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O: Oracle Bones

Characters carved on tortoise shells during the Shang period

When Chinese President Xi Jinping was strolling through the Forbidden City with his American counterpart Donald Trump in 2017, the two men briefly debated whether China was the world’s oldest civilisation.

“Egypt is a bit more ancient,” Xi admitted. “But the only continuous civilisation to continue onwards is China. We have 3,000 years with a written language.”

By “written language” Xi was referring to inscriptions on oracle bones which are recognisable in written form. Dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 BC), these oxen shoulder blades or turtle shells also mark the beginning of China’s so-called “faithful history” – a record seen as more reliable because it is backed up with a written language and archaeological finds.

How did China’s written language evolve?

For centuries, these same historically valuable bones and shells were known as “dragon bones” and used as a form of traditional medicine. That meant hundreds of thousands of pieces of these priceless artifacts vanished into herbal cooking pots. Only later did they arouse the interest of archaeologists and historians, who began to recognise some of the mysterious diagrams as Chinese characters in their primitive forms.

That led to the unearthing of the ancient capital of the Shang Dynasty in Yinxu – today’s Anyang in Henan province. The archaeological find happened in 1928, making it all the more miraculous given that the young Chinese republic was falling apart at the time.

The tortoise shells or oxen bones were originally used for divination. Yet most importantly they bear testimony to the development of an ancient writing system. By the end of 2018, archeologists had found 4,300 characters on the oracle bones and the meaning of 1,600 has been identified. From these pictographic origins, the oracle bone scripts evolved into the Chinese characters used today.

How about the spoken lingua franca?

Chinese is a challenging language for outsiders to master: as opposed to the mere 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are about 50,000 Chinese characters in total, with an educated person knowing about 8,000.

Putonghua, China’s official spoken language, translates as “common tongue”. But it wasn’t commonly spoken in Chinese history. In fact, Mandarin – as it is better known overseas – was viewed as the dialect of the Manchurian nobility. Other languages were also favoured as the lingua franca at different times. During the Ming Dynasty a Han Chinese dialect from Nanjing was preferred, as that was where the Ming emperors had initially based their capital. After the Manchuss broke through the Great Wall and inaugurated the Qing Dynasty in 1644, Han Chinese weren’t even allowed to live within the inner city. Beijing was thus separated into two ethnic zones: the Manchurian-speaking rulers resided in the inner circle, and the Han Chinese, speaking the Ming official language, outside it.

But the royal family had a problem. Manchurian had a limited lexicon (the Manchus were a nomadic tribe) and it lacked the vocabulary to match the diversity and sophistication of Han Chinese culture. So the newcomers needed to incorporate Han Chinese terms into their own discourse. This way of speaking eventually evolved into what we know today as Mandarin. Perhaps that’s why some scholars still query whether Mandarin is really representative of the Chinese tongue, viewing it more as a language of occupation. There is even a widely circulated (but false) legend that Mandarin won by only a single vote when republican revolutionaries picked it as the official language in 1912 over Cantonese (a dialect of Guangdong province). In fact, no such meeting ever took place.

The importance of a ‘common language’

There are about 10 million ethnic Manchus registered in China. Yet only a handful of them can still speak the original (and once royal) Manchurian language, according to media coverage. Its derivative dialect Mandarin, on the other hand, has been embraced by China’s leaders, particularly the Communist Party. The government began to standardise Putonghua in 1955, spending decades trying to make it the common language at the national level. For a country of 56 ethnic groups and thousands of dialects, this is a matter not only of national unity but also a platform for effective governance. But incredibly, a Ministry of Education survey in 2013 revealed that around 400 million people (out of the 1.4 billion population) still couldn’t speak Putonghua well. The equivalent would be 20 million Britons not being able to conduct a fluent conversation in English.

While spoken Chinese varies dramatically by dialect, the written character system is uniform across China. Since the 1950s, the government has promoted the use of a system of simplified characters. That has helped to improve literacy levels although some scholars argue that the visual history and pictorial beauty of the original characters have been lost.

For example, in traditional written Chinese the political term “Party” is written as 黨, which pictorially consists of the character 黑 (‘black’) inside a house (the connotation was more conspiratorial historically). In official simplified form, the same word is written as 党. That representation is now much more positive: the character 兄 (meaning ‘brother’) has replaced 黑, giving more of a sense of a bond.


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