Cliff carvings may rewrite history of Chinese characters” proclaims the headline.

 “Chinese archaeologists say they have found more than 2,000 pictographs dating back 7,000 to 8,000 years, about 3,000 years before other texts, that are believed to be the origin of modern Chinese characters.

The pictographs are on rock carvings in Damaidi, at Beishan Mountain in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which covers about 450 square kilometers with more than 10,000 prehistoric rock carvings.

Paleographers claim that the pictographs may take the history of Chinese characters back to 7,000 to 8,000 years ago.”

[side note: whichever newspaper editor decided that each and every sentence should be a paragraph in its own right should be shot.]

Of course there is the obligatory note of the oracle bones and pottery inscriptions found in Henan, but the article then goes on to quote one Li Xiangshi, “a cliff-carving expert at the North University of Nationalities based in Yinchuan” as saying:

“We have found some symbols shaped like both pictures and characters,”

and:

“The pictographs are similar to the ancient hieroglyphs of Chinese characters and many can be identified as ancient characters,”

and then quotes one Liu Jingyun, “an expert on ancient Oracle Bone characters”:

“Through arduous research, we have found that some pictographs are commonly seen in up to hundreds of pictures in the carvings,”

and then notes:

“Liu believed the meanings of all the pictographs could be deciphered on the basis of certain classifications such as gender.”

And that is pretty much the entire article.

If you detect a note of scepticism, it’s because I don’t consider china.org.cn to be the most reliable source. This article also raises a lot of serious questions, the first one in my mind being: How did the origin of Chinese writing suddenly shift so spectacularly from Henan, which is apparently the home of the Xia and Shang dynasties, to Ningxia? And from 3000 to 4500 years BP to 7000 – 8000 years BP?

2 Responses to “Cliff carvings and characters?”

  1. John Says:

    This sounds like wishful thinking on the part of the archaeologists. That’s not to say that there weren’t meaningful symbols (though not exactly writing), but there would then be a huge gap of a few thousand years between this and the Xia and Shang Dynasties without (does it appear?) any significant development at all in the system.

    Also, Ningxia? Perhaps 8000 years ago it was quite habitable, but again, this sounds a little fishy to me.

    “We need to raise some money to line our pockets. Sorry, I mean start a project to benefit the farmers.”

    “The State Council for Archaeology has stacks of cash which no one’s applied for.”

    “Of course. Let’s make some archaeological ‘find’ which proves that Chinese civilisation really began in Ningxia. Then I’ll be able to buy that new Series 7 BMW.”

    “You mean ‘Truly benefit the impoverished rural masses’.”

    “That’s what I said. It sounds like something else in Ningxiahua.”

  2. wangbo Says:

    It’s not the inhospitability of Ningxia that gets me, but the sudden, huge leap from Henan 3 or 4 thousand years ago to Ningxia 7 or 8 thousand years ago. As you point, there does not appear to be anything linking these Ningxia “characters” to the Oracle bones. A huge leap in distance and time.