Oracle Bone Inscription
Bamboo strips from
the state of Chu
(ca. 300 BCE)
The earliest examples of Chinese writing date to the late Shang period (ca. 1200 BC).
These are the so-called Oracle Bone Inscriptions (jiaguwen) which were found at the
site of the last Shang capital near present-day Anyang, Henan province.
The discovery of the oracle bones in China goes back to 1899, when a scholar from Peking was
prescribed a remedy containing "dragon bones" for his illness: "dragon bones" were
widely used in Chinese medicine and usually refer to fossils of dead animals. The
scholar noticed some carvings that looked like some kind of writing on the bones
he acquired from the local pharmacy. This lucky find led eventually to the discovery
of Anyang, the last capital of Shang dynasty where archeologists have found an enormous
amount of these carved bones.
The inscriptions on these bones tell us that by 1200 BC Chinese writing was already
a highly developed writing system which was used to record a language fairly similar
to classical Chinese. Such a complex and sophisticated script certainly has
a history but so far we found no traces of its predecessors.
The oracle bone inscriptions received their name after their content which is invariably
related to divination. The ancient Chinese diviners used these bones as records of their
activity, providing us with a detailed description of the topics that interested the
Shang kings. Most of these divinations refer to hunting, warfare, weather, selection of
auspicious days for ceremonies, etc.
The next stage in the history of Chinese writing is the bronze inscriptions (jinwen). These are
texts either casted into bronze vessels or carved into the surface of an already carved vessel.
These vessels became widely used during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (ca. 1150-771 BC) but there
are examples from late Shang as well.
Since the inscriptions are located on ritual vessels which were used for performing
sacrifices, their content usually refers to ritual ceremonies, commemorations etc. Although
most of these writings consist of only a few characters, there are some which contain
quite lengthy descriptions. The language and calligraphic style at this stage is
similar to that found on the oracle bones.
Beginnings of Modern Writing
Starting from about the fifth century BC, we begin to find examples of writings on
bamboo strips. Before writing the characters with a hard brush or a stick on the
bamboo surface, the strips were prepared in advance and tied together with strings
to form a roll.
The new media also means new content: along with historical and administrative writings,
the bamboo strips contains the earliest manuscripts of famous Chinese philosophical
texts, such as the Laozi, Liji, and Lunyu. Beside bamboo, texts were also written on
wooden tablets and silk cloth. The written language by this time is the so-called
"classical Chinese" (wenyan) which had remained more or less the same as late
as the 19th century.
A major event in the history of Chinese script is the standardization of writing by the
First Emperor of Qin who unified China in 221 BC. Before that time, each of the many
states in China had their own style and peculiarities which meant that, although
mutually comprehensible, the scripts had many deviations. The First Emperor introduced
the Qin script as the official writing and from there on all the unified states had to use
it in their affairs. The calligraphic style of this period is the "clerical script" or
lishu which is easily readable today even to the uninitiated.
Written by Imre Galambos
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