The Worldview of the Chinese Characters Creators

During the second millennium BC, in the Yellow River valley, north of present-day China, emerged a culture that would set the fate of East Asia. It was the culture and society of the Shang dynasty. In that cultural environment, the graphs that would later evolve into the current Chinese characters and kanji were developed in a way that made an unfathomable impact. Those tiny characters finally came to be the writing system that has been used for the longest interrupted time in human history.

The Shang people established a social order that kept the common people united with royalty, and the latter with the divine. The stabilizing basis of the Shang dynasty was, then, a trinity of people, king and God, under which order and continuity were maintained. But to maintain that order, they had to legitimize the societal structure and beliefs using some kind of religious system. During the Shang dynasty it was possible to do so by placing a complicated, though well defined, ritual system.

The focal point of the Shang rites was the divinatory ceremonies by which foresight was obtained in a sort of communication with the divine that needed to be done by the aristocratic class, since aristocrats and royalty were the only ones entitled to exercise as priests.

Divinatory rites were performed using animal bones –particularly ox scapula or turtle shells (specifically the shell bone, also known as plastron). A question was engraved on these surfaces and then heat was applied to the bone until some cracks appeared. Those cracks were thought as providencial marks on which an interpretation was written. At first, the symbols engraved on the bone surfaces probably were just representative or indicative graphs, but gradually they evolved into a cohesive pictographic system currently known as the oracle bone script.

Typical turtle plastron with divinatory inscriptions.

Besides the rites of divination there was also ancestors worship and their corresponding veneration rites, for which a series of bronze-made ritual vessels were used. Over those bronze vessels a plentiful amount of solemn inscriptions were also made, thus bringing about the so-called bronze-ware script.

Sample of bronze ritual vessels on which the inscriptions were made.

Both the bronze and oracle bone ritual scripts eventually would form a communicative system through which Chinese culture and, consequently, Japanese culture emerged. These ancient ritual writings, in spite of forming a communicative system proper, could not do anything but reflect the worldview of the societies that used them. It is obvious that the Shang dynasty society, whose existence lasted through the second millennium BC, was quite different from our modern society, yet we will see that their world perception, human after all, was not so distant to ours as you would imagine.

The Shang people, using a certain set of pictographic symbols, managed to describe and depict the physical plane. By combining those primitive characters they ended up compiling a full semantic writing system capable of representing all human communicative needs. A fairly condensed amount of primitive characters gave rise to a precise and complex writing system that counts its logograms in thousands. That is the original world of the Chinese characters.