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Video transcript

we're in the Shanghai Museum and we're looking at a very early oracle bone and this is so important because this brings us to the very beginnings of writing in ancient China the oracle bone is on an ox scapula so it's actually the shoulder blade here that you can see carved little tiny characters from the right to the left all in little lines and those characters are still many of them recognizable as Chinese characters about 1 percent of them actually are decipherable and we have tons of these remaining we have about 200,000 of them we're not really used to the idea on the West that we could read writing that's more than three thousand years old and of course this is really important because you can read history through it when we have a group of these objects together we can look back and see how things evolved on this particular year what kinds of concerns people had it's an Oracle though and so we know that it was something that could divine the future that could help people understand what the future might bring they would get these bones they would inscribe the questions on them and then a diviner would come and use a particular ritual that involved a heated rod a metal rod that they would touch to the bone and the way that the cracks would evolve on the questions would divine the future so the cracks would be read by someone who had a kind of special power the questions were all directed towards somebody named Zhong Dee the daya fide ancestor of the Zhong Royal cult and we're talking about the Shang Dynasty in the cradle of civilization that Yellow River Valley the capital and the kinds of questions that people would ask would involve everything from the very mundane to ritualistic things when should a sacrifice be performed a particular Rite of worship this one we're looking at a question about the bumper harvest when to be planting and ancestor worship was incredibly important during the Shang Dynasty and that's something that will change with the next dynasty when we get into the Joe we see a different concept of the divine so Chandi was the particular ancestor / God of the Shang Dynasty and of course it makes sense with the next dynasty exactly you'd have to adjust you adjust so we see these on especially on scapula of oxen but also other animal bones and also tortoise shell tortoise shell is another favorite medium probably also this tortoise was a important mythological creature from very early times but here you can see that the medium itself is very flat it's a good surface to carve into and when we're looking at these kinds of things keep in mind that this is what we have we have bones these did the test of time but that doesn't mean that there wasn't also writing on other things and the writing that we're seeing we know that Chinese characters have stand for words but perhaps at this time in history the signs that we're seeing are more pictographic until it evolves yeah they've been slowly decoded and actually art historians have spent quite a bit of time trying to decipher this enough so that we can read them but at this point writing is a functional medium it's to communicate in this example with the gods eventually it evolved into calligraphy which becomes this art form and so the importance of Chinese writing here in this very early moment a lot of major developments in Chinese society right we've got centralized power as a major theme coming out of the writing the idea that people can communicate and organize and this idea of creating a history here and so lucky that we can at least untangle 40% of it of these thousands of bones that survive and one day we'll understand even more even more of them exactly you