Oracle bones on display in our Treasures Gallery
Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing
An exhibit in Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery
8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 in 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.
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