Written Chinese

Object: stele to ward off evil spirits
Stele with inscription and protective deity to ward off evil spirits, undated copy of a photograph: Punctum, Bertram Kober
Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Leipzig

Written Chinese

Characters in abundance

The world is of the opinion that those who know Chinese characters are wise and honourable, while those who do not know them are simpletons and oafs.

Zeng Quiao, Tongzhi, circa 1150

With its bewildering variety and characteristic graphic features, the Chinese script has been in constant use for almost 4,000 years. Oracle inscriptions on tortoise shells and bones are the oldest known surviving examples of the script. Stones, bronze vessels, wooden sticks, paper and silk were also used as writing surfaces. What were originally archaic pictograms evolved over time into word characters. In the Chinese language, each character denotes one syllable. The characters are not based on phonetics but rather on the meaning of words. The writing system was completed with symbols for numbers and sounds, characters that serve interpretive functions as well as those that indicate pronunciation. Some characters were borrowed from other languages. Differences in the meaning of words with the same pronunciation and same sound can therefore be individually expressed in writing. This logographic written form has survived in China to this day. 

The numerous regional variations (Zhòu script, seal script, the clerical, cursive, regular scripts, etc.) were simplified and unified in a number of writing reforms – for the first time in 220 BC and for the last time in 1955. Nevertheless, large Chinese character dictionaries still carry 50,000 to 80,000 different characters. Dots, lines and hooks form the basic structure of the characters that are composed according to certain principles of movement. Highly complicated characters can include up to 64 strokes. Seven strokes are sufficient for characters one encounters in everyday life.