Variation around the horse and the center, 馬/中

It is adventurous to have peremptory judgments on certain characters’ origin as the shadowy areas remain over the first centuries of their history. The multiple graphs, several hundred very different for some character, like the horse, are confusing. Besides, periods of political instability led to instability in writing.

The first graphs from the fourteenth century before the Christian era

The disappearance of the bone script’s intellectual horizon during more than twenty centuries and its progressive rediscovery since 1899 do not yet allow us to have a clear and sure vision of the origin of all Chinese characters. Also, recent discoveries of archaeological sites on the Chinese territory bring more knowledge, but they suggest that many keys are not yet up to date. It should thus impose caution on a good part of the scripts in our possession. In addition, each diviner who interpreted fractures on bones or shells could have his writing style, and the same character presents different spellings at the same time.

The Warring States

The most confusing period for Chinese characters is a very turbulent era in history, The Warring States. From the 5th century BC BC to -221 BC, the territory was divided into rival kingdoms waging war against each other, and each had its own system of writing. 李学勤 Li Xueqin in “战国题铭概述, Overview of the Inscriptions of the Fighting Kingdoms” distinguishes five dominant writing systems of five kingdoms, Qi 齊, Yan 燕, Jin 晉, Chu, 楚, and Qin秦 (from left to right in the table below).


On the second line, we can see the writing of mǎ 马/馬, horse, in the five territories and on the last zhōng, 中, center, middle. Most of them have significant differences.  Note that the script in the last column, the State of Qin’s script, is closer to the current characters, the traditional 馬 and 中.

horse and center old chinese character

Qin increased its influence over the centuries and annexed all its rivals to found the Chinese Empire in -221 BC. Subsequently, the first emperor of China, Qinshihuang, instructed his minister Li Si to put in order the characters by unifying the writing, at least a part, nearly 3,000 characters (The other part of the characters remained unclear for a few decades). He took as a model the writings of the State of Qin for 馬 and 中 and many others.

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21 November 2020

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