Only 1/3 oracle bone characters deciphered in 120 years since discovery

China Plus Published: 2019-10-24 14:55:28
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In 1899, an antiques dealer from Shandong searching for Chinese bronzes acquired a number of oracle bones from locals, several of which he sold to Wang Yirong, the chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing. Wang was a knowledgeable collector of Chinese bronzes and is believed to be the first person in modern times to recognize the oracle bones' markings as ancient Chinese writing similar to that on Zhou dynasty bronzes.

An oracle bone artifact is on display at an exhibition held in the National Museum in Beijing, China. [Photo: VCG]

An oracle bone artifact is on display at an exhibition held in the National Museum in Beijing, China. [Photo: VCG]

Known as oracle bone inscription, or jiaguwen in Chinese, this primitive ancestor of today's Chinese characters was carved on tortoise shells and animal bones during divination rights during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046BC) and early Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771BC).

The English name for Jiaguwen came from American missionary Frank H. Chalfant (1862–1914), the first Western collector of oracle bone inscriptions. Chalfant first coined the term "oracle bone" in his 1906 book Early Chinese Writing, which was then borrowed into Chinese as "Jiaguwen" in the 1930s.

To mark the anniversary of the ancient Chinese characters' discovery, the National Museum of China is holding a special exhibition, offering visitors a chance to take a sneak peak at the oldest characters in China.

A model of oracle bones is exhibited in the National Museum in Beijing, China. [Photo: VCG]

A model of oracle bones is exhibited in the National Museum in Beijing, China. [Photo: VCG]

About 190 oracle bones, bronze works and jade items are on display. But they are just a small fraction of the oracle bone artifacts that have been discovered.

"Over 100,000 oracle bone fragments have been discovered around the world, and more than 4,000 ancient characters have been recognized from these artifacts, but only one-third of the characters' literal meanings have been identified," said Huang Dekuan, director of the Chinese Character Study Committee.

Huang said that China has made substantial progress in the study of the oracle bone inscriptions, but there is still a long way ahead to unlock all the mysteries they present. "The primary work we have is to reassemble the fragments into their original pieces, which is quite difficult and complex. Then we have to identify which dynasties the oracle bones belong to, and I can say we have made great progress. These are the bases for us to study the meaning of the inscriptions and their cultural significance," he said.

Professor Huang said that the latest technologies have been applied, including multi-dimensional photography and computer programs, which can help recover the fragments.

Multimedia technology is also enabling visitors to get a better understanding of the works — images of the inscriptions have been put on screen at the exhibition to illustrate the literal meaning of each character.

"For the four great ancient civilizations, hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt, cuneiform from ancient Babylon and Mayan glyphs from Mesoamerica, oracle bone inscriptions are the only ones that have survived. They were passed on and evolved into today's Chinese characters," said Wang Chunfa, curator of the National Museum.

Oracle bone inscriptions are extremely valuable because they provide first-hand accounts of important events and situations in ancient China such as sacrificial and religious ceremonies, wars and military battles, farming and husbandry, even illnesses and births.

The inscriptions themselves usually feature three to four parts. The first part usually includes information such as the date, location and participants in the divination; the second includes the question or matter to be divined, while the third features the prediction. The fourth part, when it is included, usually records what actually happened, in other words, if the prediction came true.

One oracle bone, the Tufang Zheng (The Tu Attack), is particularly eye-catching as it features a rather long inscription with all four parts. With 91 characters on the front and 82 on the back, the inscription reveals that the Shang was attacked by invaders five times over four days.

The exhibition will run through December.

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