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ART & LEISURE: Evolution of Chinese Characters
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BT 201806 Art 10      汉字是世界上唯一没有消亡的从象形到形声、会意交融相合和不断发展完善的最古老的文字。汉字从产生到现在,虽没有跳出表意文字的圈子,但文字的形体一直按从繁到简的规律发展演变着。历史上主要出现了八种字体:甲骨文、金文、大篆、小篆、隶书、草书、行书,再到现在的简体字。
中国自古就有“书画同源”一说,这是因为最早的文字来源就是图画,书与画有很多内在的联系。汉字的起源就是原始图画,而后慢慢从图画变成一种“表意符号”。大约在公元前14世纪,殷商后期,“表意符号”演变成了比较定型的“甲骨文”,被刻在动物的骨头上和乌龟的龟板上。这被认为是“汉字”的第一种形式。至今为止发现的“甲骨文”有五千多种,而可以解读的有一千多个。

      西周时代,青铜器主要是王室的器皿。诸候没有铸造的权力。到了东周,诸候称霸,青铜器可任意铸造。金文也随之发展。金文的内容,最初只是铸刻一些代表族名,国名的符号。后来人们记功绩,受封赏,刻铸相传后代,以显其荣。金文使文字摆脱了图画性,这是汉字发展的第一块里程碑。

      春秋战国时“文字异形”,秦始皇统一天下之后,实行了一连串的改革:他采纳了丞相李斯的意见,推行“书同文”,统一了文字。统一后的字称为小篆。小篆是汉字第一次规范化的字体,此种书体上承东周时秦国器铭与刻石文字,融会各地书风而成。


      除了将大篆改为小篆外,秦始皇时期还使用了较小篆潦草些的隶书。经过多年演变,隶书到汉代才臻于成熟,成为汉代的主要通行书体。隶书的出现是汉字形体发展上的一次大改革,它结束了古文字时代,开创今文字新的时期,有划时代的意义。


      楷书是由隶书演变而来的,兴于汉末,盛于魏晋南北朝。直到现在,仍是汉字的标准字体,已有近2000年的历史了。在楷书发展的过程中,又演变出了行书与草书。行书是介于楷书与草书之间的运笔自由的一种字体。 草书由篆书、八分、章草,沿袭多种古文字变化而成。印刷术发明后,为适应印刷,尤其是书刊印刷的需要,文字逐渐向适于印刷的方向发展,由于宋体字适于印刷刻版,又适合人们在阅读时的视觉要求,是出版印刷使用的主要字体。


      汉字文化博大精深,源远流长,是每个中国人都应了解的文化知识。


Chinese language is very different from other languages, and since it is one of the oldest languages in the world, you might be interested in its history.


Unlike written English or other languages that use the phonetic transcription system, Chinese characters are pictorial, meaning they are based on images. Some concrete evidence of Chinese characters dating back to the era from 1500 to 950 BC has been unearthed.

BT 201806 Art 01Figure 1: The Oracle found on a turtle shell


Historians and archaeologists believe that the earliest form of pictographs was employed to serve the purpose of divination because people in ancient China were always overwhelmed with doubts and worries about illness, dreams, hunt and weather. They inscribed their agonies and distresses on carriers, namely turtle shells or other animal bones. Then they burnt or baked these carriers until cracks or fissures appeared for the prophets to interpret and accordingly provide long-lasting suggestions or solutions.


Characters found in this period were collectively classified as the Oracle. This was no longer interchangeable with individual symbols, and interpretation varied as per the individual historian or archaeologist.


Then in the era spanning 1100 – 256 BC, bronze was discovered and was widely used in China, and newer forms of Chinese characters gradually developed. However, at that time China was not as geographically spread-out as it is today owing to having amalgamated many smaller nations around its boundaries. As a result, each Chinese character had multiple variants. All of these were included in the Bronze script, also known as the Large Seal script. In fact, the Large Seal script was often used as a standard script of Chinese characters before the Clerical script came into being. The following illustration is indicative of the square shape that defined Chinese characters in that era.

BT 201806 Art 02Figure 2: A work of the Bronze script

BT 201806 Art 03Figure 3: A work of the Large Seal script


Over the next stage of evolution of Chinese characters, the Small Seals script appeared. Courtesy of the unification of China in 221-207 BC, under the rule of the Qin Dynasty, several changes occurred, and language was no exception. In order to strengthen the country, the monarch standardized the written Chinese script as one of the political measures. Hence, the Small Seal script was forcefully implemented on a nationwide scale. At this point, Chinese characters had assumed an identity that was distinct from the Oracle. They featured a simpler and squarer design, thus being easier to write and were widely diffused. In the meantime, the number of characters kept on increasing as the population expanded in tandem with the political and economic development of the country.

BT 201806 Art 04Figure 4: A poem written in Small Seal script

BT 201806 Art 05Figure 5: A comparison of the Large and Small Seal scripts with Mandarin


As is evident in the above illustration, the Seals’ brushstrokes were well-rounded and artistic, but they were not practical owing to slowing down reading and not being conducive to fast writing which was a necessity in real life. Therefore, the Clerical script was invented during the rule of the Qin Dynasty and it was then widely popularized by the rulers of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) due to its simplified design.


Invention and acceptance of the Clerical script was a remarkable change in the history of Chinese characters and calligraphy. It is commonly believed that the Clerical script marks a watershed between ancient and modern Chinese characters because it closely resembles modern Chinese characters in terms of strokes and structure. In fact, Chinese fonts and variations have been found as being based on the Clerical script.

BT 201806 Art 06Figure 6: A poem written with the Clerical script

BT 201806 Art 07Figure 7: A comparison of the Small Seal and Clerical script with Mandarin


A few hundred years later, the Standard script, derived from the Clerical script, became the mainstream trend.

BT 201806 Art 08Figure 8: A poem written with the Standard script


But Chinese characters retained their complicated nature even in the Standard Script. Hence the need to write fast prompted the invention and development of the Running script and eventually the Draft script (or Grass script). The Draft script could be written quickly because it modified the characters, like omitting certain parts, merging strokes, twisting portions or changing the stroke style.

BT 201806 Art 09Figure 9: A comparison of the basic Chinese scripts


An interesting opinion on the Draft script is that this particular font reached the end of its development during the rule of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), as it became indecipherable to others, although it was often present as part of Chinese calligraphy.


Subsequent to the formation of P.R.C., the Simplified script was introduced. Simplified Chinese has significantly reduced the strokes and simplified the structures of traditional symbols that were used in the Clerical script. And this movement is believed to have significantly reduced illiteracy in China.


History and evolution of Chinese characters is in reality the reflection of different eras. And it was very simple in the beginning, as it originated from symbols. Then it became complicated for daily use. Therefore, with the development of human society, the characters needed to be simplified across several stages to cope up with the requirements of changing times.

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