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The Birth of Writing in China

The earliest examples of writing date to 7,000 BCE when Neolithic Period humans in China and elsewhere began producing glyphs and ideographics—symbols representing objects and ideas. Markings which some archaeologists have identified as examples of proto-writing first appeared in China in approximately 6600 BCE, evidence of which has been discovered at the Jiǎhú archaeological site in Henan, China. Pictograms have also been found in China dating from the 5th century BCE. Despite these very early examples of proto-writing, it was not until 1400 BCE that a near-complete writing system was developed in China. This Shang Dynasty script, known as the oracle bone script because of its appearance on bones used for divining, appeared in a nearly complete form with no clear developmental history. Whether the archaeological record is incomplete or the script was borrowed in part from Middle Eastern source--rather than developed wholly in China--is unclear. Regardless, the appearance of this near-complete writing was a significant technological advance for the Chinese people and gave birth to a literate and highly published population.1

Since the appearance of the oracle bone script, Chinese writing has undergone a number of fundamental changes, including the use of compound characters for clarity and alterations in script appearance. Nevertheless, more than one-thousand characters appearing in the oracle bone script can be identified, in modified form, in modern Chinese writing. What’s more, speakers of other Asian languages adopted and modified Archaic Chinese, eventually leading to the development of writing systems for Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean, among other languages.


  1. Fischer, Steven Roger. A History of Writing (London, England: Reaktion Books, 2001). Return to text ↑
Leaf of Chinese Block printing.

Leaf of Chinese block printing. ca. 960-1280 CE.

Picturesque representations of the dress and manners of the Chinese.

Representation of a Chinese solider. 1814. More images here