Markings etched on a stone axe have sparked debate over whether they may be part of the oldest Chinese writing. Photo: AP

Controversy surrounds discovery of ancient writing at Zhejiang graveyard

Researchers are divided over whether characters found on artefacts at Neolithic graveyard are oldest Chinese writing

Mysterious symbols on ancient stone tools dating back five millennia have rekindled a dispute about the first appearance of Chinese characters.

The language may have belonged to the Liangzhu culture - a major civilisation along the Yangtze River that thrived 5,000 years ago with advanced agriculture and urban centres, including an ancient city as large as 2.6 million square metres.

Institute director Li Xiaoning said last week that they were pretty sure the symbols were part of a writing system.

Archaeologists have discovered more than 200 different symbols on many artefacts such as ceramics in numerous Liang-zhu sites, but the experts were not sure whether the civilisation had a written language until they saw the markings on the two stone pieces, which were unearthed between 2003 and 2006.

"They differed from all other symbols we saw before. They featured many vertical strokes with an overall structure similar to modern day characters. One character even appeared three times in a line," Li said.

Worried that their findings would draw fire from other researchers at ancient cultural sites with similar claims to the earliest written Chinese, the institute invited more than 10 palaeography experts to Zhejiang last week, and they all agreed that the markings were characters, Li said.

But Li admitted that, compared with other ancient writings that have been widely recognised, such as the Sumerian inscriptions in Iraq and oracle bone script in Henan , the Liangzhu characters fell short in terms of quantity.

The oracles, for instance, comprise more than 30,000 pieces with over 1,000 characters deciphered. The Liangzhu characters number fewer than 10.

Decoding the characters will also be difficult, if not impossible, Li said.

Unlike the characters on the oracle script, many of which had been passed down, the Liangzhu characters seem unrelated to modern Chinese.

"The civilisations along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers could have been totally unrelated at the time. There was not a unified China back then, only a few scattered civilisations," Li said. "We may never decode the language of a civilisation that has been totally lost."

Jiao Zhiqin, deputy curator of the Anyang Museum in Henan, told the that many places claimed to have evidence of the earliest Chinese language, but only the oracle script, dating back about 3,600 years, is officially recognised for having the earliest characters.

Professor Wang Yunzhi, who teaches palaeography at Zhengzhou University, said that the Liangzhu symbols could not challenge the dominant role of the oracle script in terms of ancient Chinese text.

The Liangzhu markings "can't compare", the palaeography expert was quoted by the newspaper as saying. "They are not ancient Chinese."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Controversy surrounds discovery of old writing