi 庖羲 (also known as Fu Xi 伏羲) who composed the eight trigrams (bagua 八卦) of the Yijing 易經 (Classic of Changes) by observing the signs (xiang 象) of heaven and the patterns (fa 法) on the ground. This latter was also identified as the “prints of birds and beasts” (niaoshou zhi wen 鳥獸之文). In addition to this description, the Shuowen provides another story, according to which in the time of Shennong 神農, the Divine Husbandman, people were using knots on threads, but with time this proved to be insufficient to record their affairs. As a solution, Cang Jie 倉頡, historian of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, created writing, once again by observing the prints of birds and beasts on the ground. Whether the story of Pao Xi and that of Cang Jie are two alternate myths or in fact represent consecutive stages of the same narrative, they signify that at the earliest stage writing was said to have arisen from imitating various patterns in the natural world, especially the footprints of animals.

The Shuowen, however, also provides technical details about Cang Jie’s invention of writing, claiming that he first created the simple-component characters called wen 文 (“patterns”) and then, by combining the forms and sounds (xing sheng 形聲) of these, the multicomponent characters called zi 字 (“name, character”). The word zi is explained as referring to the multiplication (ziru 孳乳) of characters, implicitly connecting it with zi 子 (“child, offspring”). Yet the dichotomy between wen and zi is clearly based on the two syllables of the word wenzi 文字 (“writing, script”), which by Han times, but not much earlier, was a commonly used binom. Xu Shen separates the binom into its constituents and rationalizes them as two distinct items, a point of view also reflected in the title of the Shuowen: (i) “explicating simple characters” (shuowen 說文) and (ii) “dissecting complex characters” (jiezi 解字). This explication of the meaning of the words wen and zi, however, is unattested in other early sources and may not reflect a historically accurate etymology.

Even if the terms wen and zi did not signify a distinction between complex and simple characters, Chinese writing in general indeed consists of single-component or multicomponent graphs, which by definition represent two sequential stages. As to the principles according to which characters were composed, the Shuowen identifies the following six principles, calling these liushu 六書, or the “six scripts” (English translation of terms adopted from Boltz 1994, 144–145).

  1. (1) zhishi 指事 (“indicating the matter”): expressing concepts inferentially or symbolically, rather than through pictorial representation;

  2. (2) xiangxing 象形 (“representing the form”): depicting objects graphically as pictographs;

  3. (3) xingsheng 形聲 (“formulating the sound”): combining a phonetic and semantic component;

  4. (4) huiyi 會意 (“conjoining the sense”): putting together two characters and use their semantic values to approximate the meaning of a new word;

  5. (p. 34) (5) zhuanzhu 轉注 (“revolved and redirected [graphs]”): rotating existing characters to represent cognate words (this explanation is only a conjecture, because the zhuanzhu category is hard to interpret, mainly because very few characters are explicitly identified as belonging to this category);

  6. (6) jiajie 假借 (“loaned and borrowed [graphs]”): borrowing existing characters for their phonetic value to represent new words.

The Shuowen account continues with more specific details about the subsequent history of the script, describing how a certain historian called Zhòu 籀 from the court of King Xuan of the Zhou 周宣王 (r. 827/825–782 bce) compiled a work called Dazhuan 大篆 (“Great Seal Script”), in which he modified the so-called “ancient script” (guwen 古文), allegedly used by Confucius (551–479 bce?) and Zuo Qiuming 左丘明 (fl. fifth century bce). With the decline of Zhou rule, regional powers grew in strength, eventually forming the seven large states of the Warring States, which were no longer controlled by a central authority and thus had their own languages and scripts. According to the Shuowen, this situation changed when the First Emperor of the Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246–210 bce) brought the regional states under his control and created a unified empire. His chancellor Li Si 李斯 (ca. 280–208 bce) proposed to unify the script and discard everything that did not agree with the Qin script. As a means of promulgating the new standard, leading officials created three different textbooks, each of which relied on dazhuan characters of historian Zhòu, at times heavily abbreviating and altering those. The new script was, says the Shuowen, the xiaozhuan 小篆 (“small seal script”) script. The Qin empire also saw the appearance of lishu 隸書 (“clerical script”), which primarily grew out of the need for a simple and easy way of writing in the newly founded bureaucracy. Following this, a variety of different calligraphic styles came into being, with additional styles emerging later on.

This traditional account of the origin and early history of the Chinese script over time became extremely influential and lay at the basis of all subsequent discussions concerning the history and nature of Chinese characters. Considering it in the light of the intellectual milieu of the Eastern Han period, when it was written, it is apparent that Xu Shen did not compile the Shuowen purely for linguistic or philological purposes but saw the script as the prerequisite for successful government (Boltz 1994: 150–151). In the “Postface,” he stressed that “writing is the foundation of the classics and the arts, the beginning of royal government; it is the means by which people of the past reach posterity, by which people of the future know the past” (Galambos 2006: 143). It is this belief in historical continuity that is reflected in his overview of the history of writing. Part of this perspective on history was seeing the Han as reimplementing the central power of the Zhou that had allegedly preceded the chaos of the Warring States period (481–221 bce) (Galambos 2006: 143–144). Accordingly, Xu Shen’s account portrays the Qin unification of writing as a restoration of an original order that existed before the world sank into disorder, which inevitably signified a general moral decline. He sees orthography, and the script in general, as symptomatic of the moral and political situation.

(p. 35) Archaeological Evidence and the Early Stages of the Script

The twentieth century yielded an unprecedented amount of manuscripts and inscriptions, and these allow us to reinterpret the origin and early development of Chinese writing. This is not to say, however, that similar discoveries were completely absent in earlier times. We have records of old manuscripts coming to light from at least Han times. One of the earliest recorded cases was the discovery of guwen documents in the old residence of Confucius, which allegedly yielded copies of documents dating back to the Xia and Shang dynasties, as well as copies of the Lunyu 論語 (the Analects) and Xiaojing 孝經 (Classic of Filial Piety) written in the so-called tadpole script (kedou wenzi 科斗文字) (Kong Anguo 孔安國 [d. ca. 100 bce], “Preface to the Classic of DocumentsShangshu xu 尚書序). These documents were transcribed into the modern script and promptly integrated into scholarly discourse. To name another famous incident, in 279 several texts, including the Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年 (Bamboo Annals), were found in the tomb of King Xiang 襄 of Wei 魏 (r. 318–296 bce) in Ji 汲 County, modern He’nan province (Shaughnessy 1993). Later on, during the Song dynasty (960–1279), a general interest in collecting antiquities was yet another important trend that brought ancient inscriptions into the focus of scholarly attention, resulting in a number of important works on epigraphy and paleography.

In general, these premodern textual discoveries were evaluated according to the traditional understanding of the nature and history of writing, ultimately going back to the Eastern Han accounts. Indeed, the trend of interpreting discoveries within the framework of the traditional model of the Chinese script continued to the modern age, and can be met with even today. One of the major sources of problems is that it is difficult to match archaeological material with what is being described in early sources. We cannot unambiguously identify what terms such as dazhuan, zhòuwen (“the script of [the historian] Zhòu”), and guwen refer to with regard to the inscriptions and manuscripts that come out of the ground today. English translations such as “great seal script” are of course also flawed, as they rely on the idea that the zhuan 篆 script was used on seals, a notion that goes back to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western encounters with China. Similarly, it is hard to classify the peculiar type of script used on the relatively large number of bamboo-slip documents from the ancient state of Chu 楚, and it is evident that we cannot ascribe it to any of the categories mentioned in the Shuowen, apart from calling it a regional script. Yet these bamboo slips are clearly not exceptional, because a considerable number of them have been unearthed in recent decades, and some contain important parallels with transmitted texts well known from traditional scholarship.

Therefore, current research tends to avoid using the traditional Chinese terms, choosing instead descriptive terms according to the media, time frame, provenance, use, and other characteristics that can be associated with the material. The archaeological (p. 36) material has also forced us to re-evaluate the history of Chinese writing and make significant modifications to the traditional model. Among the most important materials in this respect are oracle-bone inscriptions produced by the Shang and Zhou peoples around the thirteenth to eleventh centuries bce. These were divination records carved onto turtle shells and bovine scapulae by royal diviners, and today they represent the earliest examples of Chinese writing (Keightley 1978). They are not mentioned in traditional sources and thus seem to have been completely forgotten by the time Han intellectuals turned their attention to the history of their script. Likewise, there is no record of the variety of pottery marks found at Banpo 半坡, Jiangzhai 姜寨, and other Neolithic sites, which may possibly represent a form of proto-writing, although their connection with each other, and especially with the late Shang script, is still unsubstantiated.

Even though the archaeological material provides important clues to the origin of Chinese writing, it does not fully resolve the problem. Opinions vary on how far the oracle-bone inscriptions are removed from the initial stage of the script, ranging from decades to centuries. But the inscriptions nevertheless provide firsthand evidence about a stage in the history of the script earlier than that known to the Han dynasty scholars who formulated the traditional models. Accordingly, our understanding of how Chinese characters were born somewhat differs from traditional accounts. Instead of the liushu model, starting from the Republican period of the twentieth century Chinese palaeographers advanced the sanshu 三書 (“three scripts”) theory, which itself went through several stages of modifications (Tang 1935; Chen 1956; Qiu 2000). Generally speaking, this theory considers that the overall majority of characters were formed according to three principles, and these principles may also represent three evolutionary stages. According to Chen Mengjia’s 陳夢家 (1911–1966) model, advanced on the basis of Tang Lan’s 唐蘭 (1901–1979) original idea, the three types of characters were (i) pictographs, (ii) phonetic loans, and (iii) semanto-phonetic compounds (Chen 1956: 75–83). Qiu Xigui 裘锡圭 suggested replacing the category of pictographs with that of “semantographs” (Qiu 2000: 106).

According to William G. Boltz, the three stages of the development of Chinese characters were (i) the zodiographic (i.e., graphs originally drawn to depict objects were chosen to represent words of the language), (ii) the multivalent (i.e., pre-existing characters were used for writing new words, either adopting the phonetic or semantic values of the original character), and (iii) the determinative (i.e., additional—either semantic or phonetic—components were added to characters to differentiate them). Boltz also asserts that the same principles were at work at the birth of other major writing systems of the world (Boltz 2000). This naturally leads to the conclusion that the Chinese writing might have also evolved into a syllabary or an alphabet, and indeed, Warring States manuscripts demonstrate a tendency towards desemanticization. This trend, however, was arrested by the Qin-Han standardization of writing and the scholars’ attitude towards the script and the tradition it embodied (Boltz 1994: 168–177). In a sense, this evolutionary potential was accomplished by later phonetic systems that stem from Chinese characters, such as the Japanese kana, the nüshu 女書 (“female script”) from Hu’nan (p. 37) province, and the zhuyin fuhao 注音符號 (“phonetic symbols”) introduced during the Republican period and still used in Taiwan.


Recent archaeological discoveries also provide material for reconstructing subsequent developments in the history of the Chinese script. One of the most interesting aspects is the transition from the Warring States period to the dynastic era, especially the Qin and Han periods. A striking contrast with the traditional accounts of this transition is that there is little immediate proof of the unification of the script during the time of the First Emperor of the Qin. For example, the edict plates officially issued by the Qin government display a surprising degree of orthographic inconsistency, and the same variability is also evidenced in Qin and Han steles (Galambos 2006: 35–39). This indicates that the reforms may not have been as sweeping as described in Han sources, which in any case tended to overstate the strictness of Qin administrative and punitive measures. Moreover, the transition from Warring States scripts to the clerical script seems to have taken much longer than a few years, and there is evidence that the clerical script was used long before the unification of China. Similarly, the regional characteristics of scripts did not disappear with the reign of the First Emperor but are evidenced even in some Han dynasty tombs.

Nevertheless, even if it took significantly longer than Han sources claimed, the transition to the clerical script was a major episode in the history of writing. The process, called libian 隸變 or liding 隸定 (“clericization”), essentially involved a component-level transcription of pre-Qin characters to clerical ones (Zhao 2009). In the majority of cases, the transcription was straightforward and the new characters consisted of the same components as the old ones. Yet there are also many cases when the structure of new characters did not reproduce the orthography of old ones. One of the reasons behind the discontinuity of orthographic structure was the variability of the script, a phenomenon amply demonstrated by the archaeological record (Galambos 2006). Scribes and other literate people in early China—and all the way through modern times—often wrote characters, especially complex ones, with variable structure, attesting to the relatively flexible attitude towards orthographic uniformity at the time. Technically speaking, these variants were not seen as “mistakes” but merely alternate, and perfectly acceptable, ways of writing the same character.

There is some anecdotal evidence that writing characters incorrectly may have influenced records left for posterity. The Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋 (Mr. Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals) includes an amusing story that involved Zi Xia 子夏, one of the main disciples of Confucius, who was known for his literary skills and his supposed role in transmitting and editing the classics, including the compilation of the Mao (p. 38) commentary to the Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Poetry). The story describes Zi Xia’s encounter with a textual problem while on the road:

When Zi Xia was going to Jin 晉, he passed through Wei 衛, where someone read a historical record, saying, “The Jin army and three pigs crossed the Yellow River” 晉師三豕涉河. Zi Xia remarked, “That is wrong! It should say jihai 己亥 [not “three pigs” 三豕]. The character 己 is close to 三 (‘three’); and the character 豕 (‘pig’) resembles 亥.” Arriving in Jin, he enquired about it, and the text indeed said: “The Jin army crossed the Yellow River on the jihai day” 晉師己亥涉河.

( 2002: 1527)

The story contrasts everyday attitudes towards writing with the high intellectual standard of scholars exemplified by Zi Xia, who was able to make sense of a phrase in an archival record when it was no longer comprehensible to others. His ability to decipher corrupted pieces of text betrays an overall sensitivity to textual and palaeographic issues. Despite his own literary sophistication, he was no doubt used to reading characters written with inconsistent orthography, which would have been quite common during his time. The story does not condemn the writing habits that led to the corruption of the text but rather praises the skills of Zi Xia, who not only reconstructed the original phrase but also identified and explained the cause of the problem.

Han sources also contain occasional references to the significance of correct and consistent writing, usually in the context of criticizing mistakes. For example, the Shiji 史記 records how the official Shi Jian 石建 submitted a proposal but accidentally wrote the character ma 馬 (“horse”) with one stroke missing, and was terrified of the consequences of his negligence (Shiji 103.2766). The correct way of writing characters is also an issue raised by the famous Han bibliographer and editor Liu Xiang 劉向 (79–8 bce) in his “Appendix” (“Fulu” 附錄) to the newly compiled Zhanguo ce 戰國策 (Intrigues of the Warring States), where he complained that the books he had to work from had a multitude of mistakes and often omitted half of the characters, writing, for instance, the character xiao 肖 in place of zhao 趙, or the character li 立 in place of qi 齊. Even though Liu Xiang calls these mistakes, these were by no means unusual forms of those characters, as is amply evidenced by newly discovered manuscripts and inscriptions. Liu Xiang’s attitude towards these nonstandard characters demonstrates that despite their common use at the time, at least toward the end of the first century bce intellectuals and officials were concerned with orthographic consistency and the standardization of the script. Because the transmission of early Chinese texts to later periods involved multiple stages of editing by such standardization-minded scholars, our corpus of transmitted literature from the pre-Han period is based to a significant degree on their efforts. In contrast, manuscript sources that have not gone through such normalization typically reveal a more flexible, or even haphazard, attitude towards orthography.

Nonstandard forms were not limited to manuscripts but were also commonly carved on medieval stone inscriptions. Judging from the available material, ordinary scholars and scribes not only had little interest in trying to avoid using such characters but at times purposefully chose such forms for the sake of diversity, perhaps as a way of making (p. 39) the calligraphy and the text more interesting. With the shift to paper manuscripts, character variants remained in common use, despite the complaints voiced by elite scholars. For example, in the sixth century Yan Zhitui 顏之推 (531–ca. 591) complained about the proliferation of nonstandard characters not only in the popular sphere but also in the classics and the commentaries (Galambos 2011: 400). Indeed, the Dunhuang manuscripts, the bulk of which come from the ninth and tenth centuries, display an amazing variety of nonstandard variants. While we may question how representative the manuscripts from the northwestern garrison town of Dunhuang are for the whole of China, we see a very similar picture of orthographic flexibility in stele inscriptions that survive from Central China. Since medieval times, variants on paper manuscripts have been commonly referred to as suzi 俗字 (“popular or vulgar characters”), in contrast with the zhengzi 正字 (“correct characters”) that represented the official standard. Judging from manuscript evidence, texts produced in an official capacity were written in a relatively standard orthography. Most impressive in this respect are Tang Dynasty (618–907) official documents and Buddhist sutras commissioned by the Tang court—these were normally written in a meticulous hand with no variants whatsoever. As we move toward less official types of manuscripts, the number of suzi greatly increases. Especially manuscripts containing works of vernacular literature and students’ writing exercises are irregular, in terms of both handwriting style and orthography. In general, the less skilled the handwriting is in a manuscript, the more suzi we are likely to find in it. In addition, such manuscripts may also replace characters with others that have the same or similar pronunciation (phonetic borrowing), betraying the lack of concern not only for the structure of particular characters but also for which character stands for which word.

When dealing with variant forms, we should keep in mind that orthographic standards changed from one time period to the next, and one generation’s variant may have been another’s standard form. For example, the character gao 高 (“tall”) was at times written as 髙, and today the latter is usually referred to as a variant. Yet this form, called in Japan hashigodaka はしご高 (i.e., the character 髙 with a middle section written as a ladder), was the official standard at certain periods during the Tang (Ishizuka et al. 2012: 86–87). Unfortunately, as we do not have records of what the standard was at any given point in history, this information can only be accumulated piece by piece on the basis of officially sanctioned manuscripts and inscriptions (Ishizuka 2012). Some medieval dictionaries (e.g., Ganlu zishu 干祿字書, Longkan shoujian 龍龕手鑑) attempt to distinguish standard characters from nonstandard ones, but they are generally unspecific with regard to the chronological aspect of their usage. The situation is further complicated by the fact that what these dictionaries claim to be the standard does not always accord with actual practice and may instead represent a prescriptive ideal to which they subscribed. For instance, the eighth-century dictionary Ganlu zishu follows the Shuowen in recognizing 朙 as the standard form of the character ming 明 (“bright”), even though this form is almost never used in Tang manuscripts and therefore cannot have been the standard (Galambos 2011: 399).

Despite the seemingly haphazard nature of suzi characters, they were anything but random. Regardless of their popularity, the variants we see in medieval manuscripts (p. 40) were surprisingly stable, and many of them remained in use for over a millennium. In fact, a significant portion of the suzi seen in the Dunhuang manuscripts survived in the handwritten tradition up to the twentieth century, and many of them served as the basis for the simplified characters used in Mainland China today. The continuous use of the same suzi for many centuries testifies to the continuity of manuscript culture in medieval and early modern China, regardless of the recurring periods of political disunity and chaos. The surviving manuscripts from Dunhuang contain relatively few variants that do not commonly occur in other manuscripts, and most such cases are outright mistakes made by inexperienced copyists or people with a relatively low level of literacy.


We possess little information about the extent of literacy in early and medieval China. The wide range of excavated texts points to literate communities, but in most cases it is hard to estimate which groups and how large a segment of the overall population were producing and using these texts. As the Japanese example tells us, the presence of early inscriptions did not necessarily entail literacy even on a small scale, because writing could be, and at times certainly was, employed nonverbally for reasons of prestige and power (Lurie 2011: 15–66). In China, where writing is indigenous and has a more direct connection with the language than in early Japan, similar considerations would nevertheless have been at play. The oracle-bone inscriptions were produced by literate diviner groups, but it is difficult to judge whether the Shang kings or anyone else besides the diviners, and presumably the spirits, were expected to be able to read them. It is hypothesized that during the Western Zhou period, the transcription and archival of the sometimes quite lengthy court audiences would have been a sizable challenge to literate personnel at the court, and thus the practice would have contributed to the increase of literacy and its spread beyond the confines of the court (Falkenhausen 2011, Li 2011).

The literary and philosophical texts of the Warring States texts habitually talk about learning and its application for taking an office. Although it is possible that this culture of learning and ritual education involved a significant oral component, there is no doubt that written texts were also a vital part of it. The literate population probably consisted of the elite layers of society, those who ruled and those who helped them to rule. Education was a means of control and was largely in the hands of clan members, and lineage narratives constituted the basis of written knowledge (Cook 2011: 302). The development of various schools of learning and the eventual transmission of their masters’ teachings in writing corroborate the prevalence of literacy, even if for a relatively small portion of the total population. This is further corroborated by excavated Warring States manuscripts, many of which were clearly produced within the framework of a highly advanced manuscript culture, which could not have existed without an active base of people involved in various forms of literary production and use.

(p. 41) It is possible, however, that we underestimate the extent of literacy and that it was not limited to the elite, but some commoners also possessed basic literacy skills. The Mozi 墨子, for example, discusses certain regulations which had to be posted in public places for commoners, who were expected to understand them (Yates 2011: 341–342). Military personnel would have been required to write reports to, and read orders received from, their superiors, and there are surviving specimens of letters sent by ordinary Qin soldiers back home (Yates 2011: 362–363). It is possible that the soldiers who sent these letters did not write them themselves but had to rely on someone else’s help in their unit to write them on their behalf. Even so, this case still suggests that writing was relatively widespread among the nonelite sections of society and that even those who were not, or not fully, literate could make use of writing. There is also indication that some women in the early dynastic period would have been literate, especially those who ran businesses or were heads of households, as they would have been motivated, and in some cases required, to interact with the administrative and legal systems of the state (Yates 2011: 364–367).

The vast quantity of surviving manuscripts from Dunhuang confirms the prevalence of literacy in medieval China. Most of this material is Buddhist in content, demonstrating that this was a highly literate religious tradition that explicitly encouraged the dissemination of written scriptures for the sake of accruing karmic merits. There were undoubtedly different levels of education among members of the saṃgha, ranging from eminent monks who composed elaborate commentaries and sermons in elegant language to those who could only follow on paper the texts they already knew. But the monastic community on the whole was no doubt highly literate, and written scriptures played a major role in the lives of monks and lay believers. Communities of other faiths—Daoists, Christians, and Manicheans—were just as reliant on written texts and developed their own textual traditions. The Dunhuang manuscripts reveal that even lay education was closely connected with Buddhism, as numerous colophons testify that lay students were learning literacy skills in local monasteries and making copies of secular and religious texts alike (Zürcher 1989). In fact, a considerable number of manuscripts, including works of popular literature, may have been produced as part of such educational activity (Mair 1981).

Naturally, this does not mean that the majority of the population was literate. Many documents (contracts, land deeds, association circulars, etc.) found in Turfan and Dunhuang illustrate that people often could not even sign their own name and instead used various marks and mutilated characters. Unfortunately, there is little information on what segment of the population was illiterate, and the question is further complicated by the peripheral location and multilingual character of these regions where not being able to write Chinese characters did not automatically entail illiteracy. Finally, it is worth remembering that, as in most cultures, literacy was never a binary concept; there would have been many levels to it, depending on social background, vocation, and exposure to writing. As it is the case even today, the literacy needs of a farmer would have been quite different from those of the educated elite, and the two would have represented vastly (p. 42) different levels of textual sophistication, which would have inevitably shown in the quality of the manuscripts they produced.

Chinese Characters beyond the Border

The Chinese script, along with the massive corpus of religious and secular literature written in it over the centuries, formed the backbone of Chinese civilization, creating a textual tradition stretching from the Bronze Age until today. Yet the dynasties that ruled over the territory of today’s China were ethnically and culturally diverse, and calling them “Chinese” is only a convenient simplification. From the medieval period, the same script was also used by peoples who lived beyond the boundaries of the Chinese states and spoke different languages. The spread of the Chinese script was closely connected with the spread of Chinese-type Buddhism, and in many cases Buddhist texts functioned as the primary vehicle for the spread of the script. Among the most important countries that adopted the Chinese script were Japan, Korea, and Vietnam (Kornicki 2008). Of these, only Japan continues to use the Chinese script, intermixing it with two kinds of kana syllabaries, which ultimately also derive from Chinese characters.

Texts written in Chinese characters on the Japanese archipelago can be documented starting from the fifth century, while widespread literacy appears from the seventh and eighth centuries (Lurie 2011: 1). With the widespread use of the script, different ways of reading developed. One of them was phonetic reading, which entailed reading a character using its Chinese pronunciation, or more correctly, a Japanese approximation of its Chinese pronunciation. At the same time, characters would also have a native Japanese reading that depended on what word they represented. In Korea, analogous methods of reading Chinese characters developed, and by at least the seventh century the Chinese script and texts written in literary Chinese were in common use in the states of Koguryŏ 高句麗, Paekche 百濟, and Silla 新羅. In Vietnam, a Chinese-style civil service examinations system was introduced in 1075, in which the Confucian classics comprised the bulk of the curriculum. All formal writings were done in literary Chinese (Hán văn 漢文), whereas for the vernacular literary tradition a native writing system called chữ nôm 𡨸喃 (“southern writing”) was in use from around the fifteenth century (for a more detailed discussion of the Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese use of the Chinese script, see Chapter 33).

Because Japan, Korea, and Vietnam still exist as distinct countries, they are most commonly mentioned in the context of the spread of the Chinese script. Nevertheless, there were other regions where the script was also used, either in its original or modified form. The Uighurs of Gaochang 高昌 (around present-day Turfan 吐鲁番, Xinjiang), for example, in addition to the variety of phonetic scripts employed to write their language (e.g., Runic, Sogdian, Brahmi, Uighur), also used Chinese characters in Buddhist commentaries and sutras. Excavated texts demonstrate that they often intermixed Chinese characters in texts written with the Uighur script, much as it was and is still done in Japan, where the phonetic kana are mixed with Chinese characters. In doing so, the (p. 43) Uighurs vocalized the Chinese characters, depending on the context, either in Uighur or according to a received Chinese pronunciation (Takata 1985, Shōgaito 2004). Again, this received Chinese pronunciation did not reflect how Chinese was spoken in Gaochang at the time of writing the text but was based on the Dunhuang dialect of the ninth and tenth centuries, adapted to the phonetic structure of spoken Uighur. The Uighurs seem to have limited the use of Chinese characters to Chinese Buddhist texts.

The Chinese script also served as the basis for the so-called Siniform scripts in northern China (Kychanov and Kara 1996). Among these, the large Khitan script (Qidan dazi 契丹大字) was introduced in 920 by Emperor Taizu 太祖 (r. 907–926) of the Liao 遼 dynasty (Kane 2009). In contrast with the predominantly phonetic Khitan small script (Qidan xiaozi 契丹小字), the large script was logographic and consisted of characters modeled after the Chinese example, at times modifying existing Chinese characters and even directly adopting some of those. The Jurchen 女真 large script of the Jin 金 dynasty (1115–1234), invented around 1120, was in turn based on the large Khitan script, further modifying that. Shortly after founding the Xixia 西夏 state, the first Tangut emperor Li Yuanhao 李元昊 (r. 1032–1048) introduced a native Tangut script which was also inspired by the Chinese script, although much more loosely than in the case of the Khitan or Jurchen scripts. None of the approximately 6,000 Tangut characters was borrowed from the Chinese script, yet the strokes were unmistakably those of Chinese characters. Not only that, but the structural principles of character formation were also those of the Chinese script.

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