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Mandarin Go | Do you know the legend of Chinese Characters ?

One day, shortly after unifying China, the Yellow Emperor called Cang Jie. In the absence of writing, the data was recorded with a system of knotted ropes (resembling at the Inca Quipu). Tired of this method, the Emperor instructed his minister to invent a writing system. In search of inspiration, Cang Jie went to sit by a river. For a long time, he remained there, thoughtful, without an idea coming to him. 



Suddenly, he saw a phoenix in the sky, carrying in its beak an object that he dropped at Cang Jie's feet. The object left in the loose earth a hoof-shaped imprint. Unable to identify which species she belonged to, Cang Jie called on a hunter who passed by. The latter told him that it was undoubtedly the imprint of a Pixiu, a Chinese mythological animal resembling a winged lion (with interesting physical properties).

For Cang Jie, this was the revelation. Inspired by the imprint of the Pixiu, he decided to create for all things of heaven and earth, according to each of their particular characteristics, a mark immediately recognizable by all. These were the first Chinese characters. Greatly satisfied, the Yellow Emperor called the governors of the nine provinces to teach them the new writing system, and had a monument erected on the bank where Cang Jie had created the characters. Today, several provinces, including Shandong and Henan, claim the location of this site.

The evolution of Chinese characters

The oldest known form of Chinese characters, called Jiaguwen (甲骨文), was found on turtle shells and pieces of cattle shoulder blades and dates from 1500 to 1000 BC. These are mostly divinatory inscriptions (卜辞 bǔcí). Because of the lack of written witnesses and the, there are many variants of the 6000 known Jiaguwen signs.

The Jinwen 金文 and the Dazhuan 大篆 succeeded the Jiaguwen, without yet emerging a true empire-wide codification, despite a first attempt by the Zhou dynasty in 800 BC, which released a list of 1000 characters divided into 15 sections, inscribed on bamboo strips.

In 221 BC, the Warring States were unified by a king, who established the Qin Dynasty 秦 (To be pronounced 'tchine', does it remind you of something? (And for those who have seen it, it is at this time that the plot of the film Hero, by Zhang Yimou is located).

Ending centuries of chaos and feudalism, the King of Qin laid the administrative and cultural foundations for a Chinese state. Assisted by his chancellor Li Si (李斯), he launched a vast reform of standardization of weights and measures, axle widths and roads, and... sinograms.


A current form that dates back to the second century

Inspired by the Dazhuan, a group of scholars produced a list of 3000 characters that took the name Xiǎozhuàn 小篆, made of straight lines and regular curves. This standardization (i.e. the eradication of variants of each character) of writing allowed for a rapid development of administration, a safer and faster dissemination of communications throughout the empire, and simplified management of armies, thereby strengthening Qin power. In 213 BC, an autodafé destroyed most of the ancient works, with the aim of annihilating the old and regional variants and establishing the new order.

In parallel, another harmonization took place, with the appearance of the Lìshū 隶書 style, which replaced the curves of Xiaozhuan with strokes. Xiaozhuan are then used for official or ritual documents and Lishu in ordinary documents. The eight fundamental features of Lishu all appear in the character Yǒng, which means eternity, which is why these traits are often called the eight principles of yong.

The current form of Chinese characters dates back to the second century AD, with the Han Dynasty. The traditional Kǎishū 楷書 (繁体), known in English as the regular, rectilinear and more readable style, supplants the Lishu. 






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