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Ancient Chinese Wall Inscriptions
May 18, 2007 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Written Chinese may be older than we thought. Chinese archaeologists think that anicent cliff wall carvings may may take the history of Chinese characters back to 7,000 to 8,000 years ago.
posted by Karmakaze (32 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Everyone repeat after me: Chinese characters are not pictographs. Pictographs are not Chinese characters.
posted by bokane at 6:25 AM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Everyone repeat after me: Chinese characters are not pictographs. Pictographs are not Chinese characters.

So what? What the story is insinuating is that they descend from pictographs, and that the pictographs they descend from may be older than imagined. Bewilderingly old, in fact. It's hard to believe.

Or, as TFA in People's Daily puts it: "'The pictographs are similar to the ancient hieroglyphs of Chinese characters and many can be identified as ancient characters,' said Li."
posted by grobstein at 6:29 AM on May 18, 2007


Oh man, there is no evidence for these dates other than..
analyzing the content, style, technique, colour and preservation status of the cliff carvings, and by comparing them with other excavated relics, Zhou explained. But Chen Zhaofu argued that most of the carvings would be about 3,000-year-old. Because they mostly reflected the culture of the Xiongnu or the nomadic Hun people during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, Chen explained. He also stressed that all the arguments needed to be proved by modern technology and in-depth research.
posted by stbalbach at 6:30 AM on May 18, 2007


Heh, I wonder if the spin on this story isn't motivated in part by chauvinism: hay guise our writing system is older. OTOH I guess it wouldn't be the first anyway?
posted by grobstein at 6:35 AM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


(to be clear I'm offering this as an ill-supported but possible explanation for the story's offering such an early date without real evidence)
posted by grobstein at 6:36 AM on May 18, 2007


It's too bad that lots of early writing dissapeared due to material degredation. There is lots of old writing that dissapeared forevery because it was written on leaves, things like that.
posted by delmoi at 6:54 AM on May 18, 2007


Grobstein,

There is certainly grounds for your possible explanation, since we've seen that sort of cultural development one-up-manship before.

This is definitely an interesting development and evidence of early figures that clearly appear to be at least similar to the stuff that shows up in the oldest oracle bones. Whether or not it actually precedes the earliest known examples of Chinese writing haven't been proven in the slightest, though it's an exciting thought.
posted by Adam White at 6:59 AM on May 18, 2007


I should add that the earliest oracle bones definitely do suggest writing that precedes them, since the characters and grammar, as well as the whole process of divination associated with them appear to be pretty fully developed.
posted by Adam White at 7:02 AM on May 18, 2007


Regardless of whether that last image is the precursor to the system of writing Chinese which is used today, there is no doubt in my mind that it is the first documented visual of a muppet.

Actually, I can't wait to work this news story into a language lesson with some of the students who hate to be reminded how much of Japan's culture finds its origin in China....
posted by squasha at 7:10 AM on May 18, 2007


This is bullshit and a typical example of journalistic contempt for facts when they get in the way of a good story.

I wonder if the spin on this story isn't motivated in part by chauvinism


Ya think? I love China and its people, but man do they love going on about "China's five-thousand-year-old civilization" (not to mention claiming that large chunks of Asia are "historically Chinese"). Teaching college in Taiwan was excellent practice in counting to ten before responding.
posted by languagehat at 7:12 AM on May 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


This is bullshit and a typical example of journalistic contempt for facts when they get in the way of a good story.

Is it just the timeframe that's questionable, or also the pictograms-as-precursor-to-characters part?
posted by Karmakaze at 7:19 AM on May 18, 2007


counting to ten before responding.

Seemed to me grobstein asked a gentle rhetorical question that would help others think for themselves rather than wielding knowledge and wisdom like a weapon to personally attack people.
posted by stbalbach at 7:21 AM on May 18, 2007


Oh, and I did take the story with a very large grain of salt because I have about as much faith in The People's Daily (and its brethren) as I do in the media here in Japan.

Which is to say, none.

The students with whom I would like to discuss the story are precisely the type that have helped me hone my advanced counting to ten before responding skills.
posted by squasha at 7:28 AM on May 18, 2007


hay guise our writing system is older.

S'fine with me. I prefer Writing2.0 anyway.
posted by DU at 7:45 AM on May 18, 2007


There is certainly grounds for your possible explanation, since we've seen that sort of cultural development one-up-manship before.

You mean like this?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:54 AM on May 18, 2007


Seemed to me grobstein asked a gentle rhetorical question that would help others think for themselves rather than wielding knowledge and wisdom like a weapon to personally attack people.

I have no idea what you're going on about. I was agreeing with grobstein, and I didn't attack anyone except ignorant journalists (who are not in this thread as far as I know). What is your problem?

Is it just the timeframe that's questionable, or also the pictograms-as-precursor-to-characters part?


No, the latter's accurate, but there's no reason to think these are anywhere near as old as they claim.
posted by languagehat at 8:03 AM on May 18, 2007


Perhaps the Chinese scholars are letting their competitive nature get the better of them. Their problem is that Egyptian, which despite having died out as a vernacular language in the 1500s, is still the language with the longest continuous history as a written living language and will continue to beat out chinese in this respect for another few hundred years, I think. So if the Chinese can push back the date on the by a couple of millenia, they win some big bragging rights right away.
posted by deanc at 8:03 AM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Kirth,

Woah.

Yeah, that was the basic idea I had in mind, but in very different terms - other early technological and agricultural developments and such.

Man, I've heard of this story because of the movies with 周润发 playing his usual badass self, but I've never seen those drawings. Sweet.

Thanks!
posted by Adam White at 8:31 AM on May 18, 2007


Does this mean inaccurate hanzi/kanji tattoos may also have been around longer than we thought?
posted by casarkos at 8:54 AM on May 18, 2007


After getting past the Verne plagiarism bit of that blog, I was delighted to find that there was actually pulp fiction written starring Judge Bao - the only roving agent of imperial justice with, literally, a "license to kill" signed with a chop from the Emperor himself. I've read the 元 and 明朝 plays, but to see him on the cover of a pulp rag with art that's obviously taken visual cues from the "yellow peril" crap of the USA pulps at the time is kind of gratifying. Awesome.
posted by Adam White at 9:27 AM on May 18, 2007


Ludicrous! Don't they know the earth is only ~6000 years old?!
posted by Totally Zanzibarin' Ya at 9:50 AM on May 18, 2007


Fascinating find, but the character theory is utter bollocks. It's the back-projection of Han culture onto something else, as others have noted.
posted by Abiezer at 10:06 AM on May 18, 2007


Fascinating find, but the character theory is utter bollocks. It's the back-projection of Han culture onto something else, as others have noted.

True. For the people that became the Han, the Xiongnu weren't cultural progenitors, but a constant barbarian border nuisance that cyclically flared up into a real threat.
posted by Adam White at 10:14 AM on May 18, 2007


Well, everyone thought the Xia dynasty was pure myth until they found evidence... But yeah, it's almost certainly just jingoism-motivated falsification of history.
posted by jiawen at 10:15 AM on May 18, 2007


As we all know the A comes from the pictoral representation of a bull. Therefore the alphabet obviously originates in cave paintings, making our writing system quinti-gazilli-fabrillion years old. Ergo, we win.
posted by Kattullus at 10:20 AM on May 18, 2007


Well, first off, look at the pictures given. They don't resemble any existing characters, not even the relatively stylized humanoid figures. (I guess that in the picture of the battle scene there's probably some that you could claim looked like early oracle forms of 我 or 戈, but that seems like a stretch to me.)

Also, written language is not about individual signs, even if we're talking about a character-based language like Chinese. If these researchers had found actual texts in these cave writings, that would be something -- as is, from what the articles are saying, it seems like they've found pictures, by dint of which the Lascaux paintings would also indicate "written language."
posted by bokane at 11:17 AM on May 18, 2007


Yes, but looking at the pictures given is not necessarily getting the whole story. The pictures I saw all look neat and very journalistically photo-worthy, but there are apparently thousands of figures carved into the Damaidi rocks - so many that it isn't possible feasibly to to just take them all back to the museum in Xian or something.

I'm looking at this more along the lines of the stuff that was found of pottery cultures like the YangShao and so on - that's interesting enough on its own without making claims of species-based cultural precedence. I'd heard something about it but didn't know that there were "thousands" of these things including the stuff from what is supposed to be the Late Xia indicating marriage and so on. If there is any continuity between the earliest stuff and the Late Xia stuff, that's kind of astonishing.

Also, the images carved include apparently what a few of these articles are claiming are depictions (not claiming "characters," by a long shot) of a "ritual" or "symbolic" nature, by which they could mean images of 鼎s, 饕餮 and/or the various marks indicating different peoples as opposed to different types of animals. Neither of us know, obviously; all I'm saying is that there is more to this than the sound bites. They're in the right geographical place; it's hard not to think that someone, even much later down the line, saw them and got ideas. From the looks of it, they're still getting ideas today.
posted by Adam White at 12:59 PM on May 18, 2007


EUROPEAN WRITINGS OLDER THAN THOUGHT?

25000 years old cave paintings found in France...
http://donsmaps.com/cavepaintings3.html


Eyesroll...
posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:45 PM on May 18, 2007


The real origins of Chinese writing are that tens of thousands of years ago a young boy was sitting on the grass and when he stood up the imprint of the grass on the palm of his hand seemed to say something to him. So he replicated the shapes by scratching them out on a flat stone and told his friends, "This is the language of the Earth." The word spread and from then on people in China wrote their thoughts in that way.
posted by nickyskye at 5:04 PM on May 18, 2007


Found this quite trenchant rubbishing (from 2005, in Chinese) of the theory by Tang Huisheng (汤惠生), who's an expert on rock art and has visited the site.
He questions the lichen dating methods, points out the similarity of the paintings to those by other nomad hunters, and then addresses the link to Chinese characters:
《新民周刊》:那大麦地的岩画与汉字起源到底有没有关系呢?

  汤惠生:我们既然确定了大麦地岩画的时代,那么我们便可以确凿地认为,大麦地岩画与汉字的形成没有任何关系了。即便是大麦地岩画的时代远远早于甲骨文,我们也不能因为它们在某种程度上相似而认为两者之间有什么联系,尽管许多岩画符号具有表意和指事功能。二者最大的区别是岩画没有表音功能,其符号在象征系统中不具有经常性和稳定性。此外文字是用于交流的语言的象征体系,是一种专门工具,而岩画则更多是一种宗教仪式。大麦地有些画面被加以明确解释,如“臣服”,这只是一种望文生训式的猜测,即便是正确的,也不能因此而将大麦地岩画与汉字之源或文字相联系。即便是两者之间有关系,但这种建立在经验感觉之上的归纳法本身就不具备科学性。

  从认识论角度或人类学角度来看,岩画和甲骨文或许有关联,因为二者都有象形功能;但从考古文化类型学角度来看,二者是不可能有渊源关系的,因为二者分属于完全不同的文化体系,或用生物学的说法属于不同的种。这个道理就如同我们现代人不是尼安德特人的后代一样,尽管我们现代人类的祖先与尼安德特人有着很多的相似之处。我们讨论汉字的起源时不应该从认识论和人类学的角度来进行,因为这种通则式的研究在讨论种族和地区文化起源时不仅于事无补,反而会模糊了问题的焦点。我们对汉文字起源的研究假如基于这种错误的方法来进行,我以为不会有任何结果和进展的。
Xinmin Weekly: So is there in fact any link between the Damaidi rock carvings and the origin of Chinese characters?

Mr Tang: Since we've confirmed what era the Damaidi rock carvings come from, we can say even more conclusively that they have absolutely no connection to the form taken by Chinese characters. Even if the Damaidi carvings did date from a period much earlier than oracle bone script, we couldn't say that the two were related because they resemble one another on some level, even if the symbols in many rock carvings do have semantic or ideographic functions. The biggest difference between the two is that the rock carvings have no phonetic function. The symbols have no fixed or regular meanings within an ideographic system. Moreover, characters are an ideographic representation of language designed to communicate, a kind of specialist tool, but rock carvings more usually have a religious ritual function. Some specific definitions have been give to certain of the Damaidi carvings, such as [giving one the purported meaning] "submission to rule," but these are guesses based on post hoc interpretations drawn from their form. Even if they are in fact correct, it doesn't mean you can link the carvings at Damaidi to the origins of Chinese characters or other writing. And even if there is a link between the two, this kind of inductive reasoning based on experiential evidence is not scientific.

Looked at in epistemological or anthropological terms, they may be a link between rock carvings and oracle bone script, as the two both have ideographic functions; but in terms of archaeological or cultural typology there is no possibility the one is the source of the other, as they belong to two completely separate cultural systems. To use the biological terms, they belong to different species. This is the same principle that says we modern humans are not the descendants on Neanderthals, even though our ancestors were similar to Neanderthals in many ways. We shouldn't be discussing the origins of Chinese characters in epistemological or anthropological terms, because research couched in such generalities is not only of no help in discussing the origins of an ethnic or regional culture, it in fact makes the focal point of the issue less clear. If we base a study of the origins of Chinese characters on this kind of erroneous methodology, it is my contention that we shall see no [worthwhile] results or progress.
Mr Tang ends by saying: "我再次强调,我这里仅仅针对来自部分新闻媒体的说法。炒作不仅丝毫不会提升我国学术研究的质量,也丝毫不会提升我国的政治文化等影响,反而会贻笑大方,此风不可长。" ("I'll reiterate, what i say here is aimed at they way things are being reported in some of the media. Hyping things up will not only not help raise the quality of academic research in China, nor will it improve the China's political or cultural influence or the like. Quite the reverse, we will invite ridicule. This is not a tendency we should be encouraging.")
posted by Abiezer at 12:55 AM on May 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


Oh, hey - this is cool. Lots more detail. Thanks.
posted by Adam White at 1:45 AM on May 19, 2007


Well done, Abiezer. Thanks.
posted by bokane at 10:33 AM on May 19, 2007


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