丁公陶片為什麼重要?

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1993 / 7月

文‧陳淑美



丁公文字陶片並非我國發現的最早文字,但卻備受矚目,為什麼?

談起中國文字的起源,一般人能想起的,可能就是最古老的文字「甲骨文」了。

甲骨文因刻在龜甲及獸骨上,原先被當作中藥材賣,一八九九年被一位生病的京官發現,舉世震驚,迄今仍被認為是中國可考的漢字之源。

甲骨文發現至今已近百年,多年來,中國人心中一直有一道謎題待解:像甲骨文這樣已具備「象形、指事、會意、形聲、轉注、假借」六書的文字,應該代表漢字定型的初期,而不是最古老的文字。在甲骨文之前,應還有一段綿長的文字發展期,只是甲骨文之前,究竟是何種文字型態,至今仍沒有定論。

釋讀古文考驗大

有人認為,古來「結繩記事、伏義畫卦」的傳說,乃至刻在岩石上的動物畫「史前岩畫」,或許可部分解答文字的源起。但是這跟理解中方塊狀的漢字造型,畢竟有段距離,人們的疑惑仍然無解。

比較能說服大家的,是近年來出土的石器、玉器及陶器上的刻文。目前人們已可從這些標記中歸納出意義,有些純為記數用,如∣、∥、龤B×,有些是氏族的標記,如央B式B均B芋A還有一些則逐漸進化到可以「想像」為文字。

如「丑v這樣的文字,已經很形象化了,似乎誰都可猜猜它的意思。有人把它解釋為「上面像日,中間是火,下面是山,像太陽光照下,山上起了火,本義為熱」。但也有人認為,「像山上的雲氣承托著初出的太陽,是原始的旦字」。又如「屆v字,有人說是像「層巒疊嶂,山外有山之形,是為岳字」,但也有人說是「上下兩羊相疊,應為羊字」。

一直到今天,釋讀這些古文仍是一大考驗。即使是甲骨文,目前能讀出意義的,也只佔出土總數的五分之一。甲骨文之前的文字就更不用說了。

年代不是最早,但意義重大

經過考證,甲骨文是商代晚期使用的文字,約在西元前一千二百年間,距今約三千二百多年左右。而一些器物刻文的年代都比甲骨文早。

丁公村發現的陶片,經過「碳十四」的科學測定,年代約在西元前二千二百年(誤差正負一百年),距今約四千二百多年,將中國文字的起源往前推了近千年。

它不是中國最古的文字,山東大汶口,及發現在浙江的良渚陶文的年代,都比丁公陶片早。河南舞陽發現的一只有「目」與「日」的龜甲刻文,年代甚至遠達迄八千年,被認為是我國迄今發現的最早文字。

丁公陶片的重要性在,它的刻文非常完整,橫列著五行十一個字,幾乎可以相信是個句子。在此之前,大多數器物的刻文多半為單個或三兩陳列,不大能說明這些標記到底是「記號」,還是「文字」,有關中國文字的起源問題,經常在這兩者之間爭論。

中西文字同期發展

另外,它出土於「龍山時期」(距今四千年左右)的文化遺址,多年來學者一直在努力尋找龍山時期的文字,山東、河南曾發現過幾個,但數量極少。丁公遺址發現如此多數量的文字,為龍山人的文明,做了有利的證明。

若從漢字體系來看,將丁公陶文,上與更早期發現的大汶口陶文,下與商代晚期發現的甲骨文連起來,中國文字的脈絡約可勾勒出一個大概。

跟世界文字史比來,兩河流域圖畫式的「楔形文字」,約在西元前三千五百到三千一百年間;象形字成形於西元前三千年,出現句子,則在西元前二千年代中期。

假設中國文字也是在丁公才出現句子,從大體上看來,中西文字體系的發展年代似乎是並行的。但與鄰近中國的日、韓、越南相比,這些地方還未曾發現距今四千多年前的字,目前看來,中國文字的發源可能早於東亞各國。

各種刻文的發現與釋讀,只是人們解答文字源頭的嘗試,在歷史悠遠的史前文化中,這些刻文都提供了一部分的解答,而丁公陶文,確也打通一些重要的環節。

相關文章

近期文章

EN

Character Development

Jackie Chen /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Phil Newell

The pottery shard with inscribed characters found in Dinggong are by no means the earliest written characters found in China. Yet they are still given a great deal of attention. Why?


When you talk about the origin of Chinese characters, perhaps most people think of the old "oracle bones," the oldest known objects with characters more or less as we know them today.

Oracle writing was done on tortoise shells and animal bones, and these were often taken as materials for making Chinese medicines. They were rediscovered in 1899 by an official from the capital being treated for an illness; they created a tremendous sensation. Today they are still considered an important resource for studying the origins of Chinese script.

It's been nearly 100 years since the rediscovery of oracle bone writing, and there has always been one mystery. The characters on the oracle bones, which are of the six orthodox varieties of "ideographic, pictographic, compound ideographic, attered phonetic, combined meaning/phonetic, and phonetic loan" characters, must have already been at an early stage of standardization, and could not have been the earliest Chinese writing. There must have been an extended period of script development before the oracle bones, but as of the present there is no agreed theory about what shapes such characters might have had.

From recording to writing:

Some people contend that perhaps the traditional tales of "recording by tying knots in string" and "the legendary emperor Fu Hsi drawing the eight trigrams" as well as prehistoric animal drawings can all account, at least in part, for the origins of characters. But there is still quite a distance between these things and the regularly shaped Chinese writing system, so doubts about this theory persist.

More convincing are carved characters found on stone and jade items unearthed in the last few years. Presently people can deduce meanings from these markings. Some are purely for counting, like |, ||, =, and (. Some are clan markings, such as , , , or . And some, with a bit of evolution, could "conceivably" be written characters.

Take for example jottings like . It is clearly depictive, and it seems possible to guess the meaning. Some people explain it as "looking like a sun on the top, a fire in the middle, and mountains at the bottom, so it must have something to do with heat." But others believe that "it looks like a sun rising out of a mist, so it's a primitive representation of the character dan( 旦) for 'day.'" Or take for instance. Some say it looks like a series of overlapping peaks, like a mountain range, and could be related to the character yue (

岳) for "hills." But others say it looks like a pair of rams, and is related to the character yang (羊), meaning sheep. Today interpretation of these symbols is still a demanding task. Even for oracle bones, only about a fifth of the marks are decipherable. So you can't expect much from pre-oracle bone script.

Not the earliest, but the most important:

It has been confirmed that oracle bone writings were used in the late Shang dynasty, about 1200 BC in the Julian calendar, or about 3200 years ago. And there are some other ciphers that go back even father.

Through carbon-14 dating, it has been confirmed that the pottery shard found it Dinggong is from about 2200 BC (with a margin of error of plus or minus 100 years), or about 4200 years ago. This pushes back the origin of Chinese characters by almost another 1000 years.

These are still not the oldest characters in China; relics discovered at Dawenkou in Shandong and at Langzhu in Zhejiang both predate the Dinggong site. A tortoise shell found in Wuyang in Henan Province with the characters mu (目), meaning "eye," and jih (日), indicating "sun," could go back perhaps 8000 years in time. It is considered the oldest writing sample yet discovered in China.

The importance of the pottery in Dinggong lies in the fact that the characters are highly integral and complete. It seems quite easy to accept that 11 characters in five columns make up a sentence. Prior to this most characters stood alone, or at most in groups of two or three, so that neither side in the debate over whether these are simply marks or actually written symbols for specific words was fully persuasive. In fact, the question of the origin of Chinese characters has long been fought out on the battle lines between these two positions.

Similar development East and West:

Further, Dinggong is a site belonging to Longshan Culture (about 4000 years ago). For many years now scholars have been anxious to get their hands on some Longshan script; though some had been discovered in Shandong and Henan, the numbers were extremely limited. The abundant writings found at the Dinggong site provide useful evidence of the Longshan Culture that had been supposed to exist.

If you look at it in terms of the system of Chinese characters, and place the Dinggong find after the earliest Dawenkou pottery markings and before the more recent late-Shang oracle bone characters, a rough approximation of the development of Chinese penmanship can be surmised.

Looking at the history of script elsewhere in the world, the cuneiform writing of the Indus and Euphrates river valleys is from about 3100-3500 BC, ideographic characters appeared about 3000 BC, and sentences have been found from the middle of the second millenium BC. Assuming that the symbols found in Dinggong do indeed make sentences, speaking overall it appears that the development of writing systems occurred on roughly parallel lines in both the Orient and Middle East. But compared to China's neighbors like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, none of whom have uncovered writing symbols from even 4000 years ago, for the moment it appears that writing developed in China earlier than in any other East Asian country.

The discovery and interpretation of various kinds of script is simply an attempt to explain the origins of writing. These provide pieces of the puzzle from distant and prehistoric cultures, a puzzle to which the characters on the pottery of Dinggong are sure to add some important links.

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