Ancient Chinese Characters on Tortoise Shells Deciphered

Some 2,000 of the 5,000-plus ancient Chinese characters inscribed on tortoise shells and animal bones have been deciphered by Chinese scholars.

The characters, called "jiaguwen" in Chinese, were developed in the Shang Dynasty (BC1766-BC1122), the second of China's chronological dynasties. They were found on some 150,000 pieces of unearthed bones and shells.

The decoding study on "jiaguwen" was initiated in 1899 in China, when the 3,000-year-old characters were first discovered.

Liu Heng, a tortoise shell character expert in Harbin, capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, said that the number of translated characters account for 40 percent of the total verified characters. The expert decoded over 100 of the chisel- shaped characters.

China has published a "jiaguwen" dictionary, which systematically summarizes the explanation of the translated characters, the faults or misunderstandings in the argumentation of the decoding process and achievements in the research.

"Jiaguwen" is one of the world's four ancient language systems, and is the only one to sustain its use in transformations.

The study of "jiaguwen" has grown worldwide, because many of the inscriptions were scattered abroad during wars and social disturbances at the beginning of this century, said Liu.

He said that over the past 20 years, America, Japan, Britain, France, Germany and Sweden have all published their research on " Jiaguwen", some of which are of high academic value.

The scholar said that the study of the characters is important to the research of political and economic situations as well as the culture, military power and folk art of ancient China.

(Xinhua 12/24/2000)