The Origin of Chinese Written Language

Oracle bone • China Admissions

Episode 5: The Shang and Writing for the Gods

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin focuses mainly on the religious practices of the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC), especially the oracle bones they used to communicate with the ancestors and the supreme god Di (see The Coming of the Shang).

He identifies three prominent features of modern East Asian civilization that date back too the Shang Dynasty:

  1. The  complex logographs used in all East Asian written language.
  2. Ancestor worship.
  3. The concept of Yin and Yang. As first used on the Oracle Bones, Yin and Yang referred to sunlight and shadow (absence of sunlight. Under the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 771 BC), Yin/Yang came to be associated with astrological philosophy concerning Xi energy and the perfect balance required for effective operation of the universe, society and the human body.

The most interesting part of this lecture concerns the linguistic significance of Chinese characters. According to Benjamin, 80% of all modern Chinese characters are logographs, which by definition contain cues both to the character’s meaning and its pronunciation.

At present the average Chinese resident knows between 4,000 (the number listed in the average dictionary) and 7,000 characters. A knowledge of 3,000 characters is required to read the average Chinese newspaper. A person knowing 2,000 is considered literate. Even the 4,500 primitive glyphs found on the Oracle Bones could express complex symbolic and abstract thoughts.

Although extremely complex, the Chinese writing system was instrumental in enabling a people representing 50+ ethnicities and languages to form a national identity.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

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