Wang Ben Xu

1.The origins of Chinese characters: Jia Gu Wen 甲骨文on oracle bones


Chinese characters constitute one
of the oldest written languages, used by the
largest number of people in the world.
There are more than 60,000 Chinese characters  
of which 6,000 are considered the basics. Modern
Chinese characters evolved from pictorial recordings
of events, known as hieroglyphs. The earliest ones
discovered so far are JiaGuWen(甲骨文 ancient Chinese
characters inscribed on tortoise shells or animal bones),
dated about 3,400 years ago.
Chinese characters have undergone tremendous 
changes over years:
JiaGuWen(甲骨文) →JinWen(金文)
XiaoZhuan(小篆) →LiShu(隶书)
KaiShu(楷书) ,CaoShu(草书)
and XingShu(行书)
Where JinWen were found inscribed
on ancient bronze, XiaoZhuan (or ZhuanShu),
small seal characters, were typical
representative scripts during the
Qin Dynasty(221BC-206BC);
LiShu used to be the official script of the Han Dynasty(206BC-220AD).
KaiShu (regular script) was further developed              
from LiShu. The cursive script, CaoShu,
is a fast way of writing both regular and
official scripts, while the running hand,
XingShu, is the script between
regular and cursive and is the
most commonly used and
easiest type of handwriting.
For thousands of years, Chinese have
been writing in complex characters
(traditional Chinese). However,
complex characters are difficult to identify,
memorize and write due to their complicated strokes.
For the sake of enhancing education, 
the Chinese government decided
to adopt simplified characters on
a large scale, first in 1956 with 550 characters,
and then in 1964 with over 2,000 more.
Since then, the simplification process has helped
a great deal in reducing the illiteracy rate in China.
And now, simplified characters are the
official written language in the United Nations.

2.Discovery of oracle bones: when, where and how
Before 1899,farmers in eastern Shanxi province
found tortoise shells and animal bones
carved with oracle bones,
calling them dragon bones.
Mr.Fan Wei-qing, a merchant,
purchased and shipped them far away,
for sale to Chinese traditional pharmacies.
No one recognized the significance
of the oracle bones until Mr.Wang Yi Rong,
a Qing Dynasty official did in 1899.
The story went like this: Mr.
Wang was born in Yantai      
City of Shandong Province.
He was a scholar of ancient script
and antiquities,
as well as a well known epigrapher.
One day, he felt sick with malaria
( some historic book claimed that it
was a close relative instead of him)
and a doctor's prescription included
decayed tortoise shall.
When an old tortoise shall was
bought home from local pharmacy, 
Wang's servant noticed that on
it were inscriptions which resembled
ancient Chinese writing. Wang,
who was an expert on ancient bronze inscriptions,
studied the shell and started to buy
more and more “dragon bones”
from various Chinese medicine shops in Beijing.


As he became the first serious collector,

Mr. Wang made quick progress interpreting 

oracle bone inscriptions. He suspected

that the turtle shells might push China's

written history back even further. His theory was

that the inscriptions might have dated back to the

Shang Dynasty, since no Shang writing had been found,

apart from some brief inscriptions on bronze vessels.

It was through Mr. Wang Yi Rong's illness that history of the

Shang Dynasty was discovered.


That was during the post-Opium

War years and Qing Dynasty was steadily

weakening by foreign interferences and

political turmoil. Anti-foreign anger in

Shandong Province inspired peasants

and laborers who called themselves the

Boxer United in Righteousness.




The Empress Dowager, Qing Dynasty's ruler,

heard that the Boxers

possessed certain magical powers

and invulnerable to bullets or other

weapons. She secretly summoned the Boxers to

Beijing and encouraged them to

target foreigners, regardless they

were missionaries, engineers or

businessmen, even

Chinese Christians,

in order to drive foreigners

out of China and restore China's glory.


When the plan became apparent, 

Mr. Wang Yi Rong rushed to the Palace

and waited until he had a chance to

plead to the Empress Dowager to take

a saner tactic, but his effort was in vain.



Boxer forces cut telegraph lines and

destroyed train tracks. The trapped diplomats

quickly sent out words of their plight. By

the summer of 1900,foreign armies began to

gather in the treaty ports and there were clashes

with Qing forces. In June, the Empress finally sided

with the Boxers, declaring war on the foreign powers.

In the capital, Boxers besieged foreigners who

had retreated into churches and Embassy compounds.




During the summer,

the Boxers stormed the foreign settlements 

in Beijing and quickly laid siege to lightly armed

diplomatic  compounds. As a Qing official,

Mr.Wang Yi Rong was appointed to commend

some of the Boxer forces in Beijing; and soon the

foreign troops arrived in Beijing. Even though the

Boxers tried to stop them, an army of 20,000 foreign

troops easily captured Beijing on August 14,1900.

There was no magic power against bullets.



As foreign troops entered Beijing from the east,

Empress Dowager and the young Emperor fled to the west,

heading toward Xi`an. For Mr. Wang, however,

fleeing was not an option, nor was humiliation.

In his residence at XiLanHuTong,

a small lane near downtown Beijing's WangFuJing,

an official and a great scholar,

Mr. Wang drank poison and drowned in a

well in his courtyard. His wife and

daughter-in-law committed suicide with him.


After Mr.Wang`s suicide,

a friend and fellow scholar, Mr.Liu E(刘鹗),

acquired Mr.Wang`s collection of about

one thousand pieces of dragon bones.

Mr.Liu was an influential man of considerable wealth and erudition.

He committed himself to finding the source of the dragon bones,

which he traced them back to Mr. Fan Wei-qing.

Fearing the end of monopoly,

Mr.Fan refused to reveal the true

source and misled Mr.Liu to locations far away from An Yang.





Mr.Liu`s commercial  instincts

finally triumphed. He made

offers to anyone who would

deliver dragon bones to him,

as word spread and eventually reached

the ears of the peasants of Xiao-tun.

At last Mr.Liu found himself inundated with

inscribed bones-many inscribed as recently

as the night before they were sold to him.


As his scholarly eye began to

pick out genuine samples from the    

forgeries, clues to their source at An Yang began

to emerge. Mr.Liu E was also an epigrapher

and a physician. He ran a weaving factory

and a salt business. He was known for his

expertise in mathematics, mines, railway

and water conservancy. He was also a great

collector of antiques, which was one of the reasons

he acquired Mr.Wang`s collection.



Like his friend, Mr.Liu worked fast,

publishing the first book of oracle bone

rubbings in 1903.But Mr.Liu had bad luck just like Mr.

Wang Yi Rong when it came to foreigners and politics.

Later that decade ,he was accused of illegally selling

government-stored millet to foreigners. Although the

charges were trumped-up, he was convicted and exiled

to XinJiang. A year later, he died after a terrible life in China's Siberia.



Time during the end of the

Qing Dynasty was not easy;

it was just as Mr.Liu described in his novel,

“The Travel of an Old Derelict”(老残游记);

he was the most famous novelist of his days. He wrote:

Now we grieve for our own life.

              for our country,
              for our society,
              for our culture.
The greater our grief, the more bitter our outcry and thus this book was written,
The game of chess is drawing to a close and we are growing old.
Wang and Liu were the two scholars
who made the earliest significant contributions
for the research of oracle bones.
Inspired by Mr.Liu E`s book,
foreigners started to collect oracle
bones by 1904. Many of those collectors
were missionaries. They later sold or donated
the artifacts to museums such as the Carnegie Museum,
The British Museums and the Royal Scottish Museum.
At the end of the Qing Dynasty,
Mr.Wang Guo Wei used oracle bones
inscriptions in his study and made a
breakthrough in reconstructing the Shang Dynasty's royal genealogy.
By studying the names found on the artifacts
and comparing them with other historical records,
Mr.Wang showed that the books and the bones matched,
signifying that the historical documents of Shang Dynasty were trustworthy.
For Mr.Wang Guo Wei,         
the study of oracle bones was only part
of his historical obsession. He was a committed
monarchist. He believed with all his heart that the
Qing Dynasty should regain power. So in 1923,
the last Emperor Puyi appointed Mr.
Wang as Companion of the Southern Study,
a position that involved the cataloging of palace treasures.


For one year,

Mr.Wang lived in this past fragment

of the empire, studying old objects.

In 1924, a warlord finally forced the Emperor

Puyi to move out of his palace. Less than three years later,

Wang realized that the empire was gone forever and

committed suicide by jumping into the Kun Ming

Lake in Beijing Summer Palace.



By 1928,the newly founded Institute of History

and Philology recognized AnYang as the site

of the first ever Chinese-organized archaeological dig.

Also in this year, exploratory excavations near the

west bank of the Huang River uncovered 784

pieces of inscribed oracle bones.

In 1929,archaeologists in An Yang excavated

more curved ivories, animal bones,

and inscribed turtle shells.


In 1936,the spring excavation season in An Yang

was scheduled to end on June 12.

The excavators were surprised on that day

when they found a large number of turtle shells

in a pit labeled H127.Within one and a half hours,

they uncovered approximately one thousand pieces

of fragments. The group was led by a young

archaeologist named Shi Shang-ru.



There is a capital city ruin of about

24 square kilometersin An Yang called

The Yin Ruins. Yin is the old name of An Yang.

The Shang Dynasty's King Pan Geng

moved the capital to this area ,

which became the political, cultural and economic

center of the ShangDynasty for over 300 years.

Since its first excavation in 1928,

the Yin Ruins provided the world with

numerous cultural relics, a great discovery in the history of archaeology.



The rulers of Shang Dynasty were so

superstitious that they would resort to

divinity before going on a great activity.

The predicted outcomes were curved on the

turtle shells and animal bones with the characters.

When the augural result came true, the very shell or

bone would be saved as the official records. Therefore,

these collections became the earliest recorded

historical materials in China.




So far, more than 150,000 pieces

of turtle shells and animal bones

have been excavated, about 5,000 different

characters have been discovered, and more than

1,300 of them recognized, this shows that a well-developed

script with a complete system of written signs was

already formed in that early age. The oracle bones

recorded information about Chinese society, its politics,

economy and culture from 3,400 years ago.

The oracle bones have been the most important

direct historical materials for us to study Chinese

ancient history, especially that of the Shang Dynasty.

It is an invaluable treasure of mankind


During the 50 years from 1899 to 1949,

there were 289 scholars who studied oracle bones,

among them, about 230 Chinese

scholars and the other 59 scholars

from all over the world,such as Japan,

United States, United Kingdoms ,

Swede, and France. The most well known

Chinese scholars in this field include:

Luo Zhen Yu(罗振玉),

Wang Guo Wei(王国维),Guo Mo

Ruo(郭沫若)and Dong Zuo Bin(董作宾).



Oracle bones research suffered a terrible

set back during the disastrous period

of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976.

But in the last 30 years,

research projects on oracle bones

have been carried out in almost all major

research universities in China, including

Zhengzhou University, Peking University,

Beijing Normal University, Beijing University

of Language and Culture, Fudan University,

Nanjing University and Sichuan University,

to name a few.


I am confident that the researchzz

work of oracle bones will continue to

enlighten us.

Thank you very much for your attention.

If you have any question,

I will be more than happy to answer.

I believe that I am a good listener.