Chinese is the longest continuously used language in the world. Even the oldest and earliest inscriptions are Chinese. Ancient Chinese letters have been modified and re-modified to evolve the Chinese language that we know today.
The most striking feature of these ancient Chinese letters was that they did not represent letters, as in the English language. Chinese letters cannot be used with other letters to form new words. Instead, each Chinese letter represents a concept. They carry a complete meaning that cannot be altered.
Origin of Ancient Chinese Letters:
The earliest Chinese letters evolved from the non-linguistic symbols that were used on pottery and jades to symbolize the clan or family that owned them. Gradually these symbols gave way to words. Exactly when this happened is not known.
Ancient Chinese letters first officially existed in the Shang dynasty. These letters were inscribed upon bones of animals and shells of turtles. The bones, mostly used by Shang officials are famously called oracle bones. These were known as Jiaguwen in China.
Dazhuan was the second stage of the evolution of the Chinese script. Here, the etchings were found on bronze vessels instead of bones of animals. Jiaguwen and Dazhuan are believed to be the same, except that the former was inscribed on animal bones and the latter on bronze vessels.
Salient Features of Ancient Chinese Letters:
Ancient Chinese script was essentially monosyllabic. This gave way to what is known as the rebus script. In this script, a similar symbol is used to represent two words that have the same sound on pronunciation.
Another striking feature of the ancient Chinese script was the use of a principle known as polysemy. What this basically means is the use of similar letters to represent two words that have a different sound but similar meaning and concept.
These confusing concepts brought about a lot of confusions in the ancient Chinese script. Misunderstandings and wrong concepts were the drawback of using this script. Hence the script and letters were modified to make it them unambiguous.
The Evolution of Letters in Ancient China:
The Jiaguwen and Dazhuan scripts were the precursors of ancient Chinese script. These were more pictorial in nature. The letters underwent lots of changes and evolved a variety of scripts in the process.
Xiaozhuan script came next. This script was more stylized and less pictorial. The script was used extensively and became a success. So much so, that the modern Chinese language is a direct descendant of this script.
The government offices then needed a script that had lesser stokes and was faster to write. This gave way to the Lishu or the clerical script. It was mostly used by government officials and clerks.
Chinese became the inspiration for a language of many other countries such as Japan and Korea. Ancient Chinese letters still go on to inspire many forms of art, such as calligraphy and tattoo drawing. The letters have an everlasting presence among the human civilization even today.