THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

03 September 2015

Oracle bones on display in our Treasures Gallery

Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing

纸张之外:汉字书写3000年
An exhibit in Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery
8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016
Free Entry


The British Library display Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing, opening on 8th September, consists of four cases of material from China, showing different media used for Chinese writing and different forms of script. The cases show oracle bones, woodslips, silk manuscripts and paper books respectively. The descriptions below have been given in English followed by Chinese translation to make them more accessible.


Case 1: Oracle bones

Oracle bones were used for divination over three thousand years ago in ancient China. Questions about crops, the weather, battles, and the ruling family were engraved on the bone and heat was then applied with metal sticks. The heat caused the bones to crack and the diviners interpreted the patterns of the fractures to determine the answer to the question posed.

Oracle bones such as these show the earliest extant Chinese writing and they are essential for understanding the origins and development of the Chinese script.

第一展柜: 甲骨

在三千多年前的古代中国,龟甲和兽骨被用于占卜吉凶。与收成,气候,战争,王室等有关的问题被刻在甲骨上,然后用金属棒进行加热。甲骨在热量的作用下开裂,而后巫师通过解读裂纹的形状决定如何回答求卜者的提问。

这些甲骨展示了现存最早的中国文字,它们对于理解汉字的起源和发展具有重要意义。

Blog 1_2000
Shang dynasty oracle bone, c.1600 to 1050 BC
Or.7694/1517
CCO_PD

The Chinese collection of the British Library includes a unique series of more than 450 oracle bones (jia gu 甲骨). They date from between 1600 and 1050 BC, making them the oldest items in the British Library. New technologies are being applied to the bones’ conservation and storage and a project to digitise them is currently underway.

商代甲骨,约公元前1600至1050年
Or.7694/1517

大英图书馆内的中国收藏包括一套总数超过450件的甲骨。它们的年代可上溯至公元前1600至1050年间,这使它们成为大英图书馆内最古老的藏品。最新的科技已经被应用于这些甲骨的保护和储藏。另外,一个对它们进行数字化的项目正在进行当中。

Blog 2_2000  Blog 3_2000
Shang dynasty oracle bones, c. 1600 to 1050 BC
Or.7694/1559 and Or.7964/1560
CCO_PD

The oracle bones are carved with the Shang Dynasty script, also called ‘oracle script’ (jia gu wen). It is the oldest known form of Chinese writing and the ancestor of the Chinese characters still used today. The jia gu script is angular and the shape of the characters is simplified as much as possible to make it easier to engrave on hard surfaces. Many jia gu wen characters are often defined as ‘pictographic’, because they are stylised depictions of the objects they represent.

商代甲骨,约公元前1600至1050年
Or.7694/1559, Or.7964/1560

这些甲骨上刻有商代文字,也被称为“甲骨文”。这是已知最古老的汉字书写体系,并且是今天仍在使用的汉字的雏形。甲骨文字形棱角分明,其形状已经尽可能简化以便于刻在坚硬的表面上。许多甲骨文文字被定义为‘象形文字’,因为它们酷似所表示事物的抽象形状。

Blog 4_2000
Divination cracks
Shang dynasty oracle bone, c. 1600 to 1050 BC
Or.7694/1535
CCO_PD

Oracle bones were an extraordinary discovery for sinologists and historians. Firstly they prove the existence of the Shang Dynasty, which some researchers questioned until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, from a linguistic perspective, they offer primary materials for the interpretation of China’s earliest script. In the bone shown above, the fissures created by the heat of the fire during the divination process are clearly visible. Most of the cracks on the bones appeared on the front side with a distinctive shape ( ) from which the Chinese character for ‘divination’ (bu卜) is derived.


商代甲骨,
公元前16001050
Or.7694/1535

商代甲骨对于汉学家和历史学家来说是一项非凡的发现。首先它们证明了商朝的存在,而此前直到19世纪初仍有学者对其提出质疑。另外,从语言学角度,它们为解读中国最早的文字提供了第一手资料。这里所展示的甲骨,其在占卜过程中经过火烧产生的裂缝清晰可见。大多数裂纹出现在甲骨正面并具有特殊形状(),汉字‘卜’即是由此而来。

Blog 6_2000
An axe thrust into the Earth
Shang dynasty oracle bones, c. 1600 to 1050 BC
Or.7694/1592 and Or.7964/1554
CCO_PD

The discovery of oracle bones in 1899 marked a turning point in Chinese paleography and etymology. The bones revealed a stage in the development of the Chinese script that had been absent from previous scholarship and, in some cases, overturned theories held for centuries.

For example, the character Untitled which is visible in inscriptions on both these bones, means ‘king’ and is now written 王. This character was considered to represent the role of the king (represented by a vertical line) as mediator between heaven, earth and man (three horizontal lines), but the earlier form found on the oracle bones seems to simply be a depiction of an axe thrust into the earth.

大地的斧
商代甲骨,
公元前16001050
Or.7694/1592, Or.7964/1554

1899年甲骨文的发现标志着中国古文字学和词源学的转折点。这些甲骨揭示了中国文字发展过程中缺失的一环,并在某些情况下,彻底改变了主导几个世纪的理论。

例如这两件甲骨上的铭文中都可见的  Untitled  字,是现代汉字中的“王”。这个字从前被认为代表“王”沟通天、地、人的角色(中间一竖代表王,三横代表天地人),但是甲骨文中的早期字形显示了这个字更为象形的起源,即一把劈进大地的斧头。

Lunar eclipse for blog (last image)
A lunar eclipse
Shang dynasty oracle bone, c. 1600 to 1050 BC
Or.7694/1595
CCO_PD

This scapula bears an inscription about the coming ten-day period, and records that there will be no bad luck.

The character for moon (月 now and Untitledin oracle bone script) is visible at the top centre. This particular oracle bone is very important for research on the ancient Chinese calendar and astronomy, as it carries on the reverse side the record of a lunar eclipse.

月食
商代甲骨,
公元前16001050
Or.7694/1595

这块肩胛骨刻有占卜未来十天(一旬)吉凶的铭文,记录了这期间并无不详。

汉字‘月’(甲骨文作 Untitled )位于第一行正中。这块甲骨的背面记载了一次月食观测,它对于研究古代中国历法和天文具有重要意义 。

 

Related events

Michael Wood: The Story of China
Fri 23 Oct 2015, 18:30 - 20:00
British Library Conference Centre

Too big to print: the story of Yongle Dadian
Mon 23 Nov 2015, 18:45 - 20:15
British Library Conference Centre

 

Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, Curators, Chinese collections
in cooperation with Susan Whitfield, Director, International Dunhuang Project

With thanks to Gao Feichi for the Chinese translation
 ccownwork

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