Who’s ready for some history?

Not much new to report in recent days.  Classes are going well, if a bit slow still, making friends, reading, writing, running, extended my visa today.  Thought I’d take the time to talk about my trip to the Shaanxi (the province Xi’an is the capital of) History Museum.  Wonderful building done in traditional Chinese style, and one of the other language partners hooked us up with her friend who works as a tour guide there.  The museum is basically a collection of local history from around 1,000 BCE to the present with a surprisingly robust neolithic exhibit as well.  As I mentioned, Shaanxi was the center of Chinese civilization up through 1,000 CE so as you can imagine they’ve got a lot of stuff.  Highlights included four original terra cotta soldiers that you can see below, some amazing brass and ceramic work, and neolithic pottery that was A. surprisingly well preserved and B. really damn good for people who probably had a third the life expectancy as us today and nowhere near the level of technology.IMG_2726

Another cool highlight though was a huge brass ding that we were allowed to touch.  A ding is a large brass vessel used for cooking starting around 2,500.  All sorts of rules applied to how they were used, and as you can guess by their size they were really restricted to the upper classes.  One of the more interesting rules was how you were assigned a certain number of dings based on your social standing, and no one could use more than the ruler.

Ding pic

Their other interesting feature is that they’re crucial in our understanding of the development of Chinese script and history at the time.  Inside a lot of them are several-hundred character-long inscriptions that talk about the events of the time, famous figures, wars etc.  The style of the characters, as you can see below, are a bit different from the Chinese characters of today, and are collectively known as 金文 (Jinwen-jeanwun), the second step in the evolution of Chinese characters.  In light of me getting to see some real life 金文, I thought I’d take some time to tell you all a bit about Chinese characters.

So the earliest characters we’ve discovered are the “oracle bone characters” (甲骨文,jiaguwen lit. shell and bone characters), written, as you can guess, on oracle bones that were roasted in flames, creating cracks which could then be read to predict the future.  They looked like this.  The modern equivalents for these characters are written in red below them, as they’re known now about 37oo years after their oracle bone counterparts.

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Next are the bronze characters seen above.

Following them are the seal script characters (篆书, zhuanshu), which while being elegant as all hell, were a pain to write, even more so than modern characters, and they soon passed out of usage.

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They got replaced by clerical script (隶书,lishu) around the birth of Christ,which are pretty close to the characters of today in that even I can recognize a lot of them.

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At the same time, running script came into use as a form of cursive (草书-caoshu、tsaoshoo, lit. grass script)  It’s next to impossible to decipher for someone like me, but it looks pretty and was easier to write I suppose.

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Kaishu came about shortly thereafter, was more standardized, recognizable, and was in use up through the Qing dynasty and beyond.  It’s a lot more easy to recognize and is still in use today in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

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Come the time of the communist revolution, Mao wanted to improve literacy rates and therefore wanted to make Chinese characters easier to learn to write.  The KMT (the Republic of China, still a political party in Taiwan) had already simplified some characters using alternate shorthand versions that existed for centuries, but Mao vastly expanded the system.  As soon as he did this of course, the government of Taiwan immediately went back to using traditional characters to prove they were “more Chinese”.  Anyway, simplified Characters are indeed much easier to use, and they’re what I learned when I started studying Chinese.  I can still recognize a fair amount of traditional characters, and most educated mainland Chinese people can read them with no problem, as it’s necessary if you ever go to karaoke or want to read anything published before 1949.  They’re also used in Singapore.  You can see the vast differences below and understand why I personally am so thankful for them.  The top line is written in simplified characters, and the bottom two are in traditional. (The sentence reads, “Melancholy Taiwanese turtle,” not sure why).

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And there you have your history lesson for the day!  I imagine on doing some more posts like this as I get into more of a routine and have less interesting things to post, hope you enjoy!

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