Song Zhenhao: Oracle Bones Drive International Cultural Exchange

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December 26, 2017: A press conference on the inclusion of Chinese oracle bone inscriptions in the Memory of the World Register is held at the Palace Museum in Beijing. Song Zhenhao played a lead role in drafting the relevant application document. Xinhua

October 18, 2019 marked the 120th anniversary of the discovery of the oracle bone script. That day, the “Origin of Oracle Bone Inscriptions—Oracle Bone Script Big Data Platform” was officially launched in Anyang, Henan Province, where oracle bones were first unearthed. The platform aims to provide big data support for the research of oracle bone inscriptions, and its inception marked oracle bone studies’ full immersion in the intelligent era.

The platform was designed with guidance from Song Zhenhao, a pioneer of contemporary oracle bone studies and researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The Institute of History under CASS, where Song works, has become an important institution for global oracle bone studies since its establishment in 1954. The 13-volume Combined Collection of Oracle Bone Inscriptions published by the institute between 1978 and 1982 is considered a milestone work for oracle bone studies that continues to enjoy a prominent reputation in global academia.

Song Zhenhao, a researcher with the Institute of History under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, achieved remarkable progress in understanding oracle bone inscriptions and the history of the Shang Dynasty, gradually emerging as the leader of the oracle bone research team at his institute. His team has made numerous academic breakthroughs in the research of oracle bone inscriptions, promoting continuous development of oracle bone studies worldwide. by Ma Yue

Song enrolled in the Graduate School of CASS in 1978, where he studied under Hu Houxuan, a renowned oracle bone script expert and editor-in-chief of Combined Collection of Oracle Bone Inscriptions. Song has since devoted his professional life to researching oracle bone script and its history. Over the past four decades-plus he has achieved remarkable progress in understanding oracle bone inscriptions and the history of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.), gradually emerging as the leader of the oracle bone research team at his institute. By building on earlier research findings, his team constantly expanded oracle bone studies, seizing numerous academic breakthroughs in sorting oracle bone inscriptions, compiling papers on oracle bone studies and publishing new details on the history of the Shang Dynasty and other findings. Meanwhile, they have strengthened communication and cooperation with oracle bone collecting institutions both at home and abroad, promoting continuous development of oracle bone studies worldwide.

In 2017, Song played a lead role in drafting an application document for Chinese oracle bone inscriptions for inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The honor marked new global recognition for the cultural essence of oracle bone inscriptions.


China Pictorial (CP): What made you decide to establish the “Origin of Oracle Bone Inscriptions—Oracle Bone Script Big Data Platform”? How do you think it has performed so far? What role will it play in the future?

Song Zhenhao: As an academic discipline, oracle bone studies require lots of basic materials. The CASS Institute of History has completed tremendous basic work since the publication of Combined Collection of Oracle Bone Inscriptions, which laid a solid foundation for the big data platform.

We began to devise construction of this platform in 2018 with the concept of “three libraries and one platform,” namely an oracle bone script library, an oracle bone monograph library, an oracle bone papers library and an oracle bone script knowledge service platform. Currently, the oracle bone script library includes more than 4,000 oracle bone characters, both identified and unidentified. The oracle bone monograph library features 246 published monographs, and the oracle bone papers library includes more than 20,000 academic papers such as master’s and doctoral theses and conference papers.

Next, the big data platform will continue enriching basic data and conducting data analysis based on artificial intelligence technology as we introduce oracle bone inscriptions search functions, new identification and analysis, advanced technological archeology of oracle bone inscriptions and the Yinxu Site, oracle bone script knowledge graphs and a computer-aided oracle bone script automatic composition system. It is likely to become the most thorough and complete oracle bone script big data platform in the world.

June 7, 2015: Song Zhenhao (center) and his students examine oracle bones collected in the Museum of Harvard University in the United States. courtesy of Song Zhenhao

CP: How has modern technology influenced the development of oracle bone studies?

Song: Letting modern technologies serve people and enhance oracle bone studies is the primary reason that I promoted the establishment of this big data platform.

The oracle bone script automatic composition system is a prominent example. It frees researchers from previous arduous manual composition of oracle bone inscriptions. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Gui Qiongying, editor of Combined Collection of Oracle Bone Inscriptions responsible for oracle bone script composition, composed more than 2,000 groups of characters by combing tens of thousands of oracle bones recorded in over 40 relevant books and rubbing collections—an extremely exhausting job. With big data technology, the oracle bone script automatic composition system can automatically compose numerous groups of characters for identification. We have verified that the system produces a high success rate in oracle bone script composition.

CP: Since the discovery of oracle bone inscriptions, studies of the artifacts have been popular with scholars worldwide. As the expert leading the application drive for Chinese oracle bone inscriptions to be included in the Memory of the World Register, what do you think oracle bone inscriptions and their studies mean to China and the world?

Song: China’s oracle bone script is one of the ancient writing systems that most influenced the evolution of human society and civilization. It is also the only surviving ancient script that continuously evolved to present day. 

The oracle bone script is the earliest known ancestor of Chinese characters and preserves the genes of the Chinese spirit and origins of Chinese beliefs and culture. For instance, Chinese worship of ancestors and value of family as depicted in oracle bone inscriptions continue to this day. The oracle bone script is more than just a writing system. Researching oracle bone inscriptions requires not only expertise on paleography but also knowledge of archeology, bibliography, history, biology and even modern science and technology. Only with a wide range of knowledge can a researcher deeply understand and explore the value of oracle bone inscriptions.

Rubbings of oracle bone inscriptions from Shandong Museum. Though in his 70s, Song Zhenhao still spends most of his time sorting and researching oracle bone inscriptions. by Ma Yue

CP: As it takes center stage globally, China is attaching greater importance to mutual cultural exchange with other civilizations. In your opinion, what role should oracle bone inscriptions play in promoting international exchange?

Song: Since their discovery, oracle bone inscriptions have raised considerable fascination in global academia. Presently, Chinese oracle bones are housed in institutions in 14 countries. As Chinese culture goes global, increasing numbers of Western scholars have become devoted to oracle bone studies.

Such scholars adopt high-tech means to conduct oracle bone studies, and their ideas and fresh vision that transcend script structure are worth learning for Chinese researchers. Conversely, Chinese scholarly research of oracle bone inscriptions has provided inspirations for researching ancient Western writing systems. For example, the traditional deconstructing method devised to decipher Chinese oracle bone script was applied in research of ancient Sumerian cuneiform script, which significantly improved modern understanding of prehistoric human civilizations. The oracle bone script has helped promote international cultural exchange in a big way.

October 22, 2016: People visit an exhibition titled “Memories of the Oracle Bone Inscriptions” at the Acapulco Historical Museum of Fort San Diego in Mexico. The oracle bone script has helped promote international cultural exchange in a big way. Xinhua

CP: How can the oracle bones help foreigners gain a better grasp of Chinese culture?

Song: Discovery of oracle bone inscriptions provided clues that have driven thorough research of the origin of Chinese written language and the early characteristics of Chinese grammar. Oracle bone inscriptions present an ideal way for foreigners to learn the Chinese language from the very start, literally. A type of hieroglyph, known oracle bone script is easy to understand for speakers of any language. It will be much easier to memorize modern Chinese characters after learning about the oracle bone script. Oracle bone inscriptions can be drawn with a brush pen, like painting, which has inspired interest from foreign learners, as verified by Chinese language classes around the world.

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