Thursday, March 12, 2009

Oracle Inscriptions: The earliest Chinese writing scripts 甲骨文:中国最早的文字

One may say that the evolution and gradual institutionalization of the Chinese writing system can be traced back to the fifth and fourth millennium BC when the earliest extant ancestors of modern Chinese characters were painted or engraved on ancient clay potsherds. However, the earliest examples of highly developed Chinese writing system could only be traced back to the late Shang (1766-1050 BC) period. 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. These earliest written records contain important historical information on politics, economy, military and science of the Shang dynasty.
Oracle bone characters were inscribed on tortoise shells and the shoulder bones of oxen with sharp instruments. Hence their name in Chinese: 甲骨文jiaguwen ‘shell bone writing’. While the Chinese term refers to the materials on which the writing was produced, the English term ‘oracle bone inscriptions’ tells us that the purpose of these early characters was mainly divination, i.e., fortune-telling, for matters such as the waging of wars.
The rulers of the Shang Dynasty were very superstitious so divination was basically a daily activity for almost everything, such as hunting, warfare, weather, health, farming and selection of auspicious days for ceremonies. The bones not only were used in divination as a tool, but also in recording the activities and results on them.
Although their shapes are very different from the characters of today, being less uniform in shape and more picture-like, oracle bone characters were already developed into a variety of mostly non-pictographic functions, including all the major types of Chinese characters now in use. It is indeed a fully functional and fairly mature writing system. Therefore, we think there must have been precursors to oracle bone characters, which represented the first attempts at Chinese writing.

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