Typography Lecture 1 — Oracle Bone Script

1. Reflections

In this first introductory lecture, we learned about how letter forms over the centuries, have evolved and changed along with man’s need for different functions, before they were treated as typography or something that is more closely associated with Art as we know it today. In the archaic days, pictographs and petroglyphs (engravings) were created to facilitate documentations with the main and simple function of conveying information. Many of the ‘stylistic’ elements of the form like the stroke were unintentional and rather occured due to the tool with which they were being engraved with (cuneiform, brush stroked serifs on ‘Trajan’s Column’). However over time, with the establishment of function, creating letter forms became a more discrete and unique activity, leading to various modifications and explorations of how they can be presented (with identity and character) as we have them today. We were also presented with many examples of typography being employed in different cultures throughout the centuries. One in particular that we did not delve deep into piqued my interest — Oracle Bone Script. Hence I decided to look up this particular script on my own.

2. Oracle Bone Script


The Oracle Bone Script are the oldest form of pictographs that are recognised as the predecessor of modern Chinese Language. They were used by diviners in the Shang Dynasty (questions were inscribed using a metal pin on animal bones and tortoise shells, before being introduced to a hot rod which then caused cracks, allowing the diviner to craft their answers by interpreting these cracks).  They believed the divination via pyromancy allowed them to communicate with their ancestors.


The letters found in the Oracle Bone Script, were essentially pictographs and hence they were highly abstracted version of modern Chinese characters — with some being a combination of two characters. Some scholars theorise that this simplification was due to the difficulty of inscribing on the hard bony materials. Here the form of the letter is hence possibly influenced by tools and materials just like mentioned earlier with regards to the ‘serifs’ on Trajan’s Column. From this script, only about 1300 of known 4600 Chinese characters have been deciphered. Below are some examples of Oracle Bone characters.

Personal Thoughts

Being a non-Chinese speaker, I did not need any prior knowledge of the Modern Chinese Language to decipher the rough meaning of these highly visual pictographs. The characters in the Oracle Bone Script were abstracted ‘diagrams’ of ideas and words. These then eventually transitioned into calligraphy and more complex strokes as they appear today.  Scholars are still trying to fully decipher these texts, as they potentially contain key information about the history of ancient Chinese Civilisations and the way they lived.

“Sidney Leng at the South China Morning Post reports that the museum is offering 100,000 yuan, roughly $15,000 dollars, for each character researchers are able to translate (with sufficient evidence of course). They are offering 50,000 yuan for anyone with a definitive explanation for some of the many disputed characters. Of the estimated 5,000 symbols found on oracle bones, scholars have only been able to translate about 2,000, meaning there’s a lot of room for any brilliant code-breaking scholars out there.” 

One of the main difficulties is due to the fact that the script was irregular in size and form depending on which dynasty they belonged to. Standardisation only occured during the Qin Dynasty period.

What is interesting to note here is that the similar pictograph like Egyptian Hieroglyphs were fully deciphered, by Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The presence of Hieroglyphs, Demotic Script and Greek on the stone, all conveying the same ‘decree’, allowed them to compare and eventually decipher the Hieroglyphs. The lack of a clear transitional ‘piece’ of artefact has yet to be found with regards to the Oracle Script and Modern Chinese Language, making difficult up till today for scholars to gain full access and depth to understanding these characters.

Rosetta Stone 

This could potentially be due to the fact that countries like China and Japan were isolationistic and trading only within themselves for a very long period of time  — this probably did not allow for their language to be appropriated and transpired across regions, which is contrastingly evident in the Egyptian, Greek and Roman scripts.

3. Sources




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