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The Continuity of Chinese Character and Chinese Civilization

Date:2024-03-29 11:24:00 Source:QSTHEORY.CN Author:Organization

Chinese civilization has a long and continuous history. How did this characteristic come about? How has our civilization been able to remain unbroken? The answer can be found in the core element of Chinese civilization——the Chinese character. Chinese characters are a system of writing symbols originating from the Chinese land, mainly for recording the Chinese language and having multiple functions, and are a typical representative of the ideographic writing system. The continuity of Chinese civilization is highlighted by the continuity of Chinese characters, which have transcended the boundaries of tradition and modernity and are still used today. Although this writing system has changed in form, its deep internal structure has never been fundamentally altered, and the language it records has been in the same vein from ancient times to the present, resulting in a rich and continuous body of literature. It is unique in the world that a modern person who can read ancient books is also able to read and understand the ancient books copied by the Western Han people more than 2,000 years ago. Shizuku Shirakawa, a renowned Japanese scholar, said in the early 1970s, "In a sense, Chinese culture is the culture of Chinese characters, and the various qualities that Chinese characters possess add a strong color to Chinese culture." "Chinese characters also radiated to neighboring peoples, forming a unique cultural circle known as the Chinese characters Cultural Circle."

Chinese characters have greatly enhanced the cohesion and centripetal force of the Chinese nation. As China is a vast country with many dialects and national languages, the unification of the written language was an important foundation for national unity and integration. In 221 B.C., the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty ordered the implementation of the policy of "unified writing" in the year of the unification of the whole country, which ensured the communication of governmental orders and the unification of ideology and culture. After the Qin Dynasty, Chinese characters underwent a long process of script evolution. Despite the division of the world and the change of dynasties, the tradition of Chinese characters as the universal script has never wavered. Historically, most of the ethnic minorities that entered the Central Plains would actively embrace Chinese culture and learn Chinese characters. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, in order to integrate the Tuoba Xianbei into the culture of the Central Plains, Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty carried out the reform of Sinicization, establishing Chinese as the official language and requiring the study of Chinese, the use of Han characters, and the wearing of Han uniforms, which had a great impact on the promotion of ethnic integration. During the Song Dynasty, the regimes of Liao, Xixia, and Jin established by the northern minorities were also influenced by Chinese culture, and their self-created national scripts drew on the radicals of Chinese characters.   

The Chinese nation is not a mere fusion of races and bloodlines, but an entity of cultural identity, and Chinese characters have played an important role in the formation and development of the Chinese nation. The countries of the world that used epigraphic scripts, whether it was the Roman Empire or Charlemagne's Empire, once split into nation-states that used smaller epigraphic systems, it was difficult to re-unite them into a single culturally continuous nation. China is different, in this great land, dynasties and regimes have not affected our script consistency and cultural continuity. This world will be united after being separated for a long time, and it is always unity that triumphs over division. This characteristic is closely related to the hyper-linguistic function of Chinese characters. Instead of recording language through coding that directly expresses speech, Chinese characters record the Chinese language through a variety of coding forms based on ideograms, which gives them two characteristics: on the one hand, they can record language accurately; Chinese characters are a mature system of writing, compatible with the Chinese language, and can record the spoken language of all eras, it can be formed into a written language, which makes the language more rigorous; on the other hand, Chinese characters can transcend dialects, different times can be read with different sounds, different regions can be read with different pronunciations, and no matter what pronunciations are read, their meanings are not only historically continuous, but also socially common, and historically the written language has long functioned as a common language. For this reason, there has always been a unified script, despite the fact that dialects vary greatly from place to place and languages have varied greatly from one generation to the next. Although some Western scholars have rejected the ideographs represented by the Chinese characters from the point of view of their function of recording language, they have also pointed out their great advantage from the point of view of their social function, i.e., they are not bound by the linguistic image of the word, and they make it possible for the people in the various dialect areas to read and understand what each other has written.

Chinese characters are an important carrier of Chinese history and culture. China is a unified, multi-ethnic country that has given birth to a pluralistic and integrated Chinese civilization, whose inheritance and continuation rely mainly on written records and canonical preservation. For example, oracle bone inscriptions recorded the rituals, hunting, battles, agriculture, medical consultations and weather during the Shang Dynasty; and gold inscriptions recorded the economy, politics, culture, military and social life of the Zhou Dynasty. Throughout the history of world civilization, in many countries that used epigraphic scripts, once the regime was replaced by a foreign ruler, most of the phonetic semantics recorded in the scripts changed radically, and even if the alphabets were the same, the language they recorded was different. If the current dynasty cannot understand the language recorded in the previous dynasty's script, and the next dynasty cannot understand the history written in the current dynasty's script, then of course there will be no uninterrupted and continuous historical records. In China, however, the same writing system is still in use in the following dynasty after the demise of the previous one, and the same writing system is still using after many dynasties, and there is no obstacle for people to read and understand the writing, so the history of the civilization has been recorded without interruption for thousands of years, and the various kinds of documents are rich and varied, and passed on in an orderly manner.

Chinese characters contain the genetic code of Chinese culture, and many of the characters themselves record the production and living conditions of the people at that time. Through these characters, we can feel the life of our ancestors and even their psychological state at that time. Therefore, Chinese people have always had a reverence for words, which is reflected in the relationship of inheritance in the evolution of Chinese characters, for example, the Three Styles of Stone Scripture of the Cao Wei Dynasty, in which the inscriptions are written in three scripts, namely, ancient script, Small Seal Script, and Han Clerical Script; and on the other hand, it is reflected in the preservation and inheritance of the literature and calligraphy of previous generations by the descendants, for example, the Chunhua Pavilion Postings of the Song Dynasty, which contains a large number of works by calligraphers of the previous dynasties. It is the reverence for the written word that has allowed the history and culture of the Chinese people to be passed on for thousands of years to the present day and to be carried forward.

Chinese characters manifest the unique charm of Chinese culture. Literature is the art of language, which is the commonality of literature. Chinese literature is not only the art of language, but also the art of writing.

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