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Kanji (漢字, かんじ, i.e. “characters of Han China”)

Kanji, in Japanese, means “Chinese characters”. The etymology of the name goes back to the Han dynasty (漢朝, 206 B.C. – 220 C.E.). The impact that the Han dynasty had on the development of calligraphy was so significant that in modern China people still refer to the characters as “hàn zì” (漢字, “the characters of Han China” in Chinese). Scholars dispute the total number of kanji currently in existence, though according to the largest kanji dictionary in the world, 中華字海 (Chinese: Zhōnghuá Zìhǎi), and based on numbers of undeciphered characters of the oracle bones script (甲骨文, こうこつぶん, kōkotsubun), there are easily more than 85000 of them. It is interesting to know, that certain characters are, or were, used only for a name of one person (usually a ruler).

The origin of Chinese writing is debatable and scientists cannot agree on a concrete point in time. The theory of its age was moved back significantly after a great discovery that took place in 1921, when Johan Gunnar Anderson, a Swedish archeologist, and his team discovered decorated pottery near Yangshao village (仰韶), Henan Province (河南省), a fruit of Yangshao culture that lasted for an astonishing 2000 years, starting around 5000 B.C. The earthenware found on the site was decorated with black, white and red markings. Even though the scientific debate continues, some experts have successfully linked them to modern Chinese language. Consequently, some of the Yangshao markings were successfully classified as the beginning of the Chinese writing system (for instance the character for “rice” – 米). This fact alone means that the history of Chinese calligraphy is at least 7000 years old, 1500 years older than what was previously thought to be the most ancient written language on Earth – Sumerian cuneiform, dated at 3500 B.C.

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Page last modified on October 26, 2011, at 10:41 AM