The Oracle Bones and the Continuity of the Chinese Civilization

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Posted on: 09 July 2018 by Adam Volkov

The Chinese civilization may not be the oldest in the world, but it is certainly the longest, lasting continuously for five thousand years until present day. Many factors contribute to its longevity, but the Chinese written language no doubt has a lot to do with it.

Unlike phonetic writing systems where the words are written with alphabets and spelled more or less like how they sound, the Chinese language uses "characters," which are pictorial representations of images or ideas. These characters transcend regional dialectic variance and the changing of times and serve as a unifying force for the Chinese people.

For example, let’s take the word “sun”. Although the pronunciation of the word “sun” has changed over the centuries or may be divergent across different regions, the sun symbol can be easily recognized. So while there are various forms of spoken Chinese, some of which are mutually unintelligible as German vs. Spanish, there is only one form of written Chinese. Try to imagine that all European language-speaking people decided to adopt the same written language, the French can continue to call the sun Soleil, the Spaniard's sol; everyone might not be able to understand each other's speaking language, but all can communicate with each other through the written language.

The earliest known form of Chinese writing dates back 7,000 as symbols on potteries discovered at a Neolithic village near the current day city of Xi'an. A more mature form of Chinese writing appeared 4,800 years ago, carved on a few pieces of wine containers made of clay. However, only a few Chinese characters were discovered on these vessels. By 14th-11th BC, Chinese writings appeared on large quantities of tortoise shells and animal bones, called Oracle Bones, which were used for divination for the royal court on issues such as warfare, disaster, rain, the season and hunting expedition.

When a king needed divine guidance or communication, he would order tortoise shells or cattle bones to be heated. The subsequent cracks that appeared on the shells and bones were thought to contain divine messages. After the king and his priests had interpreted the meaning of those messages, the text of that interpretation, as well as the initial questions posed to supernatural beings, would be carved on the shells and bones. The oracle bone texts also contain some of the world's earliest astronomical records, such as those on comets and lunar eclipses, since, like other ancient people, the Chinese believed heavenly objects and events had a huge influence over life on earth.

The discovery of the oracle bones was purely an accident. In 1899, a famed Chinese scholar was traveling in the Henan Province fell ill. He went to the local pharmacy and was given some "dragon bones" to be ground up as medicine. These "dragon bones" were dug up by local people from nearby fields and were thought to have medicinal if not magical powers.

The scholar noted that there were strange writings carved on the bones, and realized they must be an ancient form of Chinese writing. He immediately started collecting the bones and devoted his life to studying the writings which were later determined to be from the 14th-11th BC, China's Yin dynasty. Archeological excavations in those fields led to the discoveries of ruins of the Yin Capital. Below is a picture of an oracle bone.

Although over the centuries, the cursory and spontaneous style of the oracle bone writing has evolved into a more compact and refined form, the essence of the Chinese writing system has remained intact, contributing to the cohesiveness of the Chinese culture and the Chinese nation over the millennium.

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