Cangjie (倉頡) is a legendary cultural hero in Chinese folklore who is credited with inventing the Chinese writing system. According to stories, Cangjie originally served as the official historian of the Yellow Emperor. To be effective at this job, he would need a way to record historical events.
His name is comprised of the character cāng (倉), a common surname, and jié (頡), which means “bird.” Cangjie is as much a historical figure as he is a mythical one, which could explain why his name does not provide more information about his attributes or abilities.
Cangjie is easily recognizable in art due to his four-eyed appearance. His extra set of eyes allow him to observe the natural world differently than ordinary people. He can see patterns, shapes, and lines that go unnoticed by others. Later stories of Cangjie say that he uses his four eyes to distinguish the truth from lies.
Cangjie is thought to have once been an historian to Huangdi. As the court historian and record keeper, he was asked by the Yellow Emperor to devise a method for recording important information. Legend has it that Cangjie journeyed into the wilderness to clear his mind before embarking on his monumental task. During his sojourn into nature, he saw natural patterns in objects like trees, animals, stars, planets, and buildings. He translated the patterns he saw into logograms which would become the writing system used all across the Chinese speaking world.
Another version of the story states that Cangjie was inspired after observing the lines on a tortoise’s shell. After he invented the writing system, grain such as millet rained down from heaven and demons and ghosts wailed at night.
Because of his significant contribution to Chinese culture, Cangjie is a much revered mythological figure. There are multiple temples dedicated to Cangjie throughout China in provinces like Henan, Shaanxi, and Shandong. One of the earliest examples of a Chinese dictionary, dating back to 220 BCE, is called the Cangjiepian proto-dictionary, after Cangjie. Today’s “Cangjie input method,” the method of inputting characters into a computer, also bears his name. In 2004, the Mars rover, Spirit, explored the surface of Mars and scientists named one of the rocks this space rover encountered after Cangjie.