Chinese ideograms, the Gods & Divination

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Origination of Chinese ideograms, i.e. writing, during the Shang

While the Shang culture practiced human sacrifice, while the Shang culture was a military aristocracy based upon warfare and hunting, while the Shang culture was an extreme hierarchy with the warrior on top and the peasantry on the bottom, while the Shang culture was all of these horrible things and more, they were also the first Chinese culture to develop writing.

Ideograms, uniquely Chinese

It was initially thought that writing came from the west like everything else. Upon closer examination, it was seen that while the idea of writing might have originally come from the west, the Chinese development was unique. While written documents from western Asia may or may not have catalyzed1 writing in China, the elements that went into the script were all indigenous.  These elements coalesced during the Shang.

Magic precedes writing

There were probably two sources. The first was probably from Neolithic pottery designs. As mentioned, these designs were transmitted independent of language, but probably had similar fertility meanings wherever they were used, judging on the consistency of the patterns over so many centuries. The second source was the oracular cracks upon the tortoise shells and animal bones. Again both the shaman and the aristocracy could interpret these symbols even though they might have spoken different languages.

Both of these sources are magical. For the Chinese the magical quality of these runic markings preceded the written character. Writing was first magical and then came to mean something. This magical quality of Chinese calligraphy characterizes Chinese history.

Chinese ideograms, oracular communication with the gods

The writing of the Sumerians tended to be oriented towards business; the Egyptian writing had a documentary character. The Chinese characters presumably evolved from oracles. The Shang oracle bones are certainly our first example of Chinese ideograms. The oracular I Ching is considered the first Chinese classic text. Both are testimonies to the mystical side of Chinese ideograms.

Divine bones cracks

The so-called Black pottery people, the Longshan culture, used bones for divination, as did the Shang2. Initially the scapulae of pigs, goat, or sheep were used, but the diviners of the late Shang only used tortoise shells for oracles. They would tie two of these tortoise shells together through holes in their edges. To indicate the deep connection between writing and oracles in the development of writing, the Chinese ideogram for book looks like two oracle bones of tortoise shells tied together3.

Shang believed could communicate with ancestors through writing

The divination technique used by the Shang and Longshan cultures was to apply a hot point to the oracular bone. This process produced cracks that were then interpreted. The oracular tradition developed a style and method of reading these cracks. The interpretation was institutionalized. Certain types of bone cracks came to be associated with wife, tribe, children, health, etc. Then to communicate to the gods, the Chinese would use the same language upon the oracle bones. Shamanswould assign meanings to the bone cracks and then use these same cracks to communicate back to the gods or ancestors for answers to their questions.

“The Shang people believed that while they could not speak directly to their gods and their ancestors, they could communicate with them through writing.”4

Chen-jen, scribes, compose and write oracle bones

We refer to them as shamans but perhaps we should use the word chen-jen,  i.e. scribe, instead. Chen-jen composed and interpreted the oracle bones. Warrior-officials were supposed to be able to play the role of chen-jen. The earliest of the Chinese literati were fortunetellers. The literate in China first performed an oracular function. This contrasts with the business function in Sumeria, or the after-life function in Egypt.

Ideograms from the gods

The Chinese scribes were writing the letters of the gods. They were imitating as best they could the oracular cracks that the gods had made to communicate to them. These were no ordinary pictograms. They were the ideograms that the gods themselves used. The ability to write the language of the gods to communicate directly with them on the oracle bones became a revered skill. This function is distinctly different from the law and business orientation of the Sumerians.

Connection between writing and painting

The reverence for the written word evolved into the art of calligraphy. The art of calligraphy was based upon the brush. The brush was also used for painting. Chinese calligraphy had an incredible influence upon Chinese painting because of the high esteem with which it was held. Chinese painters never embraced the profusion of color that was prevalent in the west. Instead Chinese painters concentrated upon brush stroke and line. A suggestion of color was all it took reveal the essence. The connection between Chinese painting and calligraphy is so integral that “the same written character is used to denote both writing and painting.”5 To write is to paint and vice versa.

Chinese ideograms allow different languages to communicate

Because of the multitude of different languages brought to China by invading cultures, it was probably a natural step to have a form of universal writing. The Chinese ideograms communicate to the different linguistic groups equally well. Just as scientific symbols and numbers communicate equally well no matter which language is spoken, so did the Chinese written language evolve to be independent of Chinese spoken language. As we will find out, one of the primary results of this universal written language was the separation of the aristocracy from the peasantry.

The Chinese Language?

A Language group?

While the west refers to Chinese as a language, it is more like a language group, akin to Germanic or Romance language groups. It is easy for us to understand China’s conglomeration under a single country if they all speak the same language. We’ve seen the Germans, French, Italian, Spanish and English peoples all band together as a single country with a single language. Thus it is easy for us to understand China banding together under one language.


Mandarin Chinese is the official language of the government. But the Chinese from the north cannot understand, even with patience, the Chinese from the south. Their languages are so different that it is like an Italian communicating with a Mexican, there are similarities but high-level communication is impossible. Additionally the local customs vary in an extreme way from region to region. In many ways China is much more like Europe than the United States in its regional variations.

Chinese: the written language

What is it that binds this country with its Chinese language group and varied customs together? The written language. While the spoken language varies significantly from region to region, the written language is consistent. In China the written language is based on ideograms rather than phonetics. Thus no matter how the word Heaven is pronounced with all its regional variations, there is only one representation of Heaven in writing. This is akin to our Western number system. The Arabic decimal numerals 1,234 signify the same thing to scientists world wide regardless of which language they speak or how they pronounce these numbers. Because the Chinese written language is based upon ideograms rather than phonetics, it too is universal. The adoption of ideograms by the Shang allowed this to happen.

A small minority literate in China

Sounds like a great idea. Why doesn’t the West convert to ideograms in order to communicate more universally? There are a few reasons. First, thousands of ideograms must be memorized in order to read Chinese, while only 26 letters need be memorized in order to read the western languages. Because of this basic difference, literacy is almost universal in the first world countries of the west, while in China only the intellectual minority achieved literacy, at least in the past.

Written and spoken Chinese different grammar

In older times the difficulty in learning to read was compounded by the fact that written Chinese was different than spoken Chinese. Written Chinese was not read aloud, and even if it was, it would be unintelligible to the average Chinese. To increase literacy, the modern Chinese government has made an attempt to have written Chinese mirror spoken Chinese.6 Even with these attempts to increase literacy in China, the percentage of people able to read remains low by Western standards.

Phonetic Chinese, impossible

Why doesn’t China convert to phonetics in order to make reading and writing more accessible to the populace? They have tried unsuccessfully.

“There are simply too many homophones: for example, there are 137 separate characters or words romanized as i among the 7,773 characters in the most popular Chinese-English student dictionary.”7

Imperial intellectuals hold China together

Because of the idiosyncrasies of Chinese as both a spoken language and written language, it is virtually impossible to phoneticize. Hence they have retained the universal written Chinese, which has bound their culture together at the expense of extending literacy to the masses. In some ways, the intellectuals that were chosen to administer China based upon state exams have been a major part of the glue that has held China together as an imperial state. They have always had the written language in common even though the regional differences in language and culture are extreme, especially from an American standpoint.

Chinese: Written Precision and Spoken Ambiguity

One last point about the Chinese language: in Mandarin Chinese each homophone or syllable can be given four different inflections to impart different meanings. For instance, rising and falling are two of the different inflections. While inflection in the Germanic or Romance languages tends to identify a sentence as a question or statement, it usually doesn’t change the meaning of the word. In Chinese, the inflection changes the meaning.

Ambiguity is inherent in spoken Chinese. By varying inflection, the speaker can easily suggest subtle innuendoes and hidden meanings. This is not true of written Chinese. While written Chinese can also be used poetically, it is inherently much less ambiguous than spoken Chinese. Possibly because of this, the Chinese tend to diminish the importance of the spoken word and magnify the importance of the written word. The listeners might hear different things, but the readers all read the same thing regardless of the Chinese language group.

Writing a Confucian virtue

These features of the Chinese language have had a profound effect upon the development of both Taoism and Confucianism. During the Shang it was only the military aristocracy who could read. Later this was institutionalized to the extent that only those who could read were allowed to govern. The Confucians was originally one of the ruling warrior elites who could read. They treasured both their physical and mental sides as exhibited by the six virtues, which included writing. Their philosophy eventually asserted that only those that could read and write should be allowed to govern. This attitude was institutionalized as only those who could read could take the state tests. Political power was eventually centralized within the intellectual elite because only a slim minority could read.

Taoist attitude, no paper, no words

As the religion of the people, Taoism went the other way of Confucianism, the state religion. Words spoken or written are ambiguous. The only thing truly real is body experience. Individual transformation begins on the level of the body rather than the mind. If the body isn’t in alignment then the mind can’t be in alignment. The mind is the servant of the body rather than its leader. In agricultural terms, the mind cultivates the body rather than dominates it. This is diametrically opposed to the dominator mentality in which the mind dominates the body, controlling its natural urges.8

Wordless message of Journey to the West

Confucians venerate calligraphy and the power of the word, while Taoists honor the body and the wordless path. We see these two attitudes towards words manifested in the classic Chinese novel Journey to the WestThe quest of Tripitaka, the Buddhist monk, is to obtain words, i.e. the scriptures of the Buddha in the West. When he returns with them, these scriptures are to bring good things for the people of China. Hence the entire Journey is focused around the acquisition of divine words, which contain truths that will ease humankind’s burden. This emphasis upon divine words harks back to the oracle tortoise shells of the during the Shang dynasty. We will also see this manifestation in the Chinese classics of which the I Ching is premiere.

First true ‘wordless scriptures’

After some 90 chapters and 1000 pages of adversity and ordeal, Tripitaka finally reaches the Buddha. He is so happy. He has reached his destiny. He goes to get the scriptures. The attendants ask for a gift. He refuses and Monkey threatens to cause a disturbance. They give him the scriptures. They begin their journey home. After they leave, Buddha says,

“Most of the priests in the land of the East are so stupid and blind that they will not recognize the value of these wordless scriptures. When that happens, won’t it have made this long trip of our sage monk completely worthless?” JW 4 p 391

With all in agreement, Buddha sends a heavenly wind to dump the travelers and their scriptures. The scriptures open up and Tripitaka finds out they are blank. The truth is wordless. He feels cheated and returns to Buddha Heaven to get the rightful scriptures. Buddha says,

“Since you people came with empty hands to acquire scriptures, blank texts were handed over to you. But these blank texts are actually true, wordless scriptures, and they are just as good as those with words. However, those creatures in your Land of the East are so foolish and unenlightened that I have no choice but to impart to you now the texts with words.” JW 4 p 393

Incomplete set because of hardheaded people

Let us paraphrase the Buddha’s point. Because Tripitaka and his group paid nothing to the attendants, they got nothing in return. But no words are just as good, if not better than scripture. However, because the wise men of China are so stupid they will demand words. So we will give some words to take home.

“I would have liked to give the entire set to you. Unfortunately, the people of your region are both stupid and headstrong.” JW 4, p 388

Scriptures are damaged

Thus Tripitaka and his group set off on their return home with exactly 1/3 of the entire set of scrolls, none of which are complete. On the way home, Kuan Yin realizes that Tripitaka has not yet had the 81 ordeals necessary to ‘return to immortality’ and orders one more ordeal. Some of the scriptures are damaged in this trial. While Tripitaka is bemoaning their carelessness, Monkey says,

“After all, even Heaven and Earth are not perfect. This sutra may have been perfect, but a part of it has been torn off precisely because only in that condition will it correspond to the profound mystery of non-perfection. What happened isn’t something human power could anticipate or change!” JW 4, p. 408

Best that could be hoped for

Tripitaka returns home to China with words to represent the wordless truth. These distorted truths are incomplete and damaged besides. But this is the best that could be hoped for.

Tripitaka never reads the ‘Truths of the scriptures’

Furthermore, never in the whole book is one word of the scriptures read. They are referred to continually as the object of the quest. The group continually refers to themselves as scripture pilgrims. Tripitaka never even reads one word of the scriptures himself nor do any of his disciples. Indeed upon their return, the Emperor builds a huge platform upon which Tripitaka is to recite the scriptures to the Chinese people.

“[Tripitaka] was just about to recite [the scriptures] when he felt a gust of fragrant wind. In midair the eight Varja Guardians revealed themselves and cried, “Recitants, drop your scripture scrolls and follow us back to the West.” From below Pilgrim [Monkey] and his two companions [Piggy and Monster] together with the white horse immediately rose into the air. The elder [Tripitaka], too, abandoned the scriptures and rose from the platform. They all left, soaring through the air.” JW 4, p. 424

Truth has nothing to do with achievements

From here they all achieve Buddhahood. It seems that the truths of the words from these scriptures have absolutely nothing to do with the group achieving Buddhahood. Tripitaka and his group are just like messengers of the gods. With their message delivered, they leave, never even knowing or caring what the message said. These vital truths, the object of their Quest, the Journey, are incomplete and damaged distortions of the wordless Reality and have nothing to do with their individual accomplishments.

Confucian Quest: Taoist result

While the Quest has a Confucian Chinese focus upon the acquisition of divine words, the actual result is Taoist with the achievements on an experiential level, and the real truths on a wordless plane.


1 Sometimes in the development of a culture, all it takes is a spark to set the world on fire. The Japanese culture before the advent of writing was quite advanced. When Buddhist monks brought the technology of writing from China, the conversion to writing was almost immediate. Frequently all it takes is a small push. If it takes more, it is probably too much. The Shang could have been easily been influenced from the west. THey certainly were influenced in many other ways by so=urrounding cultural influences.

2 A Short History of Chinese Art,  Munsterberg, p18-9

3 The Arts of China  by Michael Sullivan, p26

4 Chinese Art, MacKenzie, 1961p 28

5 Chinese Art, MacKenzie, 1961, p 28

6 This change in China is similar to the change in Europe from Latin to popular vernacular in the written word. When everything was written in Latin, only the intellectual elite could read or write. While Latin was the universal language of the intelligentsia, it effectively excluded commoners. In a similar way written Chinese excludes commoners because of the difficulty in learning to read and write it.

7 China to 1850, p.9

8 Christianity is filled with dominator symbols and myths. The Medieval hair shirt symbolizes the mind dominating the body. Christianity attempts to convert the mind so that the mind can dominate the body. Unfortunately the body won out too many times over the mind. That is why there were so many Inquisitions.


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