1993 / 7月
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.