At a range of Neolithic sites in China, small numbers of symbols of either pictorial or simple geometric nature have been unearthed which were incised into or drawn or painted on artifacts, mostly on pottery but in some instances on turtle shells, animal bones or artifacts made from bone or jade. These sites include those pertaining to the cultures of Yǎngsháo, Liángzhǔ, Mǎjiāyáo and Lóngshān. The question of whether such symbols are writing, primitive or proto-writing, or merely non-writing symbols or signs for other purposes such as identification is a highly controversial one, and the debate still continues today. Proponents of the view that they are early Chinese writing tend to see evidence in comparisons of individual signs with individual oracle bone script characters. Skeptics such as Professor William G. Boltz point out that such comparisons are "notoriously risky and inconclusive" when based on such primitive scratch marks rather than on similarity in function (2003, p.38). Boltz adds:
It is still safe to conclude that the earliest known undisputed examples of true writing in China (that is, symbols used to fully record language rather than isolated meanings) currently date to the middle to late Shang dynasty's oracle bones and bronze inscriptions, ca. the 14th to 11th centuries BCE.
Dàdìwān (Chinese: 大地灣; 5800 BCE-5400 BCE) is a Neolithic site discovered in Qín’ān County, in the province of Gānsù. Its earliest phase has yielded symbols painted on the inside surfaces of pottery basins. More recent excavations there have also uncovered a handful of Neolithic symbols.
Jiǎhú (Chinese: 賈湖) is a Neolithic site at Wǔyáng County, Hénán Province, in the basin of the Yellow River, dated to 6600-6200 BCE. This site has yielded turtle plastrons that were pitted and inscribed with markings known as the Jiǎhú symbols. Despite headlines proclaiming the earliest known ‘writing’, some scholars warn that the meaningful use of such individual signs should not be easily equated with writing, although it may represent an earlier, formative stage. In the words of the archaeologists who made the latest Jiǎhú discovery:
Furthermore, there is no evidence of a direct cultural link between Jiahu and the Shāng culture, and the five-millennium gap between the two makes connections unlikely; as renowned oracle bones scholar David Keightley told the BBC :
In Dàmàidì (Chinese: 大麥地), at Beishan Mountain in Níngxià, 3,172 cliff carvings dating to 6,000-5,000 BCE have been discovered over an area of 15 square kilometers, including a reported 8,453 different kinds of pictures like celestial bodies, gods and hunting or grazing scenes These are reputed to be similar to some of the oracle bone characters, which is to be expected given that the oracle bones, which are true writing, still retain a significant pictorial flavor.
Another group of early symbols which many have compared to Chinese characters is the Bànpō-type symbols from sites like Bànpō (Chinese: 半坡), just east of Xī’ān in Shaanxi province, dating from the 5th millennium BCE, and nearby, at Jiāngzhài (Chinese: 姜寨), in Líntóng County (臨潼), from the early 4th millennium BCE. As the Bànpō symbols were discovered fairly early (1954-57) and are relatively numerous (with 22 different symbols on 113 potsherds), these have been the focus of the greatest amount of attention.
Some scholars have concluded that they are meaningful symbols like clan emblems or signatures which have some of the quality of writing, perhaps being primitive characters , while others have concluded based on comparisons to oracle bone script that some of them are numerals . Still others feel they may be ownership or potters’ marks. Finally, some scholars sound a note of caution, calling such conclusions unwarranted or premature. This is because all the Bànpō-type symbols occur singly, on pottery and pottery fragments, unlike written words, which tend to occur in strings representing language. Thus, there is no context from which to conclude that the symbols are actually being used to represent language. Furthermore, there is no evidence of the phonetic loan usage and semantic-phonetic compounding necessary to produce a functional script as seen in the Shāng dynasty oracle bone writing. Thus, leading scholars such as Prof. Qiu Xigui (2000) argue that:
Qiu also points out that they instead more closely resemble the non-writing symbols which remained in use even into the early historical period. Another problem which has been noted is that, since the oracle bone script was fairly pictorial in nature, if one were to go back to ancestors predating them by over three millennia, one should expect an increase in the pictorial nature of the symbols, but in fact, a comparison of the majority of the Bànpō symbols shows the exact opposite to be true. However, it is possible that some of the Bànpō or other Neolithic symbols were used as numerals in a pre-literate setting, and it is also plausible that when writing eventually did emerge, some such Neolithic symbols already in use (and not necessarily from such an early site as Bànpō) were absorbed into that writing system.
Inscription-bearing artifacts from the Dàwènkǒu culture culture (Chinese: 大汶口) in Shāndōng, dating to c. 2800-2500 BCE, have also been unearthed since excavations started in the 1950s , and have drawn a great deal of interest amongst researchers, in part because the Dawenkou culture is believed to be directly ancestral to the Longshan culture, which in turn is thought ancestral to the Shang, where the first undisputed Chinese writing appears. At a Dàwènkǒu site in Shāndōng, one pictorial symbol has been found painted in cinnabar, while at the Dàwènkǒu sites of Língyánghé (陵陽河) and Dàzhūcūn (大朱村), eighteen isolated pictorial symbols of eight types incised and/or painted with cinnabar on sixteen pottery jars and shards have been found, mostly from wealthier tombs. Some resemble axes, and another has been variously described as resembling the sun above a cloud or fire , while a third type has the latter above a fire or mountain-like element. In addition to the similarity in style between these and pictographic Shāng and early Zhōu clan symbols, what is important about the latter two types is that they have multiple components, reminiscent of the compounding of elements in the Chinese script, thus eliciting claims of a relationship. Yú Xĭngwú identified the circle-and-cloud graph as the Chinese character for ‘dawn’, 旦 dàn, while Táng Lán identified it as ‘bright’, 炅 jiǒng, and so on. Helping fuel speculation of a link between Dàwènkǒu symbols and Shāng writing is their somewhat greater proximity in time (1400 years distance) and space to the Shāng oracle bones, compared to earlier Neolithic finds; furthermore, the Shāndōng Dàwènkǒu culture is thought by some to be ancestral to Shāndōng Lóngshān culture, which in turn may have given rise to early Shāng culture.
As with each of the other Neolithic sites, the comparison is based on only a handful of isolated pictures, and there is again no evidence of use in strings of symbols such as we would expect with true writing – none of these appear jointly. Wáng Níngshēng thus concluded that they are marks of personal or clan identity rather than writing. Keightley opines that "they probably served as emblems of ownership or identity on these pots and jades, rather than as words in a writing system. Boltz agrees that they may have been "the pre-Shang counterpart to the Shang clan-name insignia" (p.48), but contrasts this with an actual writing system, for which there isn't any evidence at that time (p.51-2), while Qiu concludes:
There are also some items, including some inscribed jades, which have symbols similar to or identical to several of the Dàwènkǒu pictures, such as the circle and peaked crescent motif , and another described as a bird perched on a mountain-like shape; it appears that some of these may belong to the Liángzhǔ culture.
The Chéngzĭyái (Chinese: 城子崖) site in Lóngshān township, Shāndōng has produced fragments of inscribed bones presumably used to divine the future, dating to 2500 - 1900 BC, and symbols on pottery vessels from Dinggong are thought by some scholars to be an early form of writing. Again, this is controversial. Symbols of a similar nature have also been found on pottery shards from the Liángzhǔ culture of the lower Yangtze valley.
It is notable that Longshan people seemingly had their own writing system. A pottery inscription of the Longshan culture discovered in Dinggong Village, Zouping County, Shandong Province contains eleven characters and they do not look like the direct ancestor of Chinese characters. Chinese scholar Feng Shi (馮時) argued in 1994 that this inscription can be interpreted as written by the Longshan people. Other scholars, like Ming Ru, are doubtful about attributing a Neolithic date to the inscription. Some other scholars also claim a connection between ancient Dongyi and the modern Yi people in southwestern China.
Symbols recently unearthed in eastern China's Ānhūi province are said to occur in pairs or small groups. However, information on these has not yet been widely disseminated for independent scholarly analysis. Similarly, a few geometric symbols have been found at Hūalóuzĭ (a 2nd-phase Kèshĕngzhuāng culture site) in Cháng-ān County near Xī’ān, carved on bone and bone items which some have claimed to be ancestral to oracle bones, but this is disputed.
In general, the Neolithic symbols which have been unearthed to date are found in isolated use (as would be expected with ownership marks or clan symbols) rather than in sequences consisted with representation of the spoken language, and there is no evidence of processes fundamental to the beginnings of a true, useful writing system such as phonetic loan usage. As Qiu (2000, p.39) explains:
Furthermore, the evidence is still extremely scanty, even when the early Shāng period evidence is added to the picture:
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