Chen Nan discusses the designs with team members inside their workshop at Tsinghua University on September 24, 2019 (XINHUA)
With a history spanning nearly three millennia, oracle bone inscriptions, the earliest-known Chinese characters engraved on tortoise shells and animal bones, today have made their way into modern life. Chen Nan, a professor in his 40s with the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University, is among those responsible for their resuscitation. Having worked on oracle bone script designs since 1999, he has been bringing the pictographs back to life through emojis and different spin-off products.
The inscriptions recorded the life and history of the Shang Dynasty (around 1600-1046 B.C.), including divination practices, war expeditions, hunting, medical treatments, and childbirth. The characters were first discovered by a merchant called Wang Xirong in 1899, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In the early 20th century, Chinese researchers excavated numerous oracle bones at Xiaotun Village in Anyang, Henan Province, capital of the Shang Dynasty. Over 150,000 pieces have been unearthed and some 5,000 individual characters identified to date, yet only a third of these have been deciphered so far.
According to Chen, the inscriptions served as cameras capturing the Shang customs and society.
“The year 2019 marked the 120th anniversary of the discovery of oracle bone script. As it is a rather ‘recent’ discovery, not too many people have delved into the history. Over the past decade or so, we have been trying our utmost to promote them. Even people from other cultural backgrounds can grasp the appeal of Chinese characters through their direct visual appearance,” Chen told Beijing Review.
Chen designed a full oracle bone script font system in 2017, with the help of which people can type the special characters. He first sketched of the icons on paper to get inspired, and subsequently adopted geometrical principles to adapt the characters to the 21st century, mainly by creating digital grids to arrange character strokes.
To introduce the ancient writings to Chinese youth, who share a proclivity for the new and innovative, as well as people overseas, his team has consistently been exploring new mediums for character reformatting. They have released several sets of animated emojis, i.e., pictographs in oracle bone script shapes to convey modern meanings. The themes include greeting words, online slang, and associations with the Year of the Tiger. The ever-popular panda, China’s national treasure, is also heavily featured in Chen’s designs, channeling the staple Chinese style. After the script emojis were first introduced in 2018, they were downloaded by over 10,000 users and used over 680,000 times in only six months.
In 2019, Chen went on to create several oracle bone script designs, which were exhibited at the National Museum of China. One of them was an art installation starring the marching warriors led by Wu Ding, the 21st or 23rd king of the Shang Dynasty. According to Chen, many oracle bone inscriptions highlighted military elements. He ingeniously transformed the characters into soldier models carrying weapons and riding their war chariots. The works were further presented via 3D holographic displays to create a more immersive experience. Museums aside, his works have traveled to art and fashion zones where young people often gather, like Beijing’s 798 Art Zone.
Much to Chen’s relief, the oracle bone inscriptions, unfamiliar to people in the early 1990s, have become increasingly well-known among the wider public. “Today, many parents will take their children to exhibitions on the characters,” Chen added. “Also, script courses have been introduced across many schools, during which students learn to identify, write and even engrave the characters.”
Chen transforms the oracle bone script into Shang Dynasty (about 1600-1046 B.C.) troops, which are on display in the National Museum of China in 2019 (COURTESY PHOTO)
The protection of Chinese character culture has made good progress in recent years. Legend has it that characters were invented by Cangjie, an official historian thousands of years ago, who created them by observing animal tracks. Deeply moved by his accomplishment, the heavens rained down grain for the people to reap. This day became known as Guyu, literally meaning “grain rain,” also the sixth of the 24 solar terms on the lunar calendar.
Curious tales from history aside, the actual origins of modern Chinese characters trace back to the oracle bone script. According to Chen, their development followed a clear and phase-by-phase timeline, with only their appearance undergoing the occasional change.
“It’s unnecessary to organize the oracle bone script into a standard system, like a dictionary, as the key is to preserve and promote these earliest writings which were once nearly lost. Imposing too many standards will render their promotion almost impossible,” Chen said. According to his projections, the history of Chinese characters dates back over 3,500 years, for the Shang inscriptions must have had predecessors and very little information is available about the dynastic forerunner, the Xia Dynasty (roughly 2070-1600 B.C.). Greater discoveries are definitely still in the cards.
The ancient characters have gained growing global influence. In 2017, the script entered the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Oracle bone script calligraphy exhibitions even took place in Morocco and Japan in 2018-19.
International experts, too, have participated in the research on and promotion of the characters. One such expert is Adam D. Smith, a professor with the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, the United States. As Smith told the International Herald Leader, he once visited Anyang to see the unearthed inscriptions in person, studied archaeology at Peking University and further introduced the ancient characters through lectures and workshops abroad. He suggested taking their research online for more people to learn about the characters and better understand the roots of Chinese culture.
For Chen, the global promotion of oracle bone script culture is far from sufficient, given people from other cultural backgrounds may still consider it mysterious and abstract. “The promotion of Chinese culture has a long way to go. I hope that modern designs can break down cultural barriers,” he added.
Chen’s works based on Chinese characters have been published and exhibited overseas. He has also cooperated with Chinese cultural associations in France, the U.S., Japan and the Republic of Korea to introduce the oracle bone script.
Culture is national, but distinctive local features should always be preserved. “The uniqueness of oracle bone script culture should be sustained, whereas the methods of its promotion must transcend borders,” he concluded.