China’s 122-year study of oracle bone scripts

By GAN YIFAN / 05-20-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: A detail from a piece of inscribed oracle bone dated to the reign of Wu Ding, a king of the Shang Dynasty, whose reign lasted approximately 1250–1192 BCE 

Oracle bone script is China’s earliest systematic writing form dated to approximately 3,400 years ago. It was first discovered in 1899. This discovery moves the written history of China backward by over a thousand years. However, the study of oracle bone script almost became a lost art, due to the great difficulty in interpreting these ancient characters. In a recent interview with CSST, renowned archaeologist Liu Yiman gave a general account of China’s 122-year study of oracle bone script.
CSST: How has China’s study of oracle bone script developed after its early discovery?
Liu Yiman: It has been 122 years since the Qing scholar Wang Yirong (1845–1900) first recognized the oracle bone inscriptions as ancient writing. The study of oracle bone script has developed through three stages till present. 
The study of oracle bone writing took shape between 1899 and 1928. In 1903, not long after the oracle bone inscriptions came to light, the renowned Qing novelist Liu E (1857–1909) published his first book about oracle bone inscriptions, titled Tieyun Canggui, or Tortoise Pieces Owned by Tieyun. This book contains lithographic prints of oracle bone scripts owned by Liu E (Tieyun was his courtesy name). In 1904, the Qing philologist Sun Yirang (1848–1908) wrote the first book which attempted to decipher oracle bone script, titled Qiwen Juli. Since then, more and more people have researched oracle bone script, including representative scholars Luo Zhenyu (1866–1940) and Wang Guowei (1877–1927). Luo was a renowned epigrapher and antiquarian with a wide knowledge of ancient scripts. He collected more than 30,000 pieces of inscribed oracle bone, and captured thousands of inscriptions in his book series ‘Yinxu Shuqi’ (literally translated as inscriptions from the Yinxu site). Luo was well known for his efforts in deciphering the scripts carved into oracle bones. In his works Yinshang Zhenbu Wenzikao and Yinxu Shuqi Kaoshi, Luo identified over 570 oracle bone characters. It was a great achievement, as his success in deciphering hundreds of important frequently-used characters made it possible to understand many ancient buci, or writings about divination engraved on bones or shells.   
The great historian Wang Guowei was also interested in writings on oracle bones. He compiled the book Jianshoutang Suocang Yinxu Wenzi (Shang Dynasty Scripts Preserved in Jianshoutang). Wang contributed numerous original ideas about oracle bone scripts. He is credited with collating historical records on the subject. The Western Han historian Sima Qian (c. 145 BCE–?) wrote about the history of the Shang Dynasty in the chapter “Annals of Yin” in Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian). Wang contrasted the Shang kings’ names, titles, and their lineage written in Shiji with the writings on oracle bones. The result proved that the history recorded in the Shiji was correct in principle. Wang only found a few minor discrepancies and noted them in the Shiji in accordance with oracle inscriptions. 
Luo and Wang trained many fine archaeologists, historians, and paleographers, including Shang Chengzuo (1902–1991), Rong Geng (1894–1983), Xu Zhongshu (1898–1991), Ding Shan (1901–1952), Dai Jiaxiang (1906–1998), and Dong Zuobin (1895–1963). 
Luo and Wang made significant achievements in collecting oracle bones, publishing works about oracle inscriptions, analyzing and identifying oracle scripts, examining historical recordings, and teaching students. Therefore, the study of oracle scripts between 1899 and 1928 was also known as the “Study by Luo and Wang.”  
CSST: How did China’s study of oracle bone script develop after 1928?
Liu Yiman: The period between 1928 and 1949 witnessed the growing study of oracle bone script.
In 1928, the Institute of History and Philology at Academia Sinica set up an archaeological team to excavate the Yinxu site. This team, led by influential archaeologist Li Chi (1896–1979), conducted 15 excavations at Yinxu from 1928 to 1937, during which historian Dong Zuobin made great contributions. He and the other team members excavated over 24,900 pieces of oracle bones. Dong’s most remarkable contribution was dating and chronicling oracle bone scripts. There were more than 200 years from the date when Pan Geng (a Shang Dynasty king) moved the capital of the Shang to its final location at Yin, to the fall of Shang due to King Zhou’s extreme debauchery. During this period, it wasn’t clear whether or not oracle bone scripts continuously evolved. By using ten criteria, Dong classified oracle bone scripts into five stages. Dong’s landmark efforts guided the study of oracle inscriptions towards a more scientific methodology. 
Guo Moruo (1892–1978), one of the leading scholars of 20th-century China, published two important books about oracle bone inscriptions: Yinqi Cuibian and Buci Tongzuan. I often read them when I was studying oracle bone scripts in Anyang. Buci Tongzuan was a fine collection of oracle bone writings, classified according to their content. Yinqi Cuibian included oracle bone rubbings provided by the famous bibliophile Liu Tizhi (1879–1962). Guo explained and interpreted 1,595 of the oracle scripts in this book. 
Archaeological excavations at the Yinxu site were cut short as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression broke out. Some oracle bones excavated by local peasants were sold to antique dealers. Hu Houxuan (1911–1995), a historian who specialized in oracle bone scripts, collected these bones and published several books. Hu studied the history of the Shang Dynasty through the content of oracle bone inscriptions. He participated in the excavations at Yinxu. With rich archaeological experience, Hu wrote many excellent essays on the history of the Shang Dynasty. 
CSST: After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, what changed in the study of oracle bone inscriptions?
Liu Yiman: The study of oracle bone inscriptions started to thrive and advance further after 1949. Brilliant progress was made during this period. In 1973, an archaeological team from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS discovered 5,335 pieces of oracle bones at southern Xiaotun Village in Anyang. It took me and four colleagues eight years to sort, classify, and interpret these oracle materials and publish the five-volume book: Oracle Bones From Southern Xiaotun Village. In 1991, my colleague Guo Peng and I found 1,583 pieces of oracle bones east of the Huayuanzhuang Village in Yinxu, which contributed to the third major discovery of Yinxu oracle bone scripts. Later, my colleague Cao Dingyun and I published the six-volume book Oracle Bones from Eastern Huanyuanzhuang Village. The constant discoveries of oracle bone scripts during this period pushed the study to develop further. 
Many works and dictionaries on oracle bone scripts were published, among which the most important one was the 13-volume Jiaguwen Heji, or the Collection of Oracle Bone Inscriptions, edited by Guo Moruo. This work includes 41,956 pieces of oracle bone inscriptions. The three-volume Yinxu Jiagu Keci Leizuan edited by Yao Xiaosui (1926–1996), an expert on oracle bone script, lists the oracle bone writings as dictionary entries one by one, together with their modern interpretations. Paleographer Yu Xingwu (1896–1984) edited Jiagu Wenzi Gulin, in which he collected and recorded variations in oracle bone script decipherment. During this period, academia not only focused on the oracle scripts, but also explored oracle bone inscriptions as a whole, considering the collation of oracle materials, decipherment, the grammar and syntax used in buci, and piecing oracle bones together. 
In recent years, particularly during the last two or three decades, academia has studied oracle bone inscriptions from various perspectives. Some summarized, from a macro perspective, oracle bones as they were unearthed, collected, and studied over the past 100 years, while others have researched the process from an archaeological perspective. I have been focused on archaeological research of oracle bone scripts. There are some scholars studying the culture and history of the Shang Dynasty through the content of oracle inscriptions. The calligraphy of oracle scripts is also an important research subject. The study of oracle bone inscriptions is developing as we explore oracle bone inscriptions through various perspectives, including history and culture, social life, science and technology, and calligraphy.