asia212 paper1 3-14-08 - Asia 212 Writing and Ancient...

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Asia 212 Writing and Ancient Chinese Society The Chinese system of writing has been a great source of national pride for thousands of years. As the world’s oldest modern language, Chinese dates back over three millennia, providing an unparalleled wealth of history and culture. From its early roots in the Shang dynasty to the legendary Qin and Han empires, the written Chinese language offers a valuable look into the changing culture and society of the Chinese people through the ages. The first known usage of Chinese characters dates back to the Shang dynasty, some three thousand years ago, who used writing to keep records of divinations. Thousands of oracle bones have been found with writing detailing the Shang kings’ consultations with the divine powers on a wide range of topics “on matters small, as […] with the [king’s] toothache, or momentous, like battles involving his entire kingdom” (OE, 19). The script on cracked Shang oracle bones show a clear link between religion and government, as the practice of divining oracle bones is based on the supernatural belief that divine spirits and higher deities communicated with the king via the patterns of cracks on heated oracle bones, but “these oracles [also] constituted political documents because they recorded matters of state in a theocracy with the Shang king at its apex” (OE, 24). For instance, oracle bones could be consulted regarding military campaigns, providing advice such as “it should be Zhi Guo whom the king joins to attack the Bafang, [for if he does] Di will [confer assistance] on us” (CC, 4). The limited uses of writing in
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the Shang dynasty are indicative of the literacy rate of the period. As only scribes needed to be able to read and write (OE, 23), literacy was first and foremost a clerical skill. The Zhou dynasty saw a flourishing in both the historical availability of writing and its uses. The Zhou applied writing to their religion as the Shang did. The presence of writing on the insides of bronze vessels and other hard-to-read places indicate that they were meant to be read by ancestral spirits (OE, 48). Like the Shang, the Zhou relied on divinations as advice from the deities. However, whereas the Shang recorded their divinations upon oracle bones, Zhou diviners used long and short sticks to form
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This note was uploaded on 04/16/2008 for the course ASIAN 2212 taught by Professor Mcneal,r&rusk,b during the Spring '08 term at Cornell University (Engineering School).

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asia212 paper1 3-14-08 - Asia 212 Writing and Ancient...

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