The Shang dynasty contributed many inventions to early Chinese civilization. Bronze ritual vessels, bronze weapons, chariots, and walled cities were just a few of their innovations. Of all the Shang advances, the most important was the development of Chinese writing.
Legend says that people of the Shang period wrote in books made of bamboo and wood. Yet none of these have ever been found. Books made of such materials would not have lasted through the centuries.
The only evidence of Shang writing can be found on oracle bones and bronze ritual vessels. These artifacts make it clear that the Shang were the earliest people east of the Indus Valley to read and write. Writing would have allowed the Shang government to keep records and to work better.
The writing system created by the Shang was adopted by later Chinese dynasties. It forms the base of all later Chinese writing. Shang writing is different from the writing of many other peoples in one important way. The characters, or symbols, used in Shang writing represent whole words. They are not like the letters of the English alphabet, which represent parts of words. Shang characters are more like Egyptian hieroglyphs, which also stand for whole words. Like hieroglyphs, many Shang characters began as drawings of the things they name.
Oracle bones and bronze vessels show that the Shang people used a very large number of characters. Only about 1,000 of these have been figured out.
Chinese writing has changed over the years. Chinese civilization developed many new ideas and came into closer contact with other peoples and traditions. Because of these changes, some old characters have changed in meaning and new ones have been added. However, present-day Chinese writing has strong roots in Shang characters.
How is Shang writing different from other types of writing?