Getting “In Character”: The Evolution of Written Chinese

Guest Post: Chloe Lindeman

There’s no question that Chinese characters are a mixed bag. On one hand, they can be hard to learn since they’re not phonetic and sometimes seem totally random. On the other hand, they’re really cool! To give you an idea how we ended up with this set of characters, here’s a little bit about the evolution of characters from the pictures used in ancient to the standardized set used today.



The oldest written Chinese is dated back to writing on turtle shells and bones from the Shang Dynasty—more than 3000 years ago! Of course, these characters are not exactly like the ones spelling out the names of shopping centers in neon lights today, but the similarities are striking. Over time, these slowly evolved; a few examples are shown below. Some of the characters actually make more sense when you can see their original form—if you don’t already know the characters below, can you guess what they are from the earlier pictographs? (Answers at bottom)



One ancient form of characters called篆書 (zhuan4shu1), or “seal script,” which are distinctively rounded and fall somewhere between the first characters and today’s writing system. Although these were around some 2000 years ago, they can be seen even today as a kind of stylized script. In cities like Xi’an, famous for their ancient history, this kind of writing is especially common, used on certain buildings and signs to add historical oomph.



Perhaps the most well-known shift in characters is also the most recent: the switch starting in the 1950s from traditional to simplified Chinese, an effort to improve literacy by making the written language easier to learn. Although the simplified characters are now those most commonly seen in mainland China, traditional characters are still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau.



So even though today’s characters might seem hard to learn, they’re a far cry from earlier versions! Just think of all the trouble you’re saving by learning Chinese now instead of 3000 years ago.

Answers: bird, fish, car (originally cart)

  • Guest

    the first answer is wrong. It is a horse. and/but yes the simplify character is a bird.