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Oracle Bone Inscriptions

It is difficult to ascertain exactly how old Chinese characters are. The geometric designs on the 5,000-7,000- year-old pottery of the Yangshao culture discovered at Yangshao Village in the 1920s may be the embryo of Chinese characters. The following 2,000-3,000 years is a blank period for the development of Chinese characters and no cultural relics from this period have been discovered with traces of writing on them.

The oracle bone inscriptions and inscriptions on ancient bronze objects developed more than 3,000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty are the earliest systematized Chinese characters.

Oracle bone inscriptions.

Divinations and supplications to the gods and the replies received inscribed on animal bones and tortoise shells are the earliest written characters so far discovered.

In the autumn of 1899, Wang Yirong, a Beijing official, fell ill with malaria. The imperial doctor wrote out a prescription for him. One of the medicinal ingredients was called a “dragon bone.” He purchased the medicine from a drugstore, and was intrigued to find that there were some markings on the piece of bone, which looked like ancient forms of Chinese characters. He bought more “dragon bones,” and consulted his friend Liu E, who was an expert in the ancient Chinese script, who agreed that the markings were probably ancient characters. Later, Wang traced the origin of the bones to Xiaotun Village, northwest of Anyang, Henan Province and entrusted a businessman to buy more “dragon bones” directly from the village. The village is the location of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty.

If Wang had not fallen ill, if he had not been well versed in the ancient Chinese language, and if the imperial doctor had not written out a prescription for him including “dragon bones,” these antique characters which are of such great importance for research into the origin of Chinese civilization might never have been discovered.

Wang Yirong was not only an upright and honest official of the Qing Dynasty, he was once governor of Shanxi Province and also a great patriot. When the Sino-Japanese War broke in 1894, he asked the emperor to let him go back to his native home in Shandong, and raise a militia to resist the invaders. But the Qing government concluded a treaty in 1895 with the Japanese invaders, which humiliated the country and made it forfeit its sovereignty. In August 1900, when the allied forces of eight powers invaded Beijing, Wang was appointed minister in charge of training the armed forces in the metropolitan area. When Beijing fell to the invaders, Wang wrote his last words in formal script, stating his loyalty to the emperor, and then he, together with his wife and elder daughter-inlaw, drowned himself in a well. This happened less than one year after he found the oracle bone inscriptions, and he did not leave any records about his research into the oracle bone inscriptions.

The earliest book about the research and interpretation of the oracle bone inscriptions was written by Liu E, another discoverer of such inscriptions. In 1903, Liu E published his book Tortoise Shells Preserved by Tie Yun. In this book he identifies more than 40 characters on some 3,000 pieces of tortoise shells he collected. Later, somebody corroborated his interpretations of 34 of them. Liu proved 2727 that these characters were of the same historical period as the inscriptions on bronze Shang Dynasty objects.

Oracle bone inscriptions were approximately used in the same period with the Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Mayan script of Central America and the Sumerian cuneiform characters. However, only the Chinese characters are the direct ancestors of the modern script.

Among some 4,700 characters appearing on the 100,000 pieces of tortoise shells discovered so far, some 1,800 have been identified. These inscriptions have yielded a great deal of information about the political system, agriculture, animal husbandry, astronomical phenomena, warfare, and other aspects of the Shang period. They are also valuable materials for the study of calligraphy.

Like the characters of various scripts developed later, the characters on the tortoise shells occupy a square space each, basically engraved from top to bottom and with the lines from right to left, the same way as they have been written in the more than 3,000 years since then. It is clear, also, that the engravers of such inscriptions had an eye for symmetry and beauty.

Inscriptions on bronze objects.

Bronze objects include cooking utensils, wine sets, water containers, weaponry, musical instruments and mirrors. The inscriptions run from one or two characters to several hundred. Some 3,000 different characters appear on bronze objects, 2,000 of which have been interpreted. The characters on bronze wares are more standard, regular and orderly than those on bones and tortoise shells.

During the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) of the late Zhou Dynasty, many of the states ruled by dukes or princes simplified the strokes of seal-script characters in their own way, and developed various kinds of “big-seal” styles, different from the lesserseal style mentioned below.

When Qin Shihuang of the State of Qin united China for the first time, under the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), among the reforms he enacted was standardization of the various scripts, based on the characters used in Qin, later known as the “lesser-seal-style”, which have a simplify quality. As in the big-seal style, the lesser-seal-style strokes have the same thickness, and there is no difference between right-upward strokes and le

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