5,000 Years Is Not Enough


Exhibit A:
From the English Global Times/Xinhua, “Archaeologists push back origin of Chinese characters by 1,000 years,” July 10, 2013:

Archeologists in China have confirmed that the inscriptions found on artifacts unearthed in Zhejiang Province represent the earliest record of Chinese characters in history, pushing the origins of the written language back 1,000 years.

Archeologists and linguistics experts gathered in Pinghu, Zhejiang Province, Saturday to discuss the meaning of the symbols found on pottery pieces and stone vessels that had been unearthed at the Zhuangqiaofen archeological site between 2003 and 2006.
Experts concluded that the symbols represented the earliest known Chinese characters, which could be traced to the Liangzhu civilization, one of China’s earliest civilizations dating from the Neolithic Age some 5,000 years ago in today’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, China Youth Daily reported Tuesday.
The inscriptions existed some 1,000 years before the oracles, commonly held as the origin of the Chinese language system. The oracles are inscriptions on turtle shells, and date back to the Shang Dynasty (C.1600-1046BC).


Exhibit B:
From the new Sino-Platonic Papers, “Was There A Xià Dynasty?” (PDF). By Victor H. Mair, with contributions from E. Bruce Brooks. (Spoiler alert: Betteridge’s law of headlines holds true.)

By way of summary, one would suppose that — had there been an actual Xià Dynasty called by that name that existed before the Shāng Dynasty — the name would have filtered down through the written records of the late Shāng, the Western Zhōu, and the Spring and Autumn period. This is especially the case if, as K. C. Chang and others claim, the Xià, Shāng, and Zhōu coexisted. Yet we cannot find any evidence that the word Xià in any of its various senses, much less as the name of a dynasty or state, existed during the Shāng period. I have not even been able to ascertain that the word Xià occurs in the Western Zhōu BIs [bronzeware inscriptions] in any of its later senses. In any event, there is no evidence that it was employed during the Western Zhōu as the name of a dynasty that was supposed to have preceded the Shāng. Xià comes to be used as the name of an ancient dynasty only in Warring States texts, a good thousand years after the alleged Xià Dynasty was claimed to have been defeated by the Shāng. Simply as a linguistic factuality, how did the name of the alleged dynasty survive the gap from the middle of the second millennium BCE to the beginning, or perhaps even middle, of the first millennium BCE? What was the linguistic carrier of the name Xià from the middle of the second millennium BCE to the beginning or middle of the first millennium BCE? How did the morpheme for the name Xià survive those five to ten or more long centuries?


Exhibit C:
Scholars will continue to debate the import of the Zhuangqiaofen axe-head for years, of course, but for the time being I thought it might be helpful to translate the inscription for the benefit of lay readers. Caveat: I haven’t got my Qiu Xigui to hand, and given the uncertainties that still surround the find, the translation below should be considered tentative in the extreme.

Tentative translation of the stone axe-head inscription
Corrections welcome.

Basically this looks like one of those news stories that could have been avoided if the journalist had talked to someone who knew their stuff. I am not that person, and I bet I’ll feel really dumb if archaeologists end up finding a massive underground cache of inscribed axe-heads, proving conclusively that the Liangzhu culture had both writing and a lot of time on its hands. But this doesn’t look like writing to me.

For starters, the signs look nothing like oracle bone or bronzeware inscriptions. Something must have predated those, because by the time of the early oracle bones we’re already dealing with a fairly mature, developed writing system — but even so, Shang and Zhou inscriptions look a lot more like pictures than the modern forms of the characters do. Not these. The sign at the bottom might be an old form of 卜, “to divine,” or maybe 人, “person,” but there are really only so many ways you can arrange two lines. (People trying to push back the origin of Chinese characters sometimes point to any instance of a horizontal line as proof that 一, the character for “one,” has its origins far back in the prelapsarian, pre-Sumerian, pre-Egyptian, pre-all-y’all past; top scientists are so far not convinced.) The other sign looks a little bit like the modern form of 日, “sun,” or 曰, “quoth,” but not very much like the oracle bone forms of either character.

We might be able to explain that one away — people do weird stuff to characters all the time — but then we’d be stuck figuring out what the inscription says. The earliest recognizable Chinese texts we have are the oracle bones, which date back to the late Shang period, around 1200 BCE. There are a lot of those, and they all say different things, and we can (more or less) read them and compare them against one another in order to figure out the function of a given graph. All we’ve got here is a string of the form “ABABAB,” occurring in isolation. “Hot grits hot grits hot grits?” “Here kitty here kitty here kitty?” “Oh boy oh boy oh boy?” Your guess is as good as mine and anyone else’s.

from William G. Boltz, 'The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System,' p. 36

Finally, and most importantly: although the Shang oracle bone inscriptions are the first Chinese writing we have, they are emphatically not the first brushed or carved graphs. (You can see some examples of other markings above, taken from William G. Boltz’s The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System) There are Neolithic markings all over China going back to around 4800 BCE: markings on ceramics produced by the Yangshao culture in Shanxi, gorgeous painted pottery from the Majiayao culture in Qinghai and Gansu — and, as you can see, markings from the Liangzhu culture, which produced this axe-head.
These signs probably did have meanings for the people who made and owned the pots and jugs and axe-heads — clan markers, or tokens, or something of that sort — but we can’t reconstitute them. Insofar as they can’t be shown to represent words in a language, they are not actual writing.

4 thoughts on “5,000 Years Is Not Enough

  1. 5000 is nothin’. Let’s go back 7000 years for evidence of high culture in China. A 7000 year-old sacrificial altar was found in Hunan Province which in the words of one archaeologist goes to show “(a)ncients prayed to the gods of nature, such as the gods of the earth, river and heaven”. Moreover, “(a)rchaeologists have found China’s oldest white pottery specimens among the altar relics. The pottery is decorated with phoenix and beast patterns.” That would exhibit a high degree of technology to fire white ceramic and the world’s oldest representation of the phoenix motif as well. See, China Daily, Updated: 2006-01-29.

    One day those Paleolithic cave drawings at Altamira, Lascaux and Chauvet will be bested, if not by age then by degree of civilized attainment. Oh yes, I’m sure.

  2. Thank you for your view on the discovery. I agree that symbols alone isn’t a form of writing, but the are a form of communication be it religious, tribal/clan totems, or abstract presentations of nature, etc. So when do symbols become writing?

  3. Symbols become writing when they repeat a compound thought to another, such as “I saw you yesterday”. This could be written down by one person, then passed to another who would understand without a need for the spoken word. So the symbol must identify a clear meaning and the symbols together must follow a sequence of relationship or syntax that allows understanding, not ” Yesterday you saw I” and not “I you yesterday saw”, but “I saw you yesterday”. To etch a totem animal on a weapon or carved on tree bark (both examples from the Iroquois) is not a written language. It defines that a person of the totem was present, it may show ownership, but it is not language, unlike the simple statement on many Greek potteries, “XX made me”.

  4. Yes – the best introduction to the subject that I know of is in John DeFrancis’ books Visible Speech and The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.
    The main difference between, say,
    (IMAGE OF A “THUMBS-UP” GESTURE) and the written words “Good job” is that the former — while still requiring a certain cultural background to be intelligible — doesn’t actually make any reference to a spoken language, while the latter does. Stop signs aren’t writing; the word “STOP” on them is.

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