introduction

The ruins of Yin along the shores of the Huan River

          The appearance of a writing system in a civilization is a clear indication of its advanced state. The world's earliest known script dates from 3300 BC in Mesopotamia. Hieroglyphs appeared in Egypt around 3000 BC, writing in the Indus valley around 2500 BC, and in China from around 1300 BC. This is the script that is found on oracle bones at the capital of the late Shang dynasty today known as the Yin Ruins at Hsiao-t'un Village (in Anyang, Honan Province). Although oracle bone inscriptions are early examples of systematic writing in China, they do not represent the earliest attempts at pictographic writing. For example, they already possess the principles of character construction (the six classes of characters include pictographs, ideographs, and compound ideographs, as well as more abstract extended meanings, determinative phonetics, and loan characters), sentence structure, and grammar. Therefore, it may be inferred that prior to oracle bone inscriptions, Chinese writing must have already undergone a long period of development.

          Shang dynasty writing was inherited by the Chou after King Wu overthrew the Shang. Passed down through the Western and Eastern Chou (11th c.íV221 BC), and standardized under China's first emperor Ch'in Shih-huang in the 3rd century BC, Chinese writing has developed continuously over some three thousand years to the present day. Oracle bone script gradually disappeared in the early part of this long flow of history. In 1899, the etchings on oracle bones occasionally found were verified as a lost form of writing. Oracle bone inscriptions, buried for more than three thousand years, reappeared. They quickly became sought by connoisseurs around the world with many being illegally excavated, stolen, and sold abroad. In 1928, however, the Institute of History and Philology was established at Academia Sinica. Archaeological excavation began at the Yin Ruins, and oracle bones were brought into the scientific era. The archaeological harvest from the Yin Ruins has been abundant with more than twenty thousand pieces of bone and shell bearing inscriptions being unearthed. Oracle bones were no longer items that occasionally turned up in antique shops, and the artifacts that accompanied oracle bones from the ground provided first-hand evidence for researchers to understand Shang history and to penetrate Shang civilization.

          This exhibition of inscribed pieces of oracle bones and shells from Academia Sinica chronicles the history of ancient writing and the discovery of oracle bones in China and well as provides viewers with a glimpse into the role of divination in Shang royal life and archives.