On Chinese Writing: Birth

I’ve always been fascinated with Chinese writing. When I started my military service on an air force base in cold North-East France, spending long nights “supervising” the nuclear base security (i.e. watching porn with the officers while the soldiers were patrolling), I decided that I could make better use of all this wasted time and learn something very bizarre. So I chose Chinese and bought a book.

I did not know then that I was starting a ten-year love affair with China.

My first date was with the writing. In this small series of posts, I’ll try to summarize about 8000 years of the evolution of 45,035 characters into a few pages.

Around 6000 B.C., the very first pictograms appear. They look like this one:

Can you see the sun on the top, the mountain below, a cloud in between? Most people agree that its meaning is dawn. A complete poem embedded in a single character, right?

But these first pictograms don’t form a complete system. The first organized system is called Jia Gu Wen, literally “Writing on turtle shell and bones”. It appeared around 1500 B.C. The story is amusing.

Just imagine your are CDPO (Chief Divinatory Practices Officer) under the Shang Dynasty, year 1354 B.C. The Emperor is wondering if his first concubine will recover or not from her sickness (that is, if he must start looking for a replacement right now or wait a little bit). He orders you to consult the auspices. What would you do? Very simple.

Take a large turtle. Boil it. Remove the flesh (you can use if for a soup that will make you live longer, tip from the author). Get the shell, sand it, and drill small holes into it. Put it in the fire while pronouncing magical formulas. After a while, small cracks will appear around the holes in the shell. Read the cracks [hey, don’t ask me, I don’t know how to “read the cracks”!] and interpret. “She won’t recover. Next!”.

But the Emperor grew tired of soothsayers. He wants to keep a trace of your predictions, so that he can behead you if they turn false. So, how to do that? On the very shell that you used, one carves around each hole its interpretation, with the name of the soothsayer and the date. Chinese writing has just been invented.

Next episode (2/3): On Chinese Writing: Evolution.


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