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).
This essay seeks to place translation within a broad spectrum of bilingual practice. It shows the basic distinction but also the substantial overlap between oral and written transmission in the ancient and modern worlds, and focuses on issues of trust, prestige and cultural mixing in the history of translation practice. It argues that Roman translation models continue to shape modern approaches to the field. Discussion on why resistance may lie behind the paucity of translations in some languages. Issues raised by the transmission of religious texts have had special impact on the idea of translation, which nonetheless has remained as ‘fuzzy’ in practice in modern times as it was under the Roman Empire.