Clues to origin of Chinese characters
Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2006
7,000-year-old pottery offers clues to origin of Chinese characters
Chinese archaeologists claim that pottery utensils dating back 7,000 years ago which bear inscriptions of various symbols are probably one of the origins of Chinese characters.
They made the conclusion on the basis of several years' study into the symbols carved on over 600 pottery ware items unearthed from the New Stone Age site in Shuangdun village, Xiaobengbu town of Bengbu, a city in East China's Anhui Province.
The symbols include rivers, animals and plants, and activities such as hunting, fishing and arable farming, as well as symbols recording events, said Han Xuhang, a research fellow with the Anhui Provincial Archaeological Research Institute.
The pottery mainly includes bowls and cups, with all the symbols carved on the bottom or on hidden parts of the pottery. "It is obvious that these symbols were not used to decorate the pottery utensils but had a special meaning and purpose," said Xu Dali, an associate research fellow with the Bengbu City Museum.
Xu said the symbols are carved in pairs and also in groups, which express comparatively complete meanings and show the characteristics of sentences and paragraphs.
Similar symbols were also discovered in other places nearby, which shows that these symbols were recognized and used in a certain region, said Xu.
Many of the symbols are similar to the inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) and many are still conserved in characters used by ethnic groups today, said Xu.
Li Boqian, head of the ancient civilization research center of Beijing University, said that the origin of characters has a long process of development.
The period from 9,000 years to 4,000 years ago was the origin and initial development period of Chinese characters, and the period from 4,000 years ago to 221 BC was the time when characters developed towards maturity, which was followed by a period of wide use of characters after Qinshihuang, China's first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (211-207 BC).
These notional symbols are an important link in the development of Chinese characters and could be one of the origins of Chinese characters, said Li.
The discovery of so many symbols at Shuangdun ruins is rarely seen in the research into ancient civilizations and "it gives us great hope of finding more important archaeological discoveries," said Li Xueqin, chairman of the China Pre-Qin Dynasty Historiography Society.
The discovery not only provides important clues about the origin of Chinese characters, but also an opportunity to review the existing theory on the origin of Chinese characters, said Li, who is also a professor with Qinghua University.
Covering 12,000 sq m, the Shuangdun ruins were first discovered in 1985 and excavations were made on an area of 375 square meters from 1986 to 1992. The ruins were regarded as the earliest New Stone Age site in the area along the middle reaches of the Huaihe River, the third largest river in China.
The Yellow River and the Yangtze River valleys have been regarded as the cradles of Chinese civilization. Discovery of the Shuangdun ruins shows that the Huaihe River valley also has its own independent cultural system and is one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization, Li said.
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