(1) Early developments 1
The earliest, most complete material of ancient Chinese characters should be the "Oracle bones". They are pieces of turtle shells or animal bones with characters carved on them. They were made during the 14th century B.C., but the style of Chinese characters didn't change a lot until about 200 B.C.. The common style of characters was called "the Later Seal Characters".
# Between painting and character
The system of characters can't have been created by a single person. However, in the ancient legends, people said it was a man called Cang Jie who had "invented" Chinese characters.( Click here to see the background information ) It's possible that Cang Jie actually has collected and arranged the ancient characters.
People needed to record some big events from time to time, so they carved some symbols on pottery utensils to stand for some objects. Gradually, the meaning of the symbols were defined. Usually the symbols were somehow between paintings and characters, they were partly abstract partly concrete.
The ancient pottery utensils were researched by scientists carefully. They discovered that some symbols appeared frequently and probably had the same meaning, while other ones didn't. They inferred that the earliest characters must have come from those symbols.
# Discovery of the oracle bones
In 1899, before the 20th century came, the oracle bones which had been buried in the 14th century B.C. were found quite by chance.( Click here to see the background information ) Since then, Chinese scholars have never stopped researching in them. Totally, about 150,000 pieces of oracle bones were found and 4,500 single characters were picked out, among whom 1,500 characters had been understood.
The contents of oracle-bone inscriptions were mostly about divination and sacrifice. At that time, it was during the Shang Dynasty, and people believed that everything was decided by the Gods' mind. When they wanted to know what would happen, they would visit wizard for divining. ( Click here to see the background information ) The result of divination were carved on these "oracle bones".
We can learn a lot about the history of the Shang Dynasty by reading oracle bones. There are records of hunting, wars, astronomy, agriculture, and even diseases. They are true descriptions of ancient history.
Here is an sample of oracle bones:
"Divination on Wuxu. Yong divined: Will it be windy this evening?
Divined again: Won't it be windy this evening?"
("Wuxu" stands for time. "Yong" is the name of wizard.)
We can find words expressing negation in them. That means the language on oracle bones was very advanced.
Most of the characters on the oracle bones were ideographs and
pictographs. Only a few Indications and Phonograms were found there. Carved on hard surface,
the characters often had sharp angles. For instance, the character "sun" looked
like a rectangle on oracle bones.
The Zhou Dynasty took the place of the Shang Dynasty around 1066 B.C., but oracle bones were still made. The new kind of oracle bones were more simple, and the characters were getting smaller.