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.

The Coming of the Shang

Episode 4: The Coming of the Shang

The Foundations of Chinese Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin

Film Review

The second Chinese dynasty was that of the Shang (1600 – 1050 BC). The region governed by the Shang Dynasty was small, roughly the size of modern day China’s five northern provinces.

Th Shang best known for introducing written language based on glyphs, a direct precursor of modern Chinese characters. Their kings and shamans* used glyphs on Oracle Bones. To pose questions to the gods and spirits, they chiseled questions into the bones, heated them and interpreted the answers depending on the shape of cracks that formed.

The remains of Shang tombs reveal that both humans and animals were sacrificed when the king died to help make the gods and ancestors stronger. In some cases, victims were the king’s servants and volunteered to be buried alive. In others, they were prisoners of war or criminals who were executed first. In the late dynastic period, victims were expected to commit suicide.

The absolute power of Shang kings was based on their military prowess in keeping rural clans and peasants under control. By 1200 BC, the Shang had adopted horse cavalry and chariots from the steppes nomads on their northern border, as well as the composite bow (see Barbarian Empires of the Steppes). Their infantry were conscripted farmers, and their military technology included bronze tipped arrows and spears and body armor made of bamboo and wood padded with cloth.

Chariot drivers were trained in royal hunts (at a time when northern China was still heavily forested) for bears, tigers, boards and rhinoceros.

The construction of Shang cities was funded by booty confiscated in battle, tribute paid by conquered vassals and tax. They weren’t as dense as Mesopotamian cities (which were as dense as modern Manhattan). Structurally they consisted of a cluster of artisans (potters, jade and bronze workers, textile workers, etc) and industrial zones (which included bronze foundries), surround by agricultural workers’ homes, surrounded by farmland. Bronze tools and dishes were reserved for the elite. Peasants used stone tools.

Yin (modern day Anyang) was the last capitol of the Shang dynasty. It was surrounded by rammed earth walls that took 10,000 workers 10-20 years to construct.

*Shang shamans facilitated worship of the ancestors and the supreme god Di.