When President Xi Jinping talked with US President Donald Trump at the Palace Museum, or Forbidden City, in Beijing on Nov 8, Xi highlighted that "China has 3,000 years of history using written characters" to his visiting US counterpart.
The earliest-known Chinese characters that Xi was referring to, were found inscribed on oracle bones, mainly turtle shell and ox scapula, and were used for the purpose of recording or fortunetelling during the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th to 11th century BC).
The inscriptions were listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register program in late November.
"It's a milestone to get the gist of traditional Chinese culture understood and promoted in the world," Du Yue, a director from the National Commission of China for UNESCO, says. "Now, it has become a common spiritual treasure for humanity."
Sources: Numbers provided by National Library of China/China Daily
"Oracle bone inscriptions have the same lineage as the writing system used today, and are the ancestors of Chinese characters," says Song Zhenhao, a historian and academician committee member from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was the principal academic leading the bid to get the oracle bones listed in the UNESCO register.
"Exploring the inscriptions will help us understand the origins of Chinese philosophy and thought, and help us figure out where our traditional culture comes from," he adds.
Song says about 4,400 single characters were found to be used among the inscriptions, and nearly 1,800 of them are still recognizable now. He says this number is also growing as research develops and he recently spotted dozens of new characters during a research trip to the Shandong Museum in Jinan and the Lushun Museum in Dalian, Liaoning province.
"Many characters have disappeared, and we cannot find their counterparts in today's Chinese writing system," Song says, explaining the difficulties. "The unrecognizable characters mainly relate to the names of people, places and forms of sacrificial rites.
A section of oracle bone inscriptions on a turtle shell from King Wuding’s time (1250-1192 BC) during the Shang Dynasty. It is housed in the National Library of China and is the earliest-known Chinese record on hailstones. [Photo provided to China Daily]
"As more custodians of oracle bones begin to release their inventories to the public, research is gathering pace," he says.
"We were cheered up immensely by that successful (UNESCO) bid," says Hu Huiping, a researcher with the National Library of China in Beijing. "But the day-to-day work hasn't really changed despite this."
She spends her days researching, studying and cataloging oracle bones.
Even though she graduated from college 15 years ago, the 41-year-old researcher says she still feels like a student stuck in a study room at her small office in the Beijing library.
"It's a job that involves sitting on a cold bench," she says. "You need patience and diligence to overcome loneliness."
Hu attributes her patience to the hope that she might one day grasp the full picture behind the Shang Dynasty through its relics.
"I wanted to understand what the Shang era was like," Hu says. "But, maybe I've only caught a glimpse of what life was like then after these 15 years."
When Hu first entered the warehouse housing the oracle bones alone in the basement of the library, she was faced with a huge hoard-with no systematic catalog in place.
"I started to catalog them from 'No 00001 oracle bone'," Hu says, proudly. "Now, less than 10,000 items are on my waiting list."
According to library statistics, there are 35,651 individual oracle bones housed in the library, making it the world's biggest repository of these precious documents.
Hu Huiping (left) and Zhao Aixue work as fulltime researchers at the National Library of China, handling the world’s biggest collection of oracle bones. [Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]
"It's much more complicated than cataloging a book," she explains further. "For one single piece of bone, you have to rifle through lots of files to make sure its explanation, time, usage, and cultural context are all properly recorded. It's a lot of work."
In 2011, Hu was finally joined by her colleague Zhao Aixue. They remain the only two full-time researchers devoted to cataloging the oracle bones in the library.
According to Zhao, the status of oracle bones has been upgraded in recent years.
"For a long time, they used to be categorized as cultural relics rather than documents," he recalls. "That downplayed their significance as written history."
After many academic discussions, the oracle bones were included in the larger list of key national ancient books and documents for the first time in 2013, which was a pivotal moment for research and development, and presented a solid foundation for the UNESCO bid.
A piece of oracle bone. [Photo provided to China Daily]
According to Song, there are about 150,000 individual oracle bones in the world.
About 93,000 pieces from 11 institutions on the Chinese mainland, including the National Library of China, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the Palace Museum, were included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Academia Sinica in Taiwan is also a major institution that houses the bones.
Zhao reveals that images of about 3,800 fragments of oracle bones and 7,000 ink rubbings of bones have been uploaded to the website of the National Library of China for public use. He says the wider use of digital platforms has helped scientists locate broken fragments of bones kept at other institutions and rejoin them with their original host pieces.
For example, he points to rubbing of an upper part of turtle shell and explains that the lower part was found in Taiwan, thanks to the rejoining studies.
Nevertheless, Song says the digital approach still only plays an assisting role in their research. After being viewed digitally, certain pieces that looked like they would fit back together, were found not to match perfectly after experts checked the original pieces.
"It needs interdisciplinary expertise," he says. "Carrying out careful and indepth research is always crucial."
Oracle bones. [Photo provided to China Daily]
However, they are also facing the problem of how to attract more specialists.
"Studying oracle bone inscriptions has almost become a dying art," he says.
Song recalls he often worked with 20 other scholars during projects in the 1980s. In a recent research project in Shandong, he only had three academics join him.
"Scholars switched to other fields," Zhao says. "It's easier to make a major breakthrough by studying bamboo slips or books made of silk."
Introduced centuries after oracle bones, bamboo slips and silk books were major forms of recorded media in ancient China.
And, there are also some key overseas institutions that have collections of oracle bones, including the British Library and the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. Many bones were taken abroad by Western missionaries.
Oracle bones on display. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Song recently finished cataloging oracle bones at the State Hermitage Museum, and one of his students also had a project in London studying a collection amassed by noted British Sinologist Lionel Charles Hopkins (1854-1952).
According to Song, academic writings on oracle bone inscriptions have been discovered in 14 different languages around the world, and the academic magazine run by his institution, keeps receiving papers with new angles from abroad.
"The statistics are insufficient though," Song tells China Daily. "When I did research at some of these institutions, I counted the pieces one by one, and found the numbers were more than their inventory showed, probably due to historical errors."
And, as he points out, there may be "thousands more" oracle bones in the hands of individuals in and around Anyang, Henan province, following discoveries there a century ago.
In the late 19th century, many oracle bones were unearthed by local villagers at the Yinxu Ruins in Anyang, an ancient capital during the Shang Dynasty. However, the locals regarded them as fossils and used them as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. There is a term used to describe this event as "humans swallowing Shang history".
Nevertheless, Wang Yirong, a Beijing scholar and antiquarian, stumbled on some animal bones and tortoise shells on sale at a pharmacy in 1899, and he noticed symbols that looked like writing. He was later hailed as the discoverer of oracle bone inscriptions.
Oracle bones. [Photo provided to China Daily]
People later swarmed to Anyang to dig for bones, and many fell into the hands of private collectors and antique dealers. In 1928, the government launched an official archaeological excavation at Yinxu and protected the area to prevent more artifacts from disappearing.
According to Zhao, most oracle bones housed in the National Library of China originated from these early 20th century private collections, which were either donated or purchased by public institutions.
At the national library, more efforts are being made to draw wider attention to the importance of the collection of artifacts.
Zhao reveals that the catalog of all the 35,000 or so oracle bones in the library will be published in several volumes, starting in 2019 in honor of the 120th anniversary of Wang's discovery.
"We need to get more people to pay attention to the oracle bones," he says. "We cannot let them lie unnoticed in some warehouse."
In 2012, the national library exhibited the oracle bones for the first time, and a permanent exhibition hall was set up to house them in 2015, with exhibits being rotated every few months.
Guan Qiang, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, vowed in December that protection and studies of oracle bone inscriptions will be strengthened to save it from becoming "a dying art ".
"Experts from the fields of paleography, archaeology, education, history and archiving will cooperate more to categorize, decipher and display academic achievements in the field," Guan said.
An oracle bone. [Photo provided to China Daily]
"Information about the culture surrounding oracle bones needs to be better promoted to the general public, especially younger generations."
For Hu, the librarian, who is used to spending her days examining the past, she now has high hopes for the future as well.
"It's great to find that some characters from oracle bone inscriptions are being introduced into textbooks for kids," she says, speaking of her daughter in sixth grade.
"She's very interested in traditional Chinese culture. It's a good thing, right?"