The Source of Chinese Calligraphy The birth of written Chinese characters was the harbinger of Chinese calligraphy. It took a long time for the first written Chinese characters to come into being. The hieroglyphic symbols inscribed on pottery that archeologists found in the ruins that belong to Yangshao, Majiayao, Longshan and other primitive cultural periods provide crucial evidence for the study and understanding of the embryos of written Chinese. In the preface to Origin of Chinese Characters, Xu Shen of the Eastern Han Dynasty pointed out that the written Chinese characters originated from indicative symbols that imitated the shape of natural objects. Cultural relics unearthed in recent years have testified Xu’s theory that written Chinese came from primitive paintings and inscribed symbols. (Fig. 1-1) Researchers have reached the consensus that written Chinese characters came into shape in the Xia Dynasty. Around the turn of the Xia and Shang dynasties at the 17th century BC, a comparatively complete written system was already in place to record the spoken language. The academic circle has acknowledged the oldest written Chinese to be the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells (called jiaguwen), and those on bronze ware (jinwen). The art of calligraphy was born alongside jiaguwen and jinwen. In 1996, archeologists discovered some animal bones and tortoise shells with inscriptions in Shijia Village, Huantai County, Shandong Province. The relics date back to the 16th century BC. This discovery allows us to surmise that Chinese calligraphy can be traced back to at least 3,500 years ago. Chinese calligraphy is a unique form of art composed of written characters. Without them, there would be no calligraphy as such. The formation of society made social contact a must for humans. In the primitive clans’ period, people communicated mainly via speech. As the clans grew stronger and tribes took shape, vocalization was no longer 1121.indd 1 2016-05-13 13:08:48 2 adequate for the needs of memorization and communication. People then employed other means, such as tying ropes, carving and painting. There have been some records in Chinese history about tying ropes. In the chapter called “Thievery” of his book Zhuangzi, Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi wrote that from the Rongcheng Clan to the Shennong Clan, all 12 clans of prehistoric China tied ropes.
The rule of the legendary Shennong just preceded the reign of Yellow Emperor, when written characters emerged. This record provides a footnote to the practice of tying ropes in China’s bygone eras. Painting was another way of recording Fig. 1-1 Pottery basin with human face and fish pattern Neolithic Age, pottery utensil of the Yangshao Culture, unearthed from Banpo in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, in 1955. Height, 16.5 cm; diameter at mouth, 39.8 cm. Collected in the National Museum of China. 1121.indd 2 2016-05-13 13:08:50 3 Calligraphy Chinese events and expressing their thoughts for ancient people. For such primitive paintings, the art value was not so important, as their chief aim was to help with memorization and expression. Such expressive paintings are forefathers or origins of the hieroglyphs. The first buds of written Chinese could be traced to the Neolithic Age some 8,000 years ago, according to archeological discoveries so far. From the ruins of Yangshao Culture, dated between 4100 BC to 3600 BC, archeologists unearthed a huge number of symbols inscribed on pottery utensils. Most of these symbols were found from Banpo Village of Xi’an and Jiangzhai Village of Lintong, both of which are in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. The symbols inscribed on the colorful pottery of Banpo are quite similar in appearance to the clans’ emblems carved on the bronze ware of the Yin and Zhou dynasties. From the pottery unearthed at Jiangzhai Village, experts discerned some 120 inscriptions. Similar discoveries have been made at many other sites, such as Lingkou and Yuantou of Lintong, Wulou of Chang’an and Lijiagou of Tongchuan, which are located in Shaanxi Province. Archeological findings from following cultural periods have turned out more symbols, such as the tombs of the Machang type in Liuwan of eastern Qinghai Province, which belonged to the Majiayao Culture; the Chengziya Ruins at Longshan Town, Zhangqiu of Shandong Province, which belonged to the Longshan Culture; the Liangzhu Ruins of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, which gave name to the Liangzhu Culture; and the Lingyang River Ruins in Juxian County, Shandong Province, which serve as a sample of the Dawenkou Culture. These symbols are regarded as a source of the country’s written language. Although researchers have not found evidence to prove that such symbols were actually used as written characters, their discovery is nonetheless helpful to the discussion of the origin of written Chinese. Archeologists have noticed simple inscriptions on tortoise shells in the ruins of the Neolithic Age in Jiahu of Wuyang, Henan Province. Some researchers regard these symbols, which date back to more than 8,000