Tag Archives: script

Cāng Jié and the Origin of the Chinese Writing System

[Translated from Mandarin]

Back in the early years of Chinese history, a four-eyed man named Cāng Jié (倉頡) was the historiographer of the Yellow Emperor. To record things, Cāng Jié used the rope-tying method, the only form of documentation around during that time. After a while, the more Cāng Jié stared at his repetitive knots, the less he remembered what they stood for. He was frustrated.

One day he passed by a group of quarreling old men at an intersection. Each of them was arguing which road led to his home. One claimed a pair of tigers lived on his road. Another said that some deer lived on his road. The last one stated that goats lived on his road. The dispute was eventually settled when they discovered that the trails of animal prints on the ground told them which way each should go. Cāng Jié was inspired by this—if every animal has its own prints to distinguish its identity, every object in the world should have its own symbol too.

Cāng Jié then proceeded to simplify the shapes and essences of objects in the world into characters composed of simple lines. Soon he developed a whole system of written characters that each imitated what they represented. When Cāng Jié completed the writing system, the skies started raining millet, and ghosts in the ground cried at night.

In the end, both Cāng Jié and the Yellow Emperor were pleased, and Cāng Jié’s writing system was used as the standard writing system in the emperor’s unification of the kingdom.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Cāng Jié is an interesting character because his role in Chinese history is realistic though the details of his deeds and his appearance may have very well been exaggerated. 

Cheng Miao and the Clerical Script

[Translated from Mandarin]

The clerical script, or lìshū (隸書), is a form of Chinese calligraphy that is said to have been invented by Chéng Miǎo (程邈), who had somehow offended the emperor Qín Shǐ Huáng (秦始皇) of the Qin dynasty. Qín Shǐ Huáng threw Chéng Miǎo into prison. However, during his time in prison, Chéng Miǎo was able to simplify Chinese script. You see, before the clerical script was invented, Chinese characters were written in seal script, or zhuànshū, which had many curving strokes that were complicated to write.

The prison guards discovered that Chéng Miǎo’s clerical script was much more efficient to write than seal script, and they showed Qín Shǐ Huáng. Qín Shǐ Huáng was very pleased with Chéng Miǎo’s new script and decided to change the Chinese kingdom’s writing to clerical script. Because of this, Chéng Miǎo was released from prison and rewarded with a high governmental position.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Though Chéng Miǎo’s feats sound realistic, there are people who doubt that Qín Shǐ Huáng would be so lenient on someone who changed a writing system that the emperor had just unified shortly before. Recent evidence has also suggested that clerical script may have been invented by a team of people, as opposed to one single person. It is interesting that even the development of Chinese calligraphy has such debatable folklore.