Chronicles of Chinese history etched in time

Updated 2018-01-16 10:41:01 China Daily

Sources: Numbers provided by National Library of China/China Daily

When President Xi Jinping talked with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Palace Museum, or Forbidden City, in Beijing on Nov. 8, Xi highlighted that "China has 3,000 years of history using written characters" to his visiting U.S. counterpart.

The earliest-known Chinese characters that Xi was referring to, were found inscribed on oracle bones, mainly turtle shell and ox scapula, and were used for the purpose of recording or fortunetelling during the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th to 11th century BC).

The inscriptions were listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register program in late November.

"It's a milestone to get the gist of traditional Chinese culture understood and promoted in the world," Du Yue, a director from the National Commission of China for UNESCO, says. "Now, it has become a common spiritual treasure for humanity."

"Oracle bone inscriptions have the same lineage as the writing system used today, and are the ancestors of Chinese characters," says Song Zhenhao, a historian and academician committee member from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was the principal academic leading the bid to get the oracle bones listed in the UNESCO register.

A section of oracle bone inscriptions on a turtle shell from King Wuding's time (1250-1192 BC) during the Shang Dynasty. It is housed in the National Library of China and is the earliest-known Chinese record on hailstones. (Photo provided to China Daily)

"Exploring the inscriptions will help us understand the origins of Chinese philosophy and thought, and help us figure out where our traditional culture comes from," he adds.

Song says about 4,400 single characters were found to be used among the inscriptions, and nearly 1,800 of them are still recognizable now. He says this number is also growing as research develops and he recently spotted dozens of new characters during a research trip to the Shandong Museum in Jinan and the Lushun Museum in Dalian, Liaoning Province.

"Many characters have disappeared, and we cannot find their counterparts in today's Chinese writing system," Song says, explaining the difficulties. "The unrecognizable characters mainly relate to the names of people, places and forms of sacrificial rites.

"As more custodians of oracle bones begin to release their inventories to the public, research is gathering pace," he says.

Hu Huiping (left) and Zhao Aixue work as fulltime researchers at the National Library of China, handling the world's biggest collection of oracle bones. (Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily)

Research work

"We were cheered up immensely by that successful (UNESCO) bid," says Hu Huiping, a researcher with the National Library of China in Beijing. "But the day-to-day work hasn't really changed despite this."

She spends her days researching, studying and cataloging oracle bones.

Even though she graduated from college 15 years ago, the 41-year-old researcher says she still feels like a student stuck in a study room at her small office in the Beijing library.

"It's a job that involves sitting on a cold bench," she says. "You need patience and diligence to overcome loneliness."

Hu attributes her patience to the hope that she might one day grasp the full picture behind the Shang Dynasty through its relics.

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