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A vocation with character

Updated: 2024-04-11 07:44 ( CHINA DAILY )
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Jiang Yubin, a researcher specializing in oracle bone inscriptions at the center at Fudan University. [Photo provided to China Daily]

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Since the first oracle bone inscriptions were discovered in 1899, research of these precious materials has not stopped.

Found in the Yinxu Ruins in Anyang city, Central China's Henan province, the oracle bone inscriptions proved the existence of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC). The site was later determined to be the location of the last Shang capital.

Etched into animal bones and turtle shells, the 3,300-year-old inscriptions — used for fortunetelling and recording major events of the time — are profoundly important for understanding Chinese civilization.

The Yinxu Ruins were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. In 2017, oracle bone inscriptions were listed as part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register program.

"The material remains discovered at Yinxu provide tangible evidence of the early history of Chinese writing and language, ancient beliefs, social systems, and major historical events, which are considered of outstanding universal significance," UNESCO states.

"One of the biggest challenges with research into oracle bone inscriptions is the difficulty in accessing original materials. In the past, you needed money to buy the oracle bones. It could be extremely hard too to get books of rubbings of the bones — let alone conduct research," says Chen.

"But now, we have benefited greatly from digitalization, which has lowered the barriers for our studies. It is easier to get high-definition digital photos of oracle bones from institutes and individuals across the world," Chen adds.

According to the nomination form submitted to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register program in 2016, the oracle bones are scattered across the globe in the collections of more than 100 institutes.

There are more than 90,000 pieces on the Chinese mainland and over 30,000 in Taiwan. There are also pieces in Japan, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Singapore, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

"In the past 110 years, about 3,900 scholars from around the world have carried out research on oracle bone inscriptions. There have been 16,000 published papers on the subject. The study of oracle bone inscriptions has become an internationally famous subject," reads the form.

Nevertheless, China still dominates the research on oracle bone inscriptions, mainly led by domestic academic institutions, including Tsinghua University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Capital Normal University in Beijing, Fudan University in Shanghai and Jilin University.

"The inner circle of paleographic study in China is very small. There are over 100 scholars of Chinese paleography and less than 50 specialize in oracle bone inscriptions," says Jiang.

Despite the shrinking of oracle bone inscription studies overseas, international communication and cooperation still continues, with seminars, conversations and conferences held both online and in-person.

It is also worth noting that the common global working language for oracle bone studies is traditional Chinese, which is the precursor to modern Chinese. Therefore, acquiring the skill to read and write traditional Chinese characters is usually regarded as an obligatory course for those wishing to study the subject.

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