Oracle Bone Inscriptions in the Cloud

A visitor interacting with a multimedia display screen at an ongoing oracle bone script culture exhibition held by the National Museum of China. by Pu Feng

On October 18, 2019, Song Zhenhao, director of the Oracle Bone Script Study Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, launched the “Origin of Oracle Bone Inscriptions” big data platform in Anyang City, Henan Province, the cradle of oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.).

From Physical Labor to Artificial Intelligence

On the website of the big data platform, a search for the Chinese character for “human” in the glyph library will show all 402 pieces of oracle bones containing the character. According to Liu Yongge, director of the Key Laboratory for Oracle Bone Script Information Processing under China’s Ministry of Education, information retrieval of oracle bone inscriptions on the website is divided into three categories based on cataloging, documentation and character pattern. The design greatly facilitates researchers.

Liu Yongge didn’t expect such a major to lead him to oracle bone studies when he studied mathematics during his undergraduate days and received a master’s degree in computer software and theory. By now, Anyang Normal University has established a multi-disciplinary team to process oracle bone script information. Starting with the research and development of input methods for oracle bone inscriptions, Liu and his coworkers established a close relationship with the 3,000-year-old ancient writing system through modern technology.

Liu has witnessed researchers getting “devoured” by piles of materials and pieces of oracle bones in various shapes. Studies on the oracle bone script formerly received little attention and required heavy physical labor.

Liu often mentions Professor Guo Qingping of Anyang Normal University. Previous researchers compiled rubbings, photos, and copies of oracle bone inscriptions into catalogues which were used as essential reference books by oracle bone script scholars and researchers. Before digitization of these materials, if researchers wanted to identify a character on a specific piece of oracle bone, they had to manually wade through a sea of information.

Around 2004, Professor Guo wanted to gather all of the oracle bones with a specific character on them,” Liu recalled. “The 84-year-old professor searched through the 13-volume Combined Collection of Oracle Bone Inscriptions and still couldn’t be sure when he would find all the pieces. I used the digital database on images and writing patterns of oracle bone script which already existed by then and identified all 34 pieces of oracle bones with the character within a few minutes. Professor Guo was so surprised that he joked that I used magic.”

Liu revealed that the laboratory now uses big data technology to carry out semantic and syntax processing as well as knowledge exploration, which has provided new methods for the verification and exploration of oracle bone inscriptions. “We are trying to build a knowledge graph on the oracle bone script by using more artificial intelligence technologies and methods including bibliometrics, natural language processing, deep learning, big data analysis and knowledge engineering.”

Liu Yongge (right) instructs his student to scan oracle bone inscriptions and put them into the big data platform. At present, the platform has collected 246 oracle bone script catalogs and published 46 of them.  by Xu Xun
Liu Yongge (right) instructs his student to scan oracle bone inscriptions and put them into the big data platform. At present, the platform has collected 246 oracle bone script catalogs and published 46 of them.  by Xu Xun

Inheriting the Undertaking

On the front page of the website of the “Origin of Oracle Bone Inscriptions” big data platform, one paragraph reads: “Through our platform, we hope to provide convenience for researchers and scholars studying the oracle bone script to continue our original aspirations of introducing Yinxu, the site of the ancient capital of the late Shang Dynasty and the place where inscriptions on oracle bones were found, to the world, and to work together to inherit and pass on the cultural heritage of the Chinese nation.

The big data platform, a milestone achievement in the oracle bone script research, was incubated at Anyang Normal University. It may seem like a natural progression, but it took hard work from scholars across several generations.

In 1984, the first National Symposium on the History of the Shang Dynasty was held in Anyang. As the sponsor of the conference, Anyang Normal University brought the mission of “carrying out studies of the oracle bone script” and expressed its wish to conduct research on oracle bone inscriptions and related culture of the Shang Dynasty to Hu Houxuan, a famous scholar on oracle bone script studies. Subsequently, Hu contributed strong support. In 1985, Anyang Normal University established a research workshop on the culture of the Shang Dynasty and invited Hu to teach at the university. Courses at the research workshop at that time included studies of oracle bone inscriptions, history of the Shang Dynasty, literature from the pre-Qin (221-207 B.C.) period and Shang Dynasty archeology. With years of tireless effort by the academic circles, research on oracle bone inscriptions and Shang Dynasty culture has made steady progress at Anyang Normal University.

After moving to Taiwan in 1949, oracle bone script master Dong Zuobin (1895-1963) lamented in the 1959 book 60 Years of Studies on the Oracle Bone Script: “Looking around the world, the future of the oracle bone script is gloomy… It seems that nobody in the world cares about studying it today.”

Well into the 21st century, the situation is totally different. On the wall of the corridor of the Key Laboratory for Oracle Bone Script Information Processing under China’s Ministry of Education at Anyang Normal University is a long list of famous names that made up the first academic committee of the lab. The list includes well-known computer experts, automation experts, archeologists and historians. Dai Qionghai, head of the academic committee, is an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, professor with the Department of Automation at Tsinghua University and part-time professor with the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University. Dai was also recently elected director general of the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence.

In a new era, new technology and hungry young minds have revitalized the oracle bone script as a discipline. The changing tide was brought by a spirit of perseverance and powerful will. The spirit and strength emanate from the cultural confidence derived from 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization.


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