An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Cang Jie 倉頡

Jan 23, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Cang Jie 倉頡, also written 蒼頡, was according to mythology a minister of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 and invented the Chinese script. He is said to have had four eyes with the help of which he was able to see and to know more than common men.

When he created the script, he formed characters resembling existing objects or activities, calling them wen 文 "patterns", and characters composed of symbol and sound, calling them zi 字 "derivates". He observed the starry sky and measured with scissors and ruler, and observed the footprints of turles and birds on the earth. He collected these shapes and created characters that are called guwen 古文 "ancient script". This story is narrated in the book Shuduan 書斷 (quoted in the encyclopaedia Taiping yulan 太平御覽). The Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) writer Cai Yong 蔡邕 likewise tells the story of footprints of birds giving the idea to characters.

Cang Jie created rules (ze 則) and a system for a script (wenti 文體), with six forms of chops (liuzhuan 六篆), the forms of which resembled turles or dragons, with tails and wings, others resembled florescences and the oars of grain, waves and streams, and the myriad things of nature and the human world.

While he is mostly known as a scribe (zishi 字史) of the Yellow Emperor, he was also venerated as Cang Di 倉帝 "Bluegreen Emperor" (normally equated with Fu Xi 伏羲) who undertook inspection tours to the south (according to the book Shuijingzhu 水經注) during which he invented the script.

The apocryphal Classic Chunqiu yuanming bao 春秋元命苞 (included in the series Hanxuetang congshu 漢學堂叢書) says, his tribal name was Shihuang 史皇氏 and his family name Houwang 侯罔. Yet Shi Huang 史皇 can also mean "Emperor of Writing".

The book Lushi 路史 says thatwhile Cang Jie invented the script, Shi Huang invented drawing, which means Shi Huang was a different person than Cang Jie. The Huainanzi 淮南子 also says that after having invented the script, Cang Jie was able to create an officialdom (baiguan 百官) which helped him to control all things on earth.

The name Cang Jie first appears during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), when the philosopher Xunzi 荀子 said that Cang Jie was the only man who mastered the script, while all others were barely able to read it.

Li Jianping 李劍平, ed. (1998). Zhongguo shenhua renwu cidian 中國神話人物辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 121.
Yi Xingguo 衣興國, ed. (1988). Shiyong Zhongguo mingren cidian 實用中國名人辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 4.
Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 124, 185.