Oracle Bone
Script - Part 1

Before we dive into the vast world of core calligraphy styles in a strict sense, let me introduce you to the grandfather of all scripts: oracle bone and tortoise shell script (亀甲獣骨文字, kikkou juukotsu moji).

Restored tortoise shell with oracle bone script incisions


In short, oracle bone inscriptions are called koukotsubun (甲骨文) in Japanese, which translates to “text (, bun) on shells (, kou) and bones (, kotsu)”. In Chinese it is also known as qi wen, i.e “engraved text” (, to engrave, , text), although there were bones found with characters written with a brush, and not carved afterwards.

Koukotsubun was discovered by accident in 1899 by Wang Yirong (王懿榮), an official from Beijing, who fell ill. A doctor prescribed him a medicine of which one of the ingredients was “dragon bone” (龍骨 in Chinese: long gu). The piece of bone he had purchased from a traditional pharmacy was covered in ancient carvings resembling Chinese characters. Being a man of science it intrigued him and eventually led to a great discovery in a small village just outside Anyang (安陽), Henan Province (河南省).

Till today, approximately 150,000 pieces of bones and shells were discovered, though “only” around 2000 out of total 4700 classified characters have been deciphered. The earliest inscriptions are dated back to 15th - 16th century B.C during the Shang dynasty (商朝, 1600 – 1046 B.C.).

The main creators of texts written in oracle bone script were officials called Zhen Ren (diviner-historians), responsible for recording important events and religious ceremonies. Bones, with small dents made in them, were first heated up in fire until they cracked, which produced divinatory signs. The way the inscription was separated by the cracks suggested a divinatory sign. Afterwards, the text was often rubbed with cinnabar or ink. Thanks to those inscriptions, many interesting details regarding everyday life and records of significant political events in rapidly growing Shang society were confirmed.

Oracle bone script, mid Shang dynasty, late 14th century B.C

Oracle bones script was not always carved. As mentioned above, sometimes characters were written by means of a brush. During the Shang (商朝, 1600 – 1046 B.C.), Zhou dynasties (周朝, 1046 B.C. – 256 B.C.), right through to the Jin dynasty (晉朝265 C.E. – 420 C.E.), bamboo and wood (many experts and historians also suggest silk) were the prevailing writing materials. Although paper was in use since 265 B.C. it was rather expensive, and until the invention of Xuan paper (宣紙) around eight centuries later, it was used only in richer circles. This extraordinarily extended period of some 2000 years has come to be known in Chinese history as the “Age of the Bamboo Slips”. Unfortunately, due to the vulnerable nature of wood and cloth, not many of these artifacts survived to today.

Oracle bone script is stunningly beautiful in its raw simplicity. It is secluded deep under a veil of primordial aura, untouchable and proud, yet elegantly brilliant. Due to the primitive tools used for inscribing the script (knives as carving tools, and low quality brushes made of rather “dull” and non-responsive hairs), the lines forming the characters resemble compositions made of wooden splinters. Strokes are canoe shaped, narrowing gradually to the sharp endings. Even curved lines are made of a series of straight cuts.


Contiune to Oracle Bone Script - Part 2

Contiune to Seal Scripts

Back to Calligraphy Styles

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