Very cool news – thanks for the link!
I have to say that I’m more than a bit skeptical, though.
- Yeah, pictures. You can see some of them here. They’re cool (ok, VERY cool), but as far as I understand, they’re just cave art, not writing (as the scholars seem to be claiming when they use the term ‘characters’). Skepticism is in order, due to similar claims made before which turned out to be, in my opinion and that of many conservative scholars, a bit overblown. The Chinese media love to produce a couple paragraphs of description, claim that Chinese culture is thousands of years older than previously thought, and then not provide any actual pictures, analysis, or other evidence.
- Of course they do; many later Chinese characters were based on simple depictions of natural phenomena and human actions, e.g., the sun, moon, mountains, hunting, and so on. What differentiated them from pictures (art) was their use in grammatical sentences to represent speech, and their use in rebus form (phonetic loan) to represent homophonic spoken words. Without such usage, and without some evidence of phonetic-semantic compounding, you don’t really have evidence of ‘characters’ (i.e., writing). You just have pictures (art). We can say the same about the vast majority of the already known Neolithic pottery symbols, for example, yet there are many ‘scholars’ in China who insist they are writing.
As Paola Demattè, Assistant Professor, Chinese Art, Rhode Island School of Design put it in Writing the Landscape – Petroglyphs of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia Province (China), “Clearly, there are also remarkable differences between writing and petroglyphs, the most obvious being the arrangement of various signs with respect to each other. A piece of writing, no matter how simple, arranges its signs following a sequential logic which is generally (but not necessarily) linguistic; differently, a pictorial representation places its signs in accordance to a spatial logic, and hierarchies between signs are established by both their size and position.”
- That’s about right, for the very earliest likely compound graph (from end 大汶口 Da4wen4kou3, ca. 4500 years ago), which btw occurs in isolated form and is therefore not incontrovertibly writing. And it’s not until the phase III (early Shāng) stratum at Èrlĭtóu that there are enough graphs with a reasonable resemblance to oracle bone forms to reasonably identify an apparent direct ancestor to the oracle bone writing and therefore to the modern Chinese script. And even these aren’t in grammatical form.
- Being individual pictures, they are not writing.
I refer you to answer 2.
And they still do, as far as I can see. Still, I’ll have to see more of the inscriptions.
Note also that northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is not exactly the cradle of Shang1 civilization, which as far as we currently understand, spawned the Chinese script. There’s a bit more information in this article: china.org.cn/english/culture/117261.htm, in which some scholars point out that some of the carvings are only about 1000 years old, and that many are thought to be the work (artwork) of nomads like the Xiongnu around the Han dynasty period; half of the pics (animal figures, hardly ‘writing’) may be up to 7000 years old, and a few are much earlier than that.
In sum, do they really “have evidence that modern Chinese script is thousands of years older than previously thought”? Absolutely not, not unless they can do better than show us isolated pictures of men hunting deer. They have evidence of cave art or cliff art thousands of years earlier than previously known. That’s it. Still very cool, but the routinely exaggerated claims are irritating.
That’s why I posted it here without my own comment, to see what you guys thought. My knowledge of Chinese characters is close to non-existent.
I guess the fact that it says “state media says blah blah” should have made me wonder about the accuracy of the claims. I mean, when was the last time anyone believed the PRC media?
Still, it’s pretty cool.
What DB said. :bravo:
To my amazement, lots of people who would not use the China Daily for anything but bird-cage liner are willing to take Beijing’s figures on literacy in China at face value. But that’s another story…
BTW, the BBC has far from a flawless record when it comes to reporting on linguistics and science.
And the British Museum had this on display for a long time;
With the caption: This well preseved exapmple of cave art dates from the post-catatonic era.
the chinese have this not so hidden agenda to have their (esp. written) culture upgraded alongside the Egyptians and Romans et al in terms of longevity…so they keep churning out so-called “experts” who make outlandish claims for the pre-historic eras…just finished reading peter hessler’s oracle bones which has some fascinating background on this…
Chinese culture is already ancient and interesting, so it doesn’t really need any outlandish claims. Oh, Hessler’s book doesn’t really have much to do with oracle bones, does it?