As a model example of logographic script with one graph representing one (formerly usually lexical) morpheme, Chinese writing has remained remarkably stable in terms of its fundamental logographic mechanism. The earliest known Chinese writing, the script of late Shang period (c. 1200 – 1050 BCE) – evidenced in abundant oracle bone inscriptions and scarce inscriptions on bronze vessels – is quite a mature writing system, in which the above-mentioned one graph : one word isomorphism is already well-established (Boltz 1994:177).

On formal level, Shang writing, unlike modern Chinese script, displays high level of graphic iconicity. Non-linguistic motivation of graphs (i.e. objects of real world after which the graphs are fashioned) is in many cases readily apparent in the graphic form of characters. Such formal iconicity of graphic form to certain extent influences the functioning and use of graphs. It is best seen in frequent and diverse occurrence of graph variants, most common types of which include:
– different spatial orientation: variants of the same graph can be rotated 90 or 180 degrees or face different directions.
– simple and complex variants: many characters appear in either simple or complex form, i.e. with the addition or reduplication of different elements. A common example is the addition of element (“a hand”) to a graph.
– substitution of related semantic element: in case of some multi-component characters, semantic elements of related meanings can be mutually substituted. Example of such interchangeable elements are (otherwise distinct) graphs (人), (大), (卩), all derived from a representation of human figure in different positions.

Such variation, widespread in Shang writing, is justified by the script user’s presupposed knowledge of graph motivation. Literate members of Shang society must have been aware of what graph was meant to graphically represent, so that they could identify rotated, altered and interchangeable variants of the same characters (i.e. characters recording the same word). In this way, iconic transparency of the script validates graphic variation.

Graphic fluctuations sanctioned by iconic message are unique to the earliest known Chinese writing. Iconicity and variation are later gradually replaced by conventionalized and uniform graphic standard. In modern Chinese script, the word written is identified only through the graphic form itself, and inquiry regarding graph motivation has been limited to memory aid and palaeographic endeavour.



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