In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Chinese Script

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Literacy
  • Nüshu
  • The Use of the Script in Non-Chinese Cultures
  • Punctuation and Other Marks

Chinese Studies The Chinese Script
Imre Galambos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0066


The Chinese script is one of the most important achievements of Chinese civilization and has played a vital role in maintaining a cultural continuity for more than three millennia. To this day, it remains an iconic feature of Chinese culture that not only connects Chinese people with their past (even after the modern simplification of the script) but also provides a fully functional alternative to alphabetic writing systems in our information age. Although various graphic marks are known from Neolithic sites as early as 6,000 BCE (e.g., in Jiahu, Henan), the first examples of written texts come from the late Shang period, around 1,200 BCE. These are the oracle-bone inscriptions used in the Shang court as records of divination related to state affairs. Most specialists agree that these early inscriptions, carved onto turtle plastrons and ox scapulae, present a fully mature writing system capable of recording contemporary spoken language. Yet there may have been an earlier stage of which we still do not have archaeological evidence. Attempts to link Shang writing with Neolithic symbols have been unconvincing, primarily because of the gap of several thousand years between them. But starting with the late Shang period, we have an unbroken continuity of archaeological materials with writing on them, including oracle bones, bronze inscriptions, and bamboo and silk manuscripts. Although paper is known from at least the 2nd century BCE, it became widespread as a medium for writing only around the 4th century CE, after which it almost completely replaced all earlier media. In the meantime, the script itself also evolved from its Shang form and became increasingly sophisticated as a growing number of characters developed toward greater structural complexity. The reform of the script initiated in 221 BCE by Li Si 李斯 (280?–208 BCE), the First Emperor’s chancellor, at least symbolically marked a transition from the “ancient” script of the pre-Qin era to the “modern” script of dynastic China. Although this “modern” script underwent significant changes from the Qin-Han (221 BCE–AD 220) through the Sui-Tang (581–906) periods, in terms of their structure and the principles behind their composition, Chinese characters essentially remained the same.

General Overviews

There are many introductions to the Chinese script in a variety of languages, written for different audiences. While Allen 1984 attempts to provide a point of entry for Western students, the two books by the eminent Japanese scholar Shirakawa Shizuka (Shirakawa 1976 and Shirakawa 1978) provide easily digestible accounts for readers already familiar with the script but not its history. Boltz 1999 and Norman 1988 express a linguistic point of view, whereas Qiu 2000 and Tang 1965 lay out the basic principles of the field of Chinese paleography.

  • Allen, Joseph Roe. “Chinese Script and Lexicography for the Uninitiated.” Chinese Language Teachers Association 19.3 (1984): 35–86.

    An elementary introduction to Chinese writing and lexicography for the nonspecialist. Discusses certain misconceptions (e.g., pictographic nature) concerning the script, and explicates the three “generations” in the script’s historical evolution, which largely correspond to the “three-fold” model of evolution advanced by Tang Lan 唐蘭 in his Guwenzixue daolun 古文字學導論 (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanzu, 1935).

  • Boltz, William G. “Language and Writing.” In The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC. Edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, 74–123. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521470308

    The second half of this introduction is devoted to Chinese writing (the first to language), approaching the subject primarily from the point of view of the historical development of the different types of characters. Divides the evolution of early Chinese writing into “zodiographic,” “multivalent,” and “determinative” stages.

  • Norman, Jerry. Chinese. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Chapter 3 of this book is devoted to Chinese writing, explaining its relationship with the Chinese language and its evolution from the earliest stages and the Qin-Han period to the medieval and modern periods. Also discusses the adaptability of the script to other languages, such as Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese.

  • Qiu Xigui 裘錫圭. Chinese Writing. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies of the University of California Berkeley, 2000. Translated by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman.

    English translation of Qiu Xigui’s authoritative work (Wenzixue gaoyao [文字学概要], Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1988), a comprehensive overview of the Chinese writing system, including its origins, evolution, and structure. The book provides a detailed analysis of the types of characters and contrasts traditional understandings with knowledge derived from recent archaeological finds.

  • Shirakawa Shizuka 白川静. Kanji no sekai: Chūgoku bunka no genten (漢字の世界: 中国文化の原点). Vols. 1–2 Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1976.

    A book for the general audience on the history and nature of Chinese writing. Besides an overview of the historical development of the script, the author also provides a wealth of information about the social contexts in which writing was used and demonstrates its vital role in early Chinese society.

  • Shirakawa Shizuka 白川静. Kanji hyakuwa (漢字百話). Tokyo: Chūō kōronsha, 1978.

    A collection of a hundred short writings about Chinese characters. The stories appear grouped into different topics (e.g., linguistics, archaeology, philosophy), all related to Chinese characters. The book is a fairly successful attempt to make paleography more accessible and introduce paleography to a wider audience.

  • Tang Lan 唐蘭. Zhongguo wenzixue (中國文字學). Hong Kong: Taiping shuju, 1965.

    An introduction to Chinese paleography with a strong emphasis on the early period of the script, including its origins and subsequent evolution. Discusses in detail the orthographic structure of characters and provides an insightful critique of traditional interpretations based on the principles of liushu 六書 (Six Scripts; see Structure of Characters).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.