Chinese Script

When I tell Chinese acquaintances about my project, they are not surprised. The Chinese know that their script is very old. To them it is perfectly normal for someone to be using their script to decipher symbols on the walls of caves in Europe.

The oldest generally accepted Chinese script is the 3,500 year old, Shāng Dynasty oracle bone script. However, archaeological digs keep on finding much older artefacts bearing symbols that resemble script.

Some characters that are found in Cave Script, also appear on oracle bones, for example the character xīn meaning manual or hard labour, which is found at the 20,000 year old Grotte de Bayol site. However, I think that any attempt to establish a neat linear progression from Cave Script through to Chinese would be inappropriate at this stage, because I have only studied a small number of examples.

Indeed, I think that the linear approach currently used by most scholars studying Chinese script will probably have to change. My initial study seems to indicate that some of the basic building blocks of what we identify as Chinese were around at least 37,000 years ago.

Those of you wondering how anything could possibly be as old as Cave Script and still be decipherable might like to consider the following:

Learning to Write

When someone first learns to write Chinese, they might practise using the character, yǒng which means everlasting. Yǒng uses eight of the basic strokes that comprise Chinese script. Each stroke has to be executed in order. This discipline over stroke order is exercised for every character in the Chinese script. Thus it is possible for the characters to pass down the generations without changing. I even think that it is possible that whoever designed the script intended that it should transcend time and space.

Ancient Knowledge?

In the section for the deer radical lù 鹿, the Shuowen Jiezi has the character yù. It describes a yù as being like a deer but big. The small seal script versions of lù and yù are shown below. To me, yù seems to be made up of the deer radical and a large set of antlers. My translation would be megaloceros. If I am correct, it means that the 1,900 year old etymology contains at least one character from a much earlier era.

Although, the precise meaning of any given character may be disputed, I still think that in Chinese, we might have the key to deciphering Cave Script. The shape of each character component is always of importance to the meaning. Indeed a successful component is arguably one in which the meaning is intuitive. There can’t be many changes that could be made without either losing the meaning of the given character component or encroaching on another character component. Thus once the fundamental structure of a component is established, you can do fancy things with fonts, but you can’t change the underlying shape without causing havoc, and undermining the whole purpose of the script.

In adopting a working approach for deciphering Cave Script, I have therefore equated the different component shapes to fonts that varied with the writing medium and the culture of the scribe.

The basic components were assembled into composite characters in different ways by different cultures. The resulting diversity can be seen in Richard Sear’s database¹.

Diversity does not necessarily equate to a lack of understanding. The basic components retained the meanings that they have held for thousands of years. Moreover, there may have been controls over the creation of new characters. In the Rites of Zhou, we are told that the dà xíng rén 大行人 organised a review of new characters every seven years². This regulation may have been practised by other cultures too.


Image Credits:

Small seal script characters: Shuowenjiezi: research tool in Chinese traditional philology: Accessed: 1 April 2013

Le cerf noir. Paroi Droite. Diverticule Axial: Norbert Aujoulat © MCC-CNP, 2004: Lascaux, le geste, l’espace et le temps, Paris, Le Seuil: Lascaux: Visite de la Grotte: Ministry of Culture, France: Accessed: 1 April 2013


1. Chinese Etymology: The history of Chinese characters: Accessed: 1 April 2013

2. Édouard Biot, 1851: Le Tcheou-li, ou Rites des Tcheou Tome I, Avertissement, p. 23, Paris, Imprimerie nationale: Digital Version: Jean-Marie Tremblay, 2005: Bibliothèque Paul-Émile-Boulet, Université du Québec, Chicoutimi: Accessed: 6 October 2011