Shaanxi oracle bones

A recent China Daily news story reports on the discovery of inscribed oracle bones (jiǎgǔpiàn) in Shaanxi province, dating to the Zhou dynasty (11th – 7th centuries BCE). Over the past few months inscriptions have been found comprising over 1100 characters in total. (As in modern Chinese writing, each character is roughly the equivalent of a single lexical unit, most often what we would call a word).

Apparently 1100 characters is a ‘new record’, whatever that means. Does anyone else find it odd that so much attention is being paid to the number of characters found? It’s reminiscent of the sort of student (thankfully, rare) who uses word count as a proxy for paper quality when arguing a grade: “But sir, I have 5000 words! How did I get a C?”

I’m also struck by the similarity between this report and my last post on the 10th century BCE Israelite (Hebrew?) inscription. In both cases, the presence of writing (and in this case, the quantity) is seen as being informative on the nature and context of literacy, and the presence of the word for ‘king’ is seen as particularly noteworthy. In this case, however, the Zhou dynasty is several centuries (at minimum) into the history of Chinese writing, and there is no question that the Zhou state was politically and socially complex, featuring high degrees of social stratification. Hey, I understand that archaeologists spend a lot of time looking for exciting stuff like this, and inevitably you want to tell us all about it. But just once, couldn’t we have a news report that talks in detail about the content of the writing and the context of the inscription?

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