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The Blessings of Auspicious Treasures: Oracle Bone Calligraphy Exhibition of Xie Chunling

A large number of Chinese writings dating back more than 3,000 years were discovered in 1899 near the city of Anyang (安陽), where the ancient capital Yin (殷) of the Shang (商) Dynasty (c.1600–1046 BC) was located. Known as oracle bone inscriptions, the characters were carved onto turtle shells and animal bones to record the events of divination. These oracle bone inscriptions are by far the earliest Chinese characters found with a sophisticated composition system. The stunning discovery and interpretation of these inscriptions has become a significant milestone in the development of both Chinese and, more broadly, human civilization.

Buried underground for more than 3,000 years, the form of the characters and the contents of the oracle bone inscriptions have been well preserved, without being tampered or altered. They are the most reliable historical information of the period.

More than 100,000 oracle bones have been excavated since 1899. Among the 4,600 distinctive characters confirmed for their uniqueness, 2,350 of them can be established by components (radicals) from regular script while 1,170 have been successfully interpreted and verified in later dictionaries.

Now we know that during the Yin Shang Dynasty, the Emperor would have to consult the spirits by conducting a divination with oracle bones prior to undertaking any order of business, and the events of divination and their results would be recorded on the bones. Oracle bone inscriptions reflect people’s devotion to fate in that period, illustrating their belief that everything that happens in the human world is decided by god, spirits, and ancestors. Therefore, these offering activities were extremely frequent and quite complicated, forming a unique cultural phenomenon.

After over 120 years of hard work, we have not only affirmed the time period (1300BC-1046BC) from which the oracle bone inscriptions have originated, but also have a general understanding of the content of the inscriptions. Through these inscriptions, we now understand different aspects of the society during this historical period, such as politics, military, culture, and traditions. The inscriptions also refer to astronomy, the calendar, medicine and so on. Astronomy and the calendar had an early development in Chinese history and are the key components of the Chinese culture. Oracle bone inscriptions already recorded a broad spectrum of astronomical phenomena and calendrical expressions.

The calligraphy works in this exhibition consist of two aspects. One is related to the meteorological records on the oracle bones, including wind, thunder, rain, snow, rainbows, haze, and hail, as well as astronomical records of solar and lunar eclipses and the emergence of new stars. The other is related to the calendar, including specific terms for each day as well as for various periods in a day, calendar month, leap month and so on. This art originated from original oracle bone inscriptions, and demonstrates our ancestors’ observation of natural phenomena and their belief of god’s domination.

Oracle bone calligraphy is a unique art form recreating the beauty of inscribed characters to illustrate the style, structure, and layout of the original inscriptions from the Yin Shang Dynasty. As we know oracle bone inscriptions were carved onto tortoise shells and animal bones. The strength and charms of carvings are expressed in mostly straight lines and angular turns. The slender style of characters and their layout provide us with artistic appeals and elegant arrangements. Coming through the turbulent change of dynasties, their aged appearances today display ancient glamour. These qualities, which marked the uniqueness of the art, are what I have been trying to achieve in my calligraphy works for over 30 years.

The content, style, and background design of all the exhibits are based on the actual ink rubbings made from the oracle bones themselves. The designs are then meticulously reproduced to preserve the formation of the characters and the shape of the oracle bones. In this way, the audience can get a sense of the authenticity and artistic features of the original bones. This is why I have insisted in my creations that the shape of the characters and the bones must originate from reliable sources.

I wish to thank my teacher, Professor Guiguang Zhang of South China Normal University for guiding me into the field of ancient philology. My gratitude should also go to my doctoral supervisor, Professor Chow Yiu Sin of the University of Hong Kong, who helped me to stay persistent and firm in my academic journey.  Their support is invaluable to my little accomplishments today.

I would like to thank HKUST and President Professor Wei Shyy for inviting me to hold this solo calligraphy exhibition. It is my hope to give the audience a closer look at the culture of an ancient dynasty that existed over 3,000 years ago. I would also like to take this opportunity to expand my oracle bone knowledge from the feedback and comments of scholars and critics in this field.

Additionally, I would like to thank Alice Ho of HKUST Library for her hard work in curating this exhibition, as well as Jason Lei and Mark Baker for offering valuable suggestions for revisions to my original English translation. To other contributors of this exhibition, please accept my sincere gratitude.

Last but not the least, my appreciation goes to University Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong for the loan of 6 oracle bones. These original artifacts will enhance visitors’ understanding and enjoyment of ancient Chinese characters.

With my art recreation and the blessings of auspicious treasures from ancient times, this exhibition, at the 30th Anniversary of HKUST, is a celebration of the University’s past accomplishments and my best wishes for its future achievements.

Xie Chunling