Carved Marks and the Invention of Chinese Characters.
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During the era of Huangdi, Cang Jie was the most distinguished man who devoted his utmost efforts to the invention of Chinese characters. Of course, many others made their contributions as well to the endeavor. Chinese characters were a product of a period, not invented by some individuals alone.
As a symbol record language, Chinese characters have three elements: the form, sound and meaning. Where did they come from? It has been said that they derived from the eight trigrams used for divination, and some people believe this today. However,this is groundless. There is convincing evidence that most Chinese characters originated directly from Carved marks.
A Carved mark with a meaning and in a relatively fixed form possessed part of the elements of writing. But it could not be pronounced and so it must be regarded as a precursor of characters, not a character itself. Many of the discovered prehistoric carved Marks were left on bone and jade articles. Most were on pottery ware.
Most carved Marks have been discovered on the pottery articles of Yangshao Culture (5,000-7,000 years ago) and Majiayao Culture (4,050-5,300 years ago). Of Yangshao Culture, most Marks were Carved on the painted black wide band around the mouth of earthen bowls with a round bottom. Fewer Marks were left on the bottom or on the external side of a basin. Most Marks were a vertical cut. Fewer Marks were cut in two vertical lines, or in the shape of a X, a Z, a hook or a T. There were various other shapes, such as the shape of a plant. In Majiayao Culture, about 10 shapes of Marks were commonly used such as +, -, X, O, +, ＃ and I. These Marks were generally cut in black on the lower part of a painted earthen pot.
The carved Marks on the earthenware of the Yangshao and Majiayao cultures appear in a separate and independent form, not in a linked form of written language. This makes them very hard to read or understand. Some specialists have tried to explain some of the Carved marks. They think that “X” may stand for the character “Five” for “Man” and "￬" for " Grass." Some others believe that most of such Marks represented the symbols of a family system, a blood lineage, a clan or a branch of a family tree. There are some basic facts in favor of this presumption. Many such Marks discovered in relics in a certain concentrated area may indicate the symbol of a clan. However, the majority of the Marks to be taken as a symbol of a clan are hard to be explained. If scores of, even more than 100, varieties of carved Marks are all taken as a symbol of a clan, the number of families or clans in the same relic would be that many. In fact, it is impossible. Inhabitants of different communities discovered in distant and different relics cannot be taken as the members of the same family system or blood lineage or clan. But the same carved Marks have been unearthed in different excavations several hundred li (one li = 0.5 kin) apart, according to some archeological materials. How can These marks be a symbol of a clan or a family?
We believe that Marks on pottery ware were used to record something. Carved records appeared in the history of various ethnic groups. This is readily found in materials of ethnological studies and has also been confirmed by prehistoric archeological materials. More than 40 pieces of recording tools made of bone were found in 1976 in the prehistoric tombs in Liuwan, Ledu County, by a Qinghai archeological team of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They were made of strips of bone, 0.3 cm wide and 1.8 cm long. On the upper part or the upper and lower parts of the strips, one or two or three Marks were carved. This type of record remained a record by using something, but it developed on the basis of records made by tying knots on a rope. With the emerging popularity of pottery ware, it was natural for people to carve Marks on pottery. Marks found in different areas usually featured a general similarity. Several most commonly used Marks have been found in different excavations, showing that some Marks were used across a wide area with generally accepted meanings. As such, they bore the intrinsic elements of Chinese characters.
Pottery Marks found in the late period of Dawenkou Culture in the lower reaches of the Yellow River (4,500-4,800 years ago) differ in style from those of the Yangshao and Majiayao cultures. Dawenkou Marks are much closer to being images of things. A total of 16 specimens have been found, on which 18 Marks in eight varieties of shapes were carved. Two specimens each have two marks, the others having only one mark and the whole or part of some Marks being made in crimson. Most Marks were laid on the outside of the neck of pottery wine vessels, while some were placed on the outside near the bottom.
Other unearthed relics include: 1. A large-mouthed pottery wine vessel of Nanjing's Yinyangying Culture (5,000-6,000 years ago), with incomplete decorations that can be clearly perceived. 2. Four jade articles of Liangzhu Culture (4,200-5,300 years ago), now in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C, USA, including a "jade arm ring" and three Bi (a round flat piece of jade with a hole in the middle, used for ceremonial perposes. The Bi were each Carved with a combined mark showing a bird perching on a mountain-top. 3. Two large Cong (a long hollow piece of jade with rectangular sides) now preserved in museums in China. One, in the Capital Museum, was Carved with two marks, one of which also shows a bird perching on a mountain top. Researchers believe it is a relic of Liangzhu Culture. The other, in the Museum of Chinese History, is said to have been unearthed from Shandong Province. According to researchers, it may be a relic of either Dawenkou Culture or Shandong's Longshan Culture.
Researchers have different views about the nature of Marks left on the pottery and jade articles of the late period of Dawenkou Culture. Most believe they are primitive characters. For instance, they believe the mark " ］ " stood for "dawn" or "soul"; " ╠ " for the complicated type of "soul" or the blend form of the two words of "soul" and "mountain"; and " ~ " for "catty." Others believe that These symbols are still limited to being simple pictures of things, being symbols to represent some individuals or a clan. Whether they are primitive Chinese characters or not remains to be determined. For example, a bird perching on a mountain top is too complicated to be a character and is very much like a picture, hardly resembling the shape of a character. Such picture-like carved Marks are more likely a symbol of a family or a lineage. However, all These were predecessors of Chinese characters. During the period of the development of Chinese characters, most of These symbols might have been developed to become characters. As evidence for this, many symbols for families and lineage left on bronze articles of the Shang and Zhou dynasties have developed to be character used as family names.
Reliable clues about the birth of Chinese characters have been discovered from Longshan Culture (4,000-4,900 years ago). In Yangcheng, Henan Province, a black and thin-bodied, flat-bottomed piece of earthenware was unearthed, on the outside of the bottom of which a "＆" shaped word was carved. This mark is composed of two hand-shaped parts on both sides with something in between. This is an ideographic character meaning "publicly owned" to denote the clan that owned the article. The key evidence is a piece of pottery sheet of Longshan Culture. This is a shard of the flat bottom of a large basin made of polished clay. it is 4.6-7.7 cm long, 3.2 cm wide, and 0.35 cm thick. There are 11 characters arranged in five lines on the inside of the shard. In addition, on its upper left corner, there is a very shallow incised mark. Some people believe that this is also a character. On the lower left corner, there is a short downward incised line. The 11 characters are separated as independent words with fairly smooth strokes and arranged as a whole in a regular form, with the workmanship of Carved characters well organized. All this shows that people had broken" with the past practice of simply carving Marks or picture like marks. This shard is believed to be a relic of the late Longshan Culture of about 4,000 years ago. And it is the closest tangible evidence of embryonic Chinese characters invented during the era of Yandi and Huangdi.
The advent of characters pushed forward Chinese society into an era of civilization. According to ancient records, during the late prehistoric period, two rounds of religious reform occurred. One came in the period of the grandson of Huangdi, called Zhuan Xu. The other happened in the period of the fifth-generation grandson of Huangdi, called Yao. These two reforms stripped ordinary people and conquered tribes of their power to communicate with the deity. Such a power was to be monopolized by a special class of society. This special class was socerers, the earliest religious professionals. Later, they became the socerers' group in the history of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. These socerers were said to have communicated with the deity and ancestors by way of characters. The socerers in the periods of Zhuan Xu and Yao presumably used characters as the means to monopolize such a power.
In ancient China, different schools of scholars had diverse opinions on the invention of Chinese characters. Taoists held that the invention of characters would bring about cunning, hypocrisy and intrigue. These cunning people could even frighten the spirits. Confucians and Mohists saw the invention as a tool for the accumulation and teaching of culture. They stressed that only characters could pass down the words and deeds of the ancient sage- kings, and hailed the invention as a great achievement. Despite the differences in viewpoints, all were conscious of the great significance of the invention.
Although we cannot know today how socerers employed characters to communicate with the deity in the prehistoric period, we can presume that their power must have been greatly promoted through the use of characters. Since all the productive experiences and cultural knowledge of any clan society had been accumulated through ages and handed down within the same society, the accumulation and dissemination of experiences and knowledge would have been greatly limited both in time and space, if characters were not available. When characters came into use, such limitations were lifted to some extent. Socerers who had mastered the use of characters were able to become the best-informed people of their time. Equipped with the power of religion, they inevitably grew to be authorities in society. Such authority readily combined with political forces. This combination of authority in the use of characters, theocracy and political power was a historical characteristic of China as it entered its era of civilization and had a profound impact on the development of traditional Chinese culture. What is more important is that the ancient Chinese civilization has been handed down from generation to generation through the carrier of characters.
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