Thursday, October 01, 2009

Writing their way to the gods.

I have temporarily abandoned trying to learn Chinese writing due to lack of time. I'm glad I've made a brief foray into the subject, though, because I have learnt a lot about Chinese culture and history as a result.

It is not known exactly when the people living in China started to write, but the earliest firm evidence is from 'oracle bones' originating a thousand years before Christ. They are records of discussions with the ancestors who were revered as the intermediaries to the gods. I think this reverence of the dead is something most humans tend to do - we look for the saintly qualities in people who, when they lived, we regarded as more ordinary. Anyway, ancestor-worship was (and is) a long-standing feature of Chinese life, originating perhaps, in Neolithic times; and those who were thought to be able to communicate with the dead were revered too; the Shang kings, for instance (1600- 1000BC), were believed to have the ear of those who had gone before them.

The oracle bones were consulted by Shang kings for general advice about the future. A diviner would prepare an oracle bone (or a piece of turtle shell) by touching it with a hot poker. The bone would then crack and the way it cracked would be interpreted by the king as the ancestors' answer and this would be recorded on the oracle bone in 'logographic script'.

These symbols on the oracle bones gradually evolved into traditional Chinese writing, and this accident, that it was 'logographic script' that persisted (rather than a phonetic system of letters of the west) had momentous consequences for Chinese civilisation.

As I have found, this 'logographic script' is difficult because 800 different characters need to be learnt just for a basic understanding. It takes three years to learn, so only those with sufficient intellect and time ever became literate. They formed an elite group - uniting not only those from diverse geographical areas, but also, more importantly, those from different times too. Only the literate could understand the words of the ancestors, and, so only they could communicate with the gods too.

One day I hope to come back to this because this system of writing is so different and interesting - I think, like learning the language itself, it is a good way of exercising the brain.


Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

My biggest problem as I recall was purpose - learning the characters as an exercise was fine but that was just remembering stuff. What did I want to do with these words? I suspect it was to write poetry but there I felt I was arranging building blocks rather than writing. I was used to expressing complex thoughts and I couldn't do that using the few characters I could remember. Besides, who was going to read what I'd written? I'd have to translate it back and that'd be just silly.

Thu Oct 01, 04:38:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, see what you mean Jim...

Thu Oct 01, 04:48:00 pm  
Blogger N.L. Lumiere said...

Very fascinating.
Who knew that Chinese pictograms were the ancestors of @ # $ % ^ * and &.

Thu Oct 01, 06:37:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I didn't! Thanks, Nora>

Fri Oct 02, 01:14:00 am  
Blogger jem said...

One of the things I love about reading your site is that often I learn new things. This is a great little teaching post. First I've heard of oracle bones or the origins of Chinese writing. Thanks for that!

Fri Oct 02, 01:10:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Jem - I did a few year teaching - must have got to me more than I thought!

Sat Oct 03, 05:37:00 am  
Blogger SomeBeans said...

I found dipping into Chinese characters fun - I seem to remember patterns better than sounds, and I don't think I can hear tones at all.

I think doing it properly might be a retirement task!

Sun Oct 04, 06:22:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hi SomeBeans, if you're ever interested in learning Chinese as it is spoke I thoroughly recommend the Michel Thomas course. It is fun - and if I can do it, anyone can!

I agree about the writing being a retirement project - a surefire way to stave off dementia I should think.

Sun Oct 04, 11:30:00 am  

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