Decoding 3,000-year-old inscriptions on bones

Updated 2017-11-28 17:02:56 Xinhua

Earn 15,000 U.S. dollars for one character! China is offering financial rewards to pool wisdom and help decipher the characters on 3,000-year-old oracle bones.

Since the reward was printed in newspapers last year, many people have offered their contributions which are being reviewed be experts.

Over the past 100 years, researchers have only been able to decipher around one third of the characters on the animal bones and tortoise shells that have been found so far.

The remaining characters are difficult to decipher, according to Guo Xudong, from the oracle bones and Yin-Shang culture research center in Anyang, central China's Henan Province.

Yin was the last capital of the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 B.C.) and the official excavation of the Yin Ruins in current day Anyang began as early as 1928. The oracle bone scripts discovered at the ruins are considered to be the oldest Chinese inscriptions.

Chinese oracle bone inscriptions were included into the list of UNESCO Memory of the World International Register on Oct. 31 this year.

"The inclusion will attract more talent to help with the decoding, and encourage more people to study the ancient Chinese characters," said Guo.

Oracle bones from ancient China, hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt, cuneiforms from ancient Babylon, and Mayan glyphs from Mesoamerica are among the world's most famous ancient writing systems.

"The other three have been lost throughout history, but the oracle bones are the only one that still survives as they have evolved over time into current Chinese characters," said Guo.

Oracle bone inscriptions were first discovered in 1899 by Beijing scholar and antiquarian Wang Yirong, although farmers had been unearthing the relics in Anyang for many years before that. Wang noticed symbols on animal bones and tortoise shells looked like a form of writing.

Around 160,000 pieces of oracle bone have been found so far. Among the 4,300 characters inscribed on them, only 1,600 have been decoded.

Many of the oracle bones have been scattered across the world over the past century, making it more difficult for researchers to study the actual bones.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Chinese experts have published three books on the ancient scripts, compiling more more than 70,000 oracle bones.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is working with public and private collectors around the country to compile details of another 10,000 pieces by cleaning, photographing and making copies of the originals bones for further research.

Guo said a digital database will be built in the hope that big data and cloud platforms can help to decipher the characters.

Song Zhenhao with the CASS said the study of oracle bones has been comprehensive, delicate and moving with the times. "Protection was put in the first place and it covers every single piece of the oracle bones," he said.

While some experts are striving to decipher the over 3,000-year-old mysteries hidden in the script, others are trying to make them more popular with younger Chinese.

Yang Junhui, from the Anyang-based National Museum of Chinese Writing, has organized more than 800 classes on Chinese characters for children, which have been attended by around 30,000 families.

"We teach them some pictographic characters and their evolution so that they become interested in learning more about our written language," Yang said.

Seven-year-old Zhang Jiahui has just learned the oracle bone character for "woman," which looks like a kneeling woman.

"It really looks like a graceful lady with her arms crossed," he said.

Zhang's mother said the weekly class is very popular and it's often hard to reserve a place online.

Most of the oracle bone researchers are now more than 70 years old, Guo said.

"We need younger students to pass on knowledge for future generations so it is not forgotten around the world," he said.

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