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Oracle Bone Script

    In 1899, a Chinese government named Wang Yirong (王懿荣 [Wáng Yìróng]) fell ill with typhoid.

    During recovery, he a doctor of traditional Chinese gave him medicine labelled ‘Dragon Bones’. 

    Inside the pot, there was a fragment of bone with faint outlines on its surface…

    Familiar with ancient Chinese writing, Wang suspected this something significant (see below, ‘The discovery of oracle bones’).

    What happened next brought about a fascinating journey into understanding the origins of Chinese characters and civilisation.

    Read on to find out…

    What is oracle bone script?

    sample of oracle bone script by wang yirong

    Oracle bone script (sometimes translated more directly as shell and bone script) (甲骨文 [jiǎgǔwén]), is the earliest known Chinese script.

    It dates back to between about three and three and a half thousand years ago, in China’s Shang dynasty (ca. 1500 – 1083 BC). 

    Oracle bones themselves were animal bones (including shoulder bones, shinbones, antlers, etc.) and tortoise shells with writing on them. They were used for divination by early Chinese religious figures and elites.

    Oracle bone script it at once elegant, solemn, and simple. It is made up a mixture of long straight, curved, and rounded lines.

    How many oracle bone script characters are there?

    There are estimated to be about 4,500 different characters in oracle bone script. 

    These include characters in the following forms:

    • Pictographic: Words is represented with images or symbols that visually represent a concept or object
    • Simple indicative: Characters that refer to simple fact statements that don’t need to be modified by tense, etc.
    • Compound indicative: Like the simple indicative, but using an auxiliary verb and a main verb to express a more detailed meaning
    • Compound phonetic: Includes a phonetic component (indicating pronunciation) and a semantic component (indicating meaning)

    Origins of oracle bone script

    oracle bone photo

    Many characters from oracle bone script likely came out of the pictographic characters that existed in pre-Shang dynasty China.

    Pictographic characters are estimated make up between 20 – 34 % of the oracle bone character script.

    However, they also contain the other features common to subsequent Chinese writing scripts. As one scholar put it:

    …every important principle of the formation of modern Chinese characters was already in use, to a greater or less degree, in the Chinese of the oracle bones, more than three thousand years ago.

     – Herrlee Glessner Creel, The Birth of China (1937)

    What were oracle bone characters for?

    Oracle bone script’s primary purpose seems to have been divination.

    In the ancient religion of China, shamen would place a hot metal poker near the back of the oracle bone. Heat stress cracks would then appear.

    The shape and direction of the crack would show up on characters on the front of the bone. This would then be interpreted as a sign from a deity.

    oracle bone photo well lit

    The interpretation would be related to messages from ancestors or separate spiritual forces. These messages would predict a range of different upcoming outcomes (warfare, harvests, offerings, etc.), or explain existing issues (the king’s illness or dreams).

    This spiritual culture eventually faded out. However, it left its mark on Chinese civilisation. N the Zhou dynasty that came after the Shang dynasty, the Book of Changes (one of the Confucian classics) was used for divination.

    And, of course, the emphasis on rituals based on ancestor worship continued on in China in various forms for thousands of years. Even today, the Tomb Sweeping Festival is one of China’s most important national holidays

    Oracle bone script’s influence on other Chinese writing scripts

    Oracle bone script clearly led to the formation of large seal script, a loose name or category for written Chinese through the Zhou dynasty

    Large seal script was radically altered or reformed to become small seal script during the Qin dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC).

    And this in turn influenced the clerical script, current present-day official regular script (楷书 [kǎishū]), the running or semi-cursive script (行书 [xíngshū]), etc.

    In other words, the oracle bone script played a foundational role in the development of Chinese writing.

    The discovery of oracle bones

    black and white photograph of wang yirong
    Wang Yirong

    After coming across the oracle bone script in his medicine, Wang Xirong (sometimes recorded as Y. R Wang in English) asked the doctor to bring more “Dragon Bone” medicine. However, this time the bones were too ground down for him to find anything.

    Determined to trace the source of the bones, he tore himself out of bed and visited the doctor’s pharmacy. Here he advanced payment for more of the medicine.

    He soon found himself in contact with an antiques dealer named Fan Weiqing. And Fan managed to source the bones to a village named Anyang in Henan province. 

    Eventually, Wang had in his possession about 2,500 of these inscription-filled bones. After careful study, he found resemblances with the script used in ancient bronze inscriptions. 

    These included words such as ‘moon’ (月 [yuè]), ‘rain’ (雨 [ǔ]), ‘sun’ (日 []), ‘mountain’ (山 [shān]), and more. (The pinyin pronunciations here would not have been how these characters were pronounced in ancient times).

    Wang Xirong’s death

    Wang’s work on deciphering Oracle Bone Script was unfortunately cut short by the Boxer Rebellion (1899 – 1901)

    He was asked to take part in Beijing’s defence against foreign troops, a defence he is said to have thought was futile. Historians have suggested that his uprightness had led to hm making enemies with the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908)

    During the fighting, the royal family and ministers fled the city. 56-year-old Wang then committed suicide by drowning himself in a well, alongside his wife and daughter-in-law.

    In his suicide note, he included the phrase:

    主优臣辱,注辱臣死
    When the monarch experiences shame, ministers should suffer

    – from Wang Yirong’s suicide note

    A few months after his death, Wang was honoured by the Guanxu Emperor with a title thaty essentially translates to ‘culture/cultured and clever’ (文敏 [wénmǐn]).

    Later oracle bone script research

    Wang’s work was continued by Liu E (刘鹗 [Liú È]), who purchased Wang’s oracle bone collection from his hard-up son. 

    Liu collaborated with other scholars, including Luo Zhenyu (罗振玉 [Luó Zhènyù]), and eventually published the first book on Oracle bone script. Its title can be approximately translated as Iron Clouds and Hidden Turtles (《铁云藏龟》[T Yún Cáng Guī]).

    The above-mentioned Luo Zhenyu is today considered one of the ‘Four Tangs of Oracle Bones’ (甲骨四堂 [Jiǎgǔ sì táng]).

    Each scholar is a ‘Tang’ (堂) because they have this character in their literary name. They are:

    • Luo Zhenyu (罗振玉 [Luó Zhènyù]), literary name 雪堂 ([Xuě Táng] – ‘Snow Hall’) (1866 – 1940), classical scholar, antiquarian and philologist
    • Wang Guowei (王国维 [Wáng Guówéi]), literary name观堂 ([Guān Táng] – approximately ‘daoist temple or outlook [?] hall’) (1827 – 1927), historian and poet
    • Guo Moruo (郭沫若 [Guō Mòruò]), literary name 鼎堂 ([Dǐng Táng] approximately‘Great/generous hall’) (1892 – 1978), author, poet, historian, archaeologist, government official
    • Dong Zuobin (董作宾 [Dǒngzuòbīn]), literary name彦堂 ([Yàn Táng] – approximately ‘man of virtue and ability hall’) (1895 – 1963), archaeologist

    Is oracle bone script still used today?

    Oracle bone script came into use by calligraphy practitioners and engravers as soon after it had been re-discovered.

    Its graceful appearance breathed new light into the art of calligraphy in the 20th century. 

    It is often used for both its aesthetic qualities and its ability conjure up associations with the roots of Chinese culture. This is also true of other older forms of Chinese characters, too, such as seal script, clerical script, etc.

    Conclusion

    Wang Yirong’s chance discovery of the Oracle bone script – the earliest known Chinese script – brought fascinating insights into the origins of Chinese civilization and its language.

    The script, inscribed on animal bones and tortoise shells, was primarily used for divination, shaping the spiritual and cultural ethos of ancient China. 

    It had a profound influence on large seal and small seal script, which in turn influenced clerical and other scripts.

    Today, the grace and simplicity of the oracle bone script finds resonance with many calligraphers. This is a testament to its timeless beauty and its inherent ability to evoke the rich cultural heritage of China.

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