Chinese as a language

Chinese as a language, called 漢語 or 中文 in Chinese, is one of the four languages that successfully devised its own writing script independently (the rest being Ancient Egyptian, Sumerian and Mayan). Prompted by  a recent discussion about Chinese language, I decided to construct another amateur article to elaborate the concept beyond Chinese as a language over historical and geographical scales.

Chinese writing script

Small Seal Script

Like another other language, spoken Chinese was first developed and matured among the nomadic groups that settled down in mid-stream Yellow River (黃河) in early Neolithic Age. Those group of people, considered as common ancestors for all Chinese, developed a flourishing agricultural culture. Proto-writing was developed as a result no later than 6000BC (Jiahu symbol). Based on the archaeological evidence, the first systematic writing system for Chinese is the Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文) as early as ca. 1400BC in middle Shang dynasty (商朝 ca.1600BC-1046BC). As the Oracle Bone Script is highly systemic and it is largely speculated that a mature writing system had already come in place in China way before the era of Oracle Bone Script. In Chinese mythology we credited Cang Jie (倉頡 ca. 2500BC?) as the ultimate inventor of the Chinese writing system, the Chinese logogram character. Many believe that the writing system may at least exist in the Xia dynasty (夏朝 ca.2070BC-1600BC), albeit lack of strong archaeological support yet. Chinese writing system has uninterruptedly been developed based on the Oracle Bone Script. People started to engrave words on metal vessels such as Ding (鼎) since late Shang dynasty, later Bamboo and wooden slips in Zhou Dynasty (周朝 1046BC-256BC), followed by actual papers first invented by the Chinese since late Han Dynasty (漢朝 206BC-221AD). Variations of writing scripts among different regions reached a significant level in Spring and Autumn Period and later Warring States Period (春秋戰國 770BC-221BC), when the nobility emerged as strong individual polities with the decline of Zhou imperial military might. Many different fiefdoms started to develop their own version of the script based on the early imperial Zhou Chinese Bronze inscription (籀文). Luckily this trend was cut off as soon as Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) unified the whole China proper and founded the Qin Dynasty (秦朝 221BC-206BC) in 221BC and standardized the writing script in China (書同文). The standardized script was named the Small Seal Script (小篆). At the same time the Clerical Script (隸書) was developed to be the widespread civilian writing script and later gained official recognition in the following Han Dynasty. From then on Chinese writing script has developed a couple of other variations: including Regular Script (楷書), Semi-Cursive Script (行書), and Cursive Script (草書) developed from later Jin Dynasty (晉朝 265Ad-420AD); the series of Song Typeface (宋體) that were developed based on the popularization of Printing in the Song Dynasty (宋朝 960AD-1279AD). The Regular Script was adopted as the official writing script since late Jin Dynasty and the Song Typeface was popularized with the emergence of printing books in China since Song dynasty. Modern Chinese writing script is mostly based on the Song Typeface, as they are the most standardized for the printing purpose nowadays (people rarely write these days and most of our “writing” is done by typing). Other writing scripts nowadays merely serve as different styles of Chinese calligraphy with artistic values.

In modern era, Simplified Chinese (簡體中文) was further split from the Traditional Chinese (正體中文) script which is based on the Song Typeface. Owing to the Chinese Communist Party, since the 1950s mainland China was enforced with such coarse and compelled artificial political modification of Chinese writing script that had been uninterruptedly developed since 4000 years ago. Luckily Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and most of oversea Chinese still stick to the Traditional Chinese. Just like the communist wanted to destroy Chinese culture (see cultural revolution), they forced to alter the Chinese language as well. In recent years there has been calls in mainland China to resume the use of Traditional Chinese and hopefully it would get more strides and momentum in the future. I personally have refused to use Simplified version since my early high school years (All Chinese characters here are Traditional Chinese).

Spoken Chinese

Spoken Chinese (口語), contrary to the popular myth, was never officially standardized until early 20th Century. Little is know about the phonology of spoken Chinese in Xia Dynasty and Shang Dynasty. It was understood that from ancient literature, as early as Zhou Dynasty Chinese nobles were using the spoken language used by the Zhou imperial court (capital dialect). Such spoken tone was only used for official diplomatic purpose among the nobles and states. In the time of Confucius (551BC-479BC) it was known that such spoken tone was called “Ya (雅)”. However, Ya as a spoken lingua franca in China was downplayed along with the demise of Zhou’s polity since Spring and Autumn Period, when different fiefdoms started to regulate their own official languages based on the Chinese dialects they spoke in the region. Such trend ceased when Qin managed to unify all states in 221BC, though Qin never intended to imply the standardization of spoken language all over China. Neither did any of following dynasties and emperors in China up to 1912 when the last dynasty Qing (清朝 1644AD-1912AD) exited the stage of Chinese history. Since Qin Dynasty, the official spoken tone used by officials all over China and the imperial court (官話) in each dynasty was always associated to the spoken dialect of responding capitals (with some exceptions when dynasty preserved former capital dialect after moving to a new one, e.g. Nanjing tone in Ming Dynasty, 明朝1368AD-1644AD, and Chang’an tone in Song Dynasty). Meanwhile, various tones were developed all over China proper independently, especially in the mountainous Southern China. Historically spoken Chinese (official spoken tone used by the elites) went through four major phase: Old Chinese (上古漢語 ?-4th century), spoken from Xia dynasty until late Han and Jin dynasty; Middle Chinese (中古漢語 4th century-12th century), spoken from Jin dynasty to Song dynasty; Proto-Modern Chinese (近代漢語 12th century-early 20th century) from Song Dynasty to early Republic era; Modern Chinese (現代漢語 early 20th century – now). Geographically, at present there are generally seven major Chinese dialects in China proper. There are: Mandarin Chinese (官話), the official spoken tone that is widely shared by virtually all Northern China in addition to Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Hubei (though accents vary from region to region); Wu Chinese (吳語) mainly spoken in southern Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai; Hakka Chinese (客語) mostly used by Hakka Chinese in southern Jiangxi, eastern Guangdong, western Fujian, and Taiwan; Min Chinese (閩語) that is mostly heard in Fujiang, Taiwan, and Hainan; Cantonese Chinese (粵語) used mostly in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau; Xiang Chinese (湘語), my mother tongue, spoken mostly in Hunan; Gan Chinese (贛語) used in Jiangxi. Even as late as early 20th century it is impossible to directly communicate between a Northern Chinese from Beijing and a Southern Chinese from Guangdong. Moreover, different sub-dialects under one major dialect region may also be mutually intelligible, e.g. the case with Min Bei Dialect (閩北方言) and Min Nan Dialect (閩南方言) in Min Chinese. In general spoken Chinese is a total mess and the only reason that all different parts of China proper did not split into different “languages” is because the consistency of written Chinese, and the logogram nature of Chinese writing (spelling independent of different pronunciations). Nevertheless, since early 20th century Chinese polity in China proper (including Taiwan as well) started to artificially regulate and promote Mandarin as the official tone. Mandarin thus now becomes the standard Chinese that is widely spoken and shared all over China Proper, and is the Chinese that you are learning from all those language learning courses all over the world.

Written Chinese

Thousand Character Classic

Written Chinese (書面語), different from spoken Chinese, has always been consistent since late Zhou dynasty. Written Chinese has evolved to a stable format in late Zhou dynasty (770BC to 256BC) from simpler styles in Shang dynasty and early Zhou dynasty. Such written format is called Classic Chinese (文言文), which is mostly based on the then vernacular spoken Chinese in Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period (770BC-221BC). Even though the official spoken tone for the regime altered from time to time, the written Chinese remain highly consistent and unaffected from the change of way of speaking historically and geographically in China. Classic Chinese was adopted as the widespread only standard written Chinese in China and even other countries in sinosphere for thousands of years. In some sense, written Chinese was independent of the everyday spoken language in China after the disappearance of Old Chinese since the 4th century (though still somewhat related). The secret that written Chinese could stay intact from the colloquial erosion lies in the core of the consistent Chinese culture and education system (unfortunately discontinued in early 20th century). The emphasis on Confucianism requires all Chinese elites to directly read and well comprehend those Chinese classics (典籍), which were mostly written before 2th century BC. Since those books were written in the then vernacular format, which is based on the Old Chinese, elites were encouraged to follow their style in Chinese writing in their time as a sign of classicism. This trend was further reinforced by the centralized polity that China always experienced in history, which enforced the Imperial Exam system (科舉) based on the Classic Chinese learning and writing all over China. It is therefore easy to understand why written Chinese stood the test of time and the change of spoken tones over thousands of years. Only until very recently in the early 20th century that Vernacular Chinese (白話文), devised from modern vernacular Mandarin Chinese, was adopted and replacing Classic Chinese as the current standard format of written Chinese. As a result, nowadays there has been a convergent trend towards the spoken Chinese language, as it is witnessed in many other languages such as English, French etc. It is a pity that a normal educated Chinese now may quote more from Shakespeare or Hugo but couldn’t well understand the ancient Chinese literature written in Classic Chinese. In general, vernacular Chinese is the official standard written form along with Mandarin as the spoken tone. In between those two written format, though Classic Chinese could no longer serve our daily use, its beauty and concision are simply beyond any other written language. Classic Chinese IS always the written Chinese for me.

This character "徐" is in Small Seal Script, as displayed in my profile page

The Best part of this unique Chinese language system is, as the writing scripts have been standardized with little variation and we have preserved well (and I studied well) the Classic Chinese which was used literally for over 3000 years, I have the privilege for direct access to the original sources people wrote 1000 years ago, 2000 years ago, or even 3000 years ago in China. Most of my articles regarding Chinese history are mostly based on my original source study. This is something that other amateur dabblers couldn’t do in studying the history of other great civilizations such as Greek history, Egyptian history, and Mesopotamian history etc. (provided that English is the only working language for your study).

In the end, I have written another verbose article. I don’t know how many of you have the patience to read up to this point. If you do, here I provide you with some very useful tools in studying Chinese and Chinese culture:

Database of etymology of major languages (including Chinese character) ; “Chinese Text Project” for Classic Chinese philosophy literature (both English and Chinese version) ; “漢典” Online Chinese character dictionary (in Chinese, but with Chinese-English interpretation)

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