The evolution of Chinese calligraphy | Part 3 – Oracle bone script's pictograms

In this blog post we will be looking at some examples of the oracle bone script and in particular, how it utilized pictograms to record the ancient world.

Pictograms (象形 xiàng xíng) are a category of Chinese characters that differ uniquely to the phono-semantic compound characters that make up 90% of written Chinese. Whereas phono-semantic compounds are composed of a radical, which indicates an approximation to the characters' phonetics; as well as a semantic compound that provides a sense of meaning to the character; pictograms are characters whose form is a pictorial rendering of the real-world object the character represents.

Below are some great examples of some of the oracle bone pictograms, along with their modern character counter-part.

A collection of pictographic, oracle bone script characters.

A collection of pictographic, oracle bone script characters.

Another fantastic example is the character for home (家 jiā); the picture below illustrates how 家 originated from a drawing of a house. 

The gradual evolution of the character, 家 home.

The gradual evolution of the character, 家 home.

As you can see from the diagram, this character's modern-day equivalent's radical (宀) resembles the roof of the house. Whilst the section below the radical evolved from a depiction of livestock, which was inseparable from the concept of 'home' in ancient, agricultural China.

There are around 600 examples of these pictogram characters in Chinese that have evolved and are still in use to this day, all of which originate from this simple and endearing script.

In this post we've learned how the oracle bone script was made up of pictograms representing the fabric of ancient Chinese life. A written language is a part of the foundation of all great civilizations, and this simple form of written record was indeed fundamental to China's development. Its from these humble beginnings that the written Chinese language was able to develop.

In our next post in this series we will examine the next stage in the evolution of Chinese calligraphy - the birth of bronze script (金文 jīén).