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The role of Chinese characters in cultural preservation

Author  :  HUANG DEKUAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-08-10

The shapes of Chinese character carry cultural information.

In addition to their regular function of recording linguistic symbols, Chinese characters are also the result of an accumulation of culture over a long period of history and therefore contain salient cultural attributes. They have had a profound influence on the preservation and development of Chinese civilization.

First off, in the history of human civilization, there were a number of endogenous writing systems, namely, cuneiform script, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and Chinese characters. Chinese characters are the only writing system among the three that has survived until today. The fact that Chinese characters have undergone sustainable, steady development during their long history means they have stored and preserved Chinese history and culture. 

The tremendous classics and documents excavated or passed down manifest China’s long, proud history. Chinese civilization is still progressing based on these foundations. This can be said to be a miracle in world civilization and this miracle should be credited to the vitality and development of the Chinese writing system.

Moreover, Chinese characters are a system of cultural symbols, and their structures contain rich cultural and historical information, which is the source of the life and growth of Chinese civilization. As with most writing systems, the main function of Chinese characters is to record the Chinese language. 

But it also has the function of serving as a system of cultural symbols. The origin and development of Chinese characters was closely related to their distinct historical backgrounds. Hence, the system itself and the structures of characters formed in different eras are endowed with cultural information and elements of those eras.

Therefore, revealing and interpreting the cultural information carried by characters and their evolution can shed light on the cultural attributes of the writing system as well as its significance in preserving Chinese civilization. 

In addition, Chinese characters play an irreplaceable role in transmitting ideology and culture and maintaining the unity of the Chinese nation among all ethnics in this vast land. The formation and key development of characters occurred during a critical historical period for the development of Chinese civilization.

Characters were developed during periods of exchanges and integration of various cultures in different regions all over the country, in a process which generated the unified Chinese civilization. 

No matter how history develops, Chinese characters remained stable, sustaining the root and essence of Chinese culture while also promoting its transmission and development. This function of characters enables Chinese civilization to exhibit great inclusiveness and integration.


Huang Dekuan is from the College of Liberal Arts at Anhui University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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