Language and Script

China is the only country in the world with a literature written in one language for more than 3,000 consecutive years. This continuity results largely from the nature of the written language itself. It is the use of characters, not letters as in Western languages, which is most important in the Chinese language.

The characters stand for things or ideas and so, unlike groups of letters, they cannot and need never be sounded. Thus Chinese could be read by people in all parts of the country in spite of gradual changes in pronunciation, the emergence of regional and local dialects, and modification of the characters.

There are two elements to the Chinese language: the written language, based on individual symbols called characters, each of which represents an idea or thing; and the spoken language, which includes a number of different dialects.
Spoken Chinese

China is a multinational country with the largest population in the world. Most of the ethnic minority groups have their own languages. In China, the Han People constitute 92% of the total population, so the language and script of the Han Nationality have become the most widely used and are commonly known as the Chinese language (also called "Han Yu"). At present, more than one billion people, or approximately one fifth of the world's population, speak Chinese as their mother language.

However, it is an interesting fact that not all Chinese people can talk with each other without fail although they can understand each other perfectly well through writing. Because of the vastness of China and the segregation due to geographical barriers, Chinese varies in its spoken form and has different dialects which are mutually unintelligible and cause difficulties in communication. Generally Chinese can be subdivided into the following eight major dialects.

1. Northern dialect (Bei Fang Hua): This is the most widely spoken dialect in China, and forms the basis of Pu Tong Hua (mandarin language), the official language of PRC and the lingua franca of the Han nationality. Its use is centered in the Yellow River valley, and is spoken throughout the provinces of the northeast, the central part of the Yangtze River basin, and the provinces of the southwest. The northern dialect is spoken by more than 70% of the Chinese population.

2. Wu dialect, spoken in the Shanghai region, southeastern Jiang su Province, and most of Zhejiang Province.

3. Xiang dialect, spoken by the in habitants of Hunan Province.

4. Gan dialect, spoken throughout Jiangxi Province (with the exception of the area bordering the Yangtze River and southern area), and in southeastern Hubei Province.

5. Kejia (Hakka) dialect, spoken in parts of northern Fujian and Taiwan provinces.

6. Northern Min dialect, spoken in parts of northern Fujian and Taiwan provinces.

7. Southern Min dialect, spoken throughout southern Fujian Province as well as in the Chaozhou and Shantou districts of Guangdong Province, in parts of Hainan Island, and throughout most Taiwan Province. Southern Min is also spoken by many overseas Chinese.
8. Yue dialect (Cantonese), spoken throughout central and southwestern Guangdong Province as well as in the southeastern part of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Cantonese is also spoken by many overseas Chinese.

The official national language in China is Putonghua (mandarin) which is also spoken in Taiwan and Singapore and among growing communities of immigrants to North America and Europe. But it is quite common to hear Chinese in every talk speaking diverse dialects which sometimes sound more like foreign language than Chinese.

Written Chinese

The Chinese written language is of an old and conservative type that assigns a single distinctive symbol, or character, to each word of the vocabulary. Knowledge of 2000 to 3000 characters is needed to read newspapers, and a large dictionary contains more than 40,000 characters (arranged according to sound or form). The oldest texts to have been discovered are oracular sayings incised on tortoise shells and cattle scapulae by court diviners of the Shang dynasty, from the early 14th century BC on; these are the so-called oracle-bone inscriptions. Although the writing system has since been standardized and stylistically altered, its principles and many of its symbols remain fundamentally the same. Like other scripts of ancient origin, Chinese is derived from picture like writing; it grew into a word-by-word representation of language when it was discovered that words too abstract to be readily pictured could be indicated by their sound rather than their sense. Unlike other scripts, however, Chinese still works pictographically as well as phonetically. Moreover, its sound indications have not been adapted to changes of pronunciation but have remained keyed to the pronunciation of 3000 years ago. The building blocks of the system are several hundred pictographs for such basic words as man, horse, and axe. In addition, expanded, or compound, pictographs exist. For example, a symbol of this type representing man carrying grain means "harvest," and thus "year" (nian).

Phonetic loans are pictographs of concrete words borrowed to indicate abstract words of the same or similar sound. The principle here is that of the rebus, or visual pun. Thus, the pictograph for dustpan (Ji in Chinese) was borrowed for this, his, her, its ( qi or ji ). Through the Zhou period (11th-3d century BC) many characters had such a dual use. If at that time the scribes had agreed that only the "dustpan" pictograph would stand for any syllable pronounced ji, they would have discovered the principle of the phonetic syllabify, precursor of the alphabet . Because of the great number of homonyms in Chinese, however, scribes instead retreated to picture writing. The picture of the dustpan came to be used exclusively for his, her, its. In the rare instances when scribes actually meant to refer to a dustpan, however, they avoided ambiguity by employing a compound symbol in which "dustpan" had added to it the pictograph for "bamboo," representing the material from which dustpans were made. This process for reducing the ambiguity of phonetic loans became in time a process by which any pictograph, borrowed for its sound, could be joined to any other chosen to indicate the meaning, forming a phonetic compound. Thus, "dustpan," with the addition of "earth" instead of "bamboo," indicated ji, "base, foundation." Today simple and compound pictographs continue to be used for some of the most basic vocabulary home, mother, child, rice, and fire. However, perhaps 95 percent of the words in the dictionary are written with phonetic compounds.

To express modern concepts, Chinese generally invents equivalents from its native stock of meaningful syllables, or renders such terms in phonetic spelling; thus, chemistry is expressed in Chinese as "study of transformations."

Shi Huangdi, first emperor of a unified China, in Qin Dynasty, suppressed many regional scripts and enforced a simplified, standardized written language called the Small Sea(Xiaozhuan in Chinese)l. In the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) this developed into the Clerical, Running, Draft, and Regular or Standard scripts. Printed Chinese is modeled on the Standard Script. Cursive or Running or rapid writing (the Running and Draft scripts) introduced many abbreviated characters used in artistic calligraphy and in commercial and private correspondence, but it was long banned from official documents.

There have been four broadly defined styles of writing in the last 3000 Years:

1. Seal scripts,(Zhuan in Chinese)

2. Regular Brush scripts, (Kaishu in Chinese)

3. Running script, (Xingshu in Chinese)

4. "Grass" script. (Caoshu in Chinese)

The printing of abbreviated characters is still forbidden in Taiwan but has become the normal practice in the People's Republic of China. The non-abbreviated characters are referred to as the "traditional" characters. Many of the old people in the People's Republic of China still use the traditional characters and some have trouble with the abbreviated characters. The abbreviated characters are sometimes referred to as the "simplified" characters.

China has a wealth of classical literature, both poetry and prose, dating from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 B.C.) and including the Classics attributed to Confucius. Among the most important classics in Chinese literature is the Yijing (Book of Changes), a manual of divination based on eight trigrams attributed to the mythical emperor Fu Xi. (By Confucius' time these eight trigrams had been multiplied to sixty-four hexagrams.) The Yijing is still used by adherents of folk religion. The Shijing (Classic of Poetry) is made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities; 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. The Shujing (Classic of Documents) is a collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It contains the best examples of early Chinese prose. The Liji (Record of Rites), a restoration of the original Lijing (Classic of Rites), lost in the third century B.C., describes ancient rites and court ceremonies. The Chun Qiu (Spring and Autumn) is a historical record of the principality of Lu, Confucius' native state, from 722 to 479 B.C. It is a log of concise entries probably compiled by Confucius himself. The Lunyu (Analects) is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples.

Chinese Early Prose Literature
The proponents of the Hundred Schools of Thought in the Warring States and Spring and Autumn periods made important contributions to Chinese prose style. The writings of Mo Zi (Mo Di, 470-391 B.C.?), Mencius (Meng Zi; 372-289 B.C.), and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.) contain well-reasoned, carefully developed discourses and show a marked improvement in organization and style over what went before. Mo Zi is known for extensively and effectively using methodological reasoning in his polemic prose. Mencius contributed elegant diction and, along with Zhuang Zi, is known for his extensive use of comparisons, anecdotes, and allegories. By the third century B.C., these writers had developed a simple, concise prose noted for its economy of words, which served as a model of literary form for over 2,000 years.

Chinese Early Poetry Literature
Among the earliest and most influential poetic anthologies was the Chuci (Songs of Chu), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semi legendary Qu Yuan (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.). The songs in this collecti on are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Shijing. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), this form evolved into the fu, a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. The era of disunity that followed the Han period saw the rise of romantic nature poetry heavily influenced by Taoism.

Classical poetry reached its zenith during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The early Tang period was best known for its lushi (regulated verse), an eight-line poem with five or seven words in each line; zi (verse following strict rules of prosody); and jueju (truncated verse), a four-line poem with five or seven words in each line. The two best-known poets of the period were Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770). Li Bai was known for the romanticism of his poetry; Du Fu was seen as a Confucian moralist with a strict sense of duty toward society.
Later Tang poets developed greater realism and social criticism and refined the art of narration. One of the best known of the later Tang poets was Bai Juyi (772-846), whose poems were an inspired and critical comment on the society of his time.

Subsequent writers of classical poetry lived under the shadow of their great Tang predecessors, and although there were many fine poets in subsequent dynasties, none reached the level of this period. As the classical style of poetry became more stultified, a more flexible poetic medium, the ci, arrived on the scene. The ci, a poetic form based on the tunes of popular songs, some of Central Asian origin, was developed to its fullest by the poets of the Song dynasty (960-1279).

As the Ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, the San Qu, a freer form, based on new popular songs, developed. The use of San Qu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.

Chinese Later Prose Literature
The Tang period also saw a rejection of the ornate, artificial style of prose developed in the previous period and the emergence of a simple, direct, and forceful prose based on Han and pre-Han writing. The primary proponent of this neoclassical style of prose, which heavily influenced prose writing for the next 800 years, was Han Yu (768-824), a master essayist and strong advocate of a return to Confucian orthodoxy.

Vernacular fiction became popular after the fourteenth century, although it was never esteemed in court circles. Covering a broader range of subject matter and longer and less highly structured than literary fiction, vernacular fiction includes a number of masterpieces. The greatest is the eighteenth-century domestic novel Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). A semiautobiographical work by a scion of a declining gentry’s family, Hong Lou Meng has been acknowledged by students of Chinese fiction to be the masterwork of its type.