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Archaeological study of oracle bone script

GAN YIFAN | 2022-04-22 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A piece of oracle bone unearthed in the east of Huayuanzhuang Village at the Yinxu site, Henan Province PHOTO: PROVIDED TO CSST

CSST: You originally worked in archaeology. How did you turn to the study of oracle bone script?

Liu Yiman: I turned to focus on the study of oracle bone script by chance. I majored in field archaeology [before I began to work], and I also worked in field excavation in Anyang, Henan Province. 
In 1973, farmers accidentally found a few pieces of oracle bones inscribed with characters in the south of Xiaotun Village, and reported to us. Soon, the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) decided to excavate in the south of Xiaotun Village, and I participated in the excavation. At that time, I was 32 years old. Inscribed oracle bones were unearthed from 59 pits. Luckily, the largest number of the oracle bones—over 1,300 pieces, including 1,251 pieces of inscribed oracle bones—were unearthed from Pit No. 24, which I excavated. I didn’t know much about oracle bone scripts at the time, because I seldom took ancient script classes in college. After finding these oracle bones, I was attracted by these ancient writings.
The conditions at that time were very difficult. Our work station was in the countryside, where there were frequent power cuts. At night, we carefully observed these oracle bones piece by piece under the kerosene lamp, and copied them. The procedure was to put a piece of oracle bone on a thin piece of paper and draw the outline of the bone onto that paper; if there were characters on the bone, we needed to copy them onto the paper according to their positions on the bone. Among the characters that we copied, there were many I didn’t know at the time. Luckily, the archaeological team had books, which helped us learn oracle bone scripts. This was when I gradually got to know oracle bone scripts. 
Later, those oracle bones were brought back to the Institute of Archaeology. At that time, Hu Hou-xuan (1911–1995), a Chinese historian who worked at the Institute of History at CAS, was the leader of the editorial team of Jiagu Wen Heji [Collection of Oracle Bone Inscriptions, a monumental collection of over 40,000 pieces of inscribed oracle bones and a milestone in the history of oracle bone studies]. He wanted to include these newly unearthed oracle bones in the collection. Since these oracle bones were discovered by our team, we wanted to sort them out by ourselves, a choice which was supported by Xia Nai (1910–1985), director of the Institute of Archaeology at that time. Xia allowed us to set up a team for collating these oracle bone inscriptions. Through studying, collating, and publishing, I gradually learned about the content of oracle bone inscriptions, which made me fall deeper in love with oracle bone script. That was how I embarked on the study of oracle bone script.
CSST: Can you share your oracle bone script research methodology and achievements with us?
Liu Yiman: Sure. I studied oracle bone script from an archaeological perspective because I majored in archaeology. In the past, many scholars who majored in Chinese language and literature, or history, often focused on interpreting characters, exploring a character in forms of oracle bone script, bronze inscriptions, and small seal script, respectively. They also researched characters from the perspectives of grammatology, exegesis, and phonology. The advantage of researching oracle bone writings as archaeologists is that we have the unearthed oracle bones, which are the original carriers of oracle bone writings. With these unearthed relics in hand, we are able to study these writings from an archaeological perspective, as well as their chronology. This is how the chapters of Yinxu Archaeology and Oracle Bone Studies are arranged. There are more than 80 pictographs and associative compound characters recorded in Chapter Four of this book. 
The Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE) people created characters according to the characteristics of things that existed in real life at that time, so we can better understand the configuration and meaning of these characters based on relics and remains. For example, we discovered a new character [from a piece of unearthed oracle bone] in the east of the Huayuanzhuang Village [in Yinxu, Henan Province]. This character is composed of a circle with three short oblique lines around it. We all wondered what this character was at that time. Other archaeologists discovered several peculiar jade bi [a flat jade disc with a circular hole in the center] from the Shang Dynasty tombs at Yinxu, and a similar bi was also unearthed from the Tomb of Fu Hao [wife of King Wu Ding (r. 1250-1192 BCE) of the Shang Dynasty]. All of these jade bi featured a nearly circular form, with a circular hole in the center and three sets of teeth-shaped extensions on the edge, which was quite similar to the structure of this character. After analyzing the ancient buci, or writings about divination engraved on bones or shells, we identified this character as “璧” or bi, which represents the yaxing bi (notched jade disc). This speculation has been accepted by most oracle bone scholars.
The chronology of oracle bone inscriptions is an important task in the study of oracle bone script. There are various views of this task in academia, and some scholars are exploring the chronology of oracle bone writings in a different way from us. They usually identify the types of oracle bone writings, and then figure out their dates [according to their types]. 
However, we believe that the chronology of oracle bone inscriptions should be based on the stratification of the archaeological site where these oracle bones were unearthed. The bones unearthed at the base must be the oldest, and the layers are progressively younger with ascending order in the sequence. In addition, oracle bones were often buried in pits, together with other ancient utensils, such as pottery and bronzeware. The form of pottery changed faster than that of bronzeware. Therefore, archaeology generally regards the change of pottery shape as an important dating criterion. This is how we explore the chronology of oracle bones according to archaeological stratification and the artifacts buried together with the oracle bones.
CSST: Accurate interpretations of oracle bone scripts can not only help understand China’s important historical issues, but also better reveal the close relationship between oracle bone scripts and the development of Chinese civilization.
Liu Yiman: Yes. Many ideas and cultures recorded in oracle bone texts embody the traditions of Chinese civilization. For example, oracle bone scripts can be viewed as a mirror of ancient wisdom, which highlighted the main characteristics of what they stood for. Both the characters 象 xiang (elephant) and 鹿 lu (deer) are pictographs. The character xiang in oracle bone style features a “long trunk” while the feet of a deer are depicted realistically in its oracle-bone-style lu. The character 豕 shi in oracle bone script refers to a pig, depicted with a fat belly and a drooping tail. The character 犬 quan represents a dog, featuring a thin belly and an upturned tail in its oracle bone writing. There are some other characters which grasp the local characteristics they stand for, such as the characters 牛 niu (cattle) and 羊 yang (goat). The strokes that symbolize horns in niu and yang point in different directions. The characters created by the Shang Dynasty people are full of wisdom. They vividly outline the main characteristics of what they stand for, which is stunningly remarkable. These creations reflect the great creativity of the Chinese nation since ancient times. These Chinese writings have been handed down from oracle bone scripts, such as the character 日 ri (the Sun), which has gradually evolved from the forms of oracle bone script, bronze inscriptions, small seal script, clerical script, and finally to regular script, which is the most common style in China’s modern writings.
CSST: This reflects the uninterrupted and long-lasting traditions of Chinese culture.
Liu Yiman: The calligraphy of oracle bone inscriptions is very beautiful. Some feature straight strokes with sharp edges and corners, which appear strong and powerful, while some others were written with smooth and cursive strokes. We believe that oracle bone scripts are not only practical but also artistic. This Chinese script style embodies various changes in brush strokes, as well as structures. The Chinese writing systems, from oracle bone inscriptions to modern Chinese characters, have played a significant role in China’s unity, ethnic integration, and the harmonious coexistence of multi-ethnic groups. China is a big country with dialects varying from place to place, but we all use Chinese characters. The general recognition and use of the same writing system is very important for maintaining national unity.