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Origin of Chinese Characters

As one kind of the most ancient written languages, Chinese characters have played a significant role in the development of Chinese culture. Originally, ancient Sumerian and ancient Egyptian symbols existed, but only Chinese characters remain today.

Based on pictographs, Chinese characters combine shapes with sounds and connotations to form unique, block-shaped characters that carry meaning. Archaeological researchers discovered many such signs carved on earthenware excavated from Banpo Village in Xi'an City and Jiangzhai Village in Lintong. The etchings were carved during the Yangshao Culture Period some 6,000 years ago. More than 4,000 years ago, people living in the Tai'an area of Shandong Province also carved signs on earthenware. The character "µ©" (dan in pin yin, meaning dawn), for instance; the sun (ÈÕ) rises upwards, crossing the mountains and passing through cloud layers to tell people a new day has begun. It is safe to say that the earthenware signs are the first Chinese characters, which originated from drawings.

The most sophisticated and earliest Chinese characters are the inscriptions on tortoise shells and animal bones called Jiaguwen of the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century BC) that resemble drawings. To date, China has unearthed 150,000 pieces of animal bone and tortoise shell, including more than 4,600 distinctive Chinese characters, among which more than 1,700 have been identified. The inscriptions on bones and shells consist of phrases and simple sentences, providing much insight into the Shang Dynasty. The number of Modern Chinese characters tops 60,000, among which about 3,000 are commonly used.