Chinese family of scripts

Chinese family of scripts
Left: "Chinese character" in Traditional Chinese (hanzi, kanji, hanja, and hán tự). Right: "Chinese character" in Simplified Chinese

The Chinese family of scripts are writing systems descended from the Chinese Oracle Bone Script and used for a variety of languages in East Asia. They include logosyllabic systems such as the Chinese script itself (or hanzi, now in two forms, traditional and simplified), and adaptations to other languages, such as kanji (Japanese), hanja (Korean), hán tự (Vietnamese), chữ nôm (Vietnamese) and sawndip (Zhuang). More divergent are Tangut, Khitan large script, and its offspring Jurchen, which were inspired by Chinese although not directly descended from it. The partially deciphered Khitan small script may be another. In addition, various phonetic scripts descend from Chinese characters, of which the best known are the various kana syllabaries, the zhuyin semi-syllabary, and nüshu.[1]

The Chinese scripts are written in various calligraphic hands, principally Seal script, Clerical script, Regular script, Semi-cursive script, and Grass script. (See East Asian calligraphy and Chinese script styles.)


Chinese script


Ox scapula inscribed with Oracle Bone Script, the ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts

The earliest Chinese writing consists of divinatory texts inscribed on ox scapulae and tortoise plastrons found at the last Shang dynasty capital near Anyang and dating from 1200 BC.[2] This Oracle Bone Script shows extensive simplification and linearization, which most researchers believe indicates an extensive period of development.[3] Although some Neolithic symbols have been found on pottery, jade or bone at a variety of sites in China, there is no consensus that any of them are directly related to the Shang oracle bone script.[4] Bronze inscriptions from about 1100 BC are written in a developed form of the script and provide a richer body of text.[5]

Each character of the early script represents a word of Old Chinese, which at that time was uniformly monosyllabic.[3] The strategies used are traditionally classified into six categories (六書 liùshū "six writings") first recorded in the second century dictionary Shuowen Jiezi. Three of these categories involved a representation of the meaning of the word:

  1. Pictograms (象形字 xiàngxíngzì) represent a word by a picture (later stylized) such as "sun", rén "person" and "tree".
  2. Ideograms (指事字 zhǐshìzì) are abstract symbols such as sān "three" and shàng "up".
  3. Semantic compounds (會意字 huìyìzì) combine simpler elements to indicate the meaning of the word, as in lín "grove" (two trees).

Evolved forms of these characters are still in among the most commonly used today.[6]

Words that could not be represented pictorially, such as abstract terms and grammatical particles, were denoted using characters for similar-sounding words (the rebus strategy). These phonetic loans (假借字 jiǎjièzì) are thus new uses of existing characters rather than new graphic forms.[7] An example is lái "come", written with the character for a similar-sounding word meaning "wheat".[8] Sometimes the borrowed character would be modified slightly to distinguish it from the original, as with "don't", a borrowing of "mother".[9]

Phono-semantic compounds (形聲字 xíngshēngzì) were obtained by adding semantic indicators to disambiguate phonetic loans. This type was already used extensively on the oracle bones, and has been the main source of new characters since then. For example, the character originally representing "winnowing basket" was also used to write the pronoun and modal particle . Later the less common original word was written with the compound , obtained by adding the symbol zhú "bamboo" to the character.[10] Sometimes the original phonetic similarity has been obscured by millennia of sound change, as in < *krak "go to" and < *graks "road".[11] Many characters often explained as semantic compounds were originally phono-semantic compounds that have been obscured in this way. Some authors even dispute the validity of the semantic compound category.[12]

The sixth traditional category (轉注字 zhuǎnzhùzì) contained very few characters, and its meaning is uncertain.[13]


Development and simplification of the script continued during the Western Zhou and Spring and Autumn periods, with characters becoming less pictorial and more linear and regular, with rounded strokes being replaced by sharp angles. During the Warring States period, writing became more widespread, with further simplification and variation, particularly in the eastern states. After the western state of Qin unified China, its more conservative seal script became the standard for the whole country.[14] A simplified form known as the clerical script became the standard during the Han dynasty, and later evolved into the regular script still used today.[15] At the same time semi-cursive and cursive scripts developed.[16]

The Traditional Chinese script is currently used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Mainland China and Singapore use the Simplified Chinese variant.

Dialectal writing

Until the early 20th century, formal writing employed Literary Chinese, based on the vocabulary and syntax of classical works. The script was also used less formally to record local varieties, which had over time diverged from the classical language and each other. The logographic script easily accommodated differences in pronunciation, meaning and word order, but often new characters were required for words that could not be related to older forms. Many such characters were created using the traditional methods, particularly phono-semantic compounds.[17]

Adaptations for other languages

The Chinese script was for a long period the only writing system in East Asia, and was also hugely influential as the vehicle of the dominant Chinese culture. For many centuries, all writing in neighbouring societies was done in Classical Chinese, albeit influenced by the writer's native language. When these societies later sought to write in their own languages, they adapted Chinese characters to represent the words of their languages using a range of strategies, including

  • representing loans from Chinese using their original characters,
  • representing words with characters for similar-sounding Chinese words,
  • representing words with characters for Chinese words with similar meanings, and
  • creating new characters using the same formation principles as Chinese characters, especially phono-semantic compounds.

The principle of representing one monosyllabic word with one character was readily applied to neighbouring languages to the south with a similar analytic structure to Chinese, such as Vietnamese and Zhuang. The script was a poorer fit for the polysyllabic agglutinative languages of the north-east, such as Korean, Japanese and Mongolic and Tungusic languages.[18]

Korean scripts

Chinese characters adapted to write Korean are known as Hanja. From the 9th century, Korean was written using a number of systems collectively known as idu, in which Hanja were used to write both Sino-Korean and native Korean roots, and a smaller number of Hanja were used to write Korean grammatical morphemes with similar sounds. The overlapping uses of Hanja made the system difficult to use, even when reduced forms for grammatical morphemes were introduced in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Hangul alphabet introduced in the 15th century was much simpler, and specifically designed for the sounds of Korean. Although Hangul is unrelated to Chinese characters, its letters are written in syllabic blocks that can be interspersed with Hanja. Such a Korean mixed script became the usual way of writing the language, with roots of Chinese origin denoted by Hanja and all other elements rendered in Hangul. Hanja were abandoned in North Korea in the late 1940s, and their use in the South is rapidly declining.[19]

Japanese scripts

Katakana with man'yōgana equivalents (segments of man'yōgana adapted into katakana shown in red)
Development of hiragana from man'yōgana

Chinese characters adapted to write Japanese words are known as Kanji. Chinese words borrowed into Japanese could be written with the Chinese character, while Japanese words could be written using the character for a Chinese word of similar meaning. Because there have been multiple layers of borrowing into Japanese, a single Kanji may have several readings in Japanese.[20]

Other systems, known as kana, used Chinese characters phonetically to transcribe the sounds of Japanese syllables. An early system of this type was Man'yōgana, as used in the 8th century anthology Man'yōshū. This system was not quite a syllabary, because each Japanese syllable could be represented by one of several characters, but from it were derived two syllabaries still in use today. They differ because they sometimes selected different characters for a syllable, and because they used different strategies to reduce these characters for easy writing: the angular katakana were obtained by selecting a part of each character, while hiragana were derived from the cursive forms of whole characters. Such classic works as Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji were written in hiragana, the only system permitted to women of the time.[21]

Modern Japanese writing uses a composite system, using kanji for word stems, hiragana for inflexional endings and grammatical words, and katakana to transcribe non-Chinese loanwords.[22]

Vietnamese Chữ Nôm

Vietnamese was first written from the 13th century, with the Chữ Nôm system using adapted Chinese characters, but is now written using the Latin-based Quốc Ngữ alphabet.

Old Zhuang script

A similar system known as sawndip was used to write the Zhuang language.[23] Since 1957 the language has been written using a Latin-based alphabetic script.

Scripts influenced by Chinese

Between the 10th and 13th centuries, northern China was ruled by foreign dynasties that created scripts for their own languages. The Khitan large script and Khitan small script, which in turn influenced the Tangut script and Jurchen script, used characters that superficially resemble Chinese characters, but with the exception of a few loans were constructed using quite different principles. In particular the Khitan small script contained phonetic sub-elements arranged in a square block in a manner similar to the more sophisticated Hangul system devised later for Korean.[24]

Other scripts in China that borrowed or adapted some Chinese characters but are otherwise distinct include Geba script, Sui script, and Yi script.

List of scripts by type

Logographic: Oracle Bone Script, Seal script, Clerical script, Standard Script, Semi-cursive script, Grass script, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Khitan script, Jurchen script, Tangut script, Zhuang, Hanja, Chữ Nôm and Kanji.

Syllabary: Hiragana, Katakana, Man'yōgana

Semi-syllabary: Zhuyin

See also


  1. ^ Zhou (1991).
  2. ^ Boltz (1994), p. 31.
  3. ^ a b Norman (1988), p. 58.
  4. ^ Boltz (1994), pp. 35–39.
  5. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 61–62.
  6. ^ Wilkinson (2000), pp. 411–412.
  7. ^ Boltz (1994), pp. 59–62.
  8. ^ Norman (1988), p. 61.
  9. ^ Wilkinson (2000), pp. 413–414.
  10. ^ Norman (1988), p. 60.
  11. ^ Baxter (1992), p. 329.
  12. ^ Boltz (1994), pp. 72, 147–149, 153–154.
  13. ^ Norman (1988), p. 69.
  14. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 58, 61–63.
  15. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 63, 65–67.
  16. ^ Norman (1988), p. 70.
  17. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 74–77.
  18. ^ Coulmas (1991), pp. 111–136.
  19. ^ Coulmas (1991), pp. 116–122.
  20. ^ Coulmas (1991), pp. 122–129.
  21. ^ Coulmas (1991), pp. 129–132.
  22. ^ Coulmas (1991), pp. 132–133.
  23. ^ Holm (2008).
  24. ^ Sofronov (1991).
Works cited

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