Do you know how modern Chinese language evolved? 

 

The Chinese language has its roots in a language system developed more than 3,000 years ago. The Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文) was created in the Shang Dynasty in 1,200 BC. They received their name from the tablets or scripts that they were commonly written on. In the past many of these Chinese family scripts or stories were written on bones. In many cases animal bones or turtle shells were used to preserve the look of these ancient writings. Its evocative pictorial style forms the foundation of most Chinese characters. 

Watch this to find out more!

When people ask me what I do, I mention I am in the Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文) business. They then clarify - do you mean Oracle the IT company? I hear that IT is a tough business. You must remember to take good care of yourself. 

But what I mean is Oracle Bone Script, not Oracle the IT company. I discovered Oracle Bone Script since 2006 and have not looked back since. Most people think that the subject is esoteric or hard to master. Indeed, the more I learn, the more I need to learn. So why is it that I am still doing this?

This is a series of Oracle Bone Script characters which represent the same word. Can you guess what it is? 

 It refers to the sky. Isn't it really difficult? It doesn't look like the sky at all, does it? One would have thought that in ancient times, people would just draw what they see, and this certainly does not look like the sky. But then I thought further. If I lived in the past, how would I have interacted with the sky? Well, I first need to raise my head to look at the sky. And if you look at the last character - with the dash - that is a person's head, looking up at the sky. 

Now look at this series of Oracle Bone Script characters. They also represent the same word.

Looks like a cat, doesn't it? Actually, it depicts a bronze vessel commonly used in the Shang Dynasty (鼎). 

 I think most people will be able to identify this series of Oracle Bone Script characters though.

Let me give you a clue. If a Taiwanese child and a Chinese child had to repeatedly write this word, the Taiwanese child will probably be the first to give up. Why is that? Well, Taiwan still uses traditional Chinese characters (龜), while China uses simplified characters (龟). If you compare the two, you can see why it is harder for the Taiwanese child to write the word. 

Does anyone recognise this series of Oracle Bone script characters?

This is also a traditional Chinese character – fight (斗). If you look carefully, you can see a person on the left, and another on the right. What are they doing? Fighting. What I find interesting about the Oracle Bone Script is that there are different versions of the same character. Perhaps this is a way to record different stages of a fight - initially it starts with the hands, and then people start to get really mad and tear out each other's hair! 

Some even use weapons too.

Let's examine even more words.

Some people say this is the word hoist, and you are quite close. After all, it is a person carrying a pick-like object. We are still using this word today, but it has taken on a different meaning. The word is now (何), meaning why (as in why not). But we do still use the word in the traditional sense - hoist - once we include the (艹/grass) radical. 

Now see this.

Doesn't this character look like a pregnant person, with a baby in her tummy? Indeed, this is the Oracle Bone Script for pregnant, which now looks like this (孕). What about the left character? It looks like the baby has been born, so what is necessary now is to educate the child (育).

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How about this character?

It looks like two people hand-in-hand, doesn't it? And the word is now written as (伴).

This is also an Oracle Bone Script character describing a person.

Can you see what is so unusual about this person? Well, this person is beautiful, as she has accessories in her hair. Look at the Chinese character we use now (美). Doesn't it bear some resemblance? 

This is also an evocative Oracle Bone Script character.

It is a person with a beard (represented by the 3 "hairs" sticking out). That is how the left radical of the Chinese character for beard (须) came about.

This Oracle Bone Script character looks like it depicts more than 3 people, or perhaps is a person crossing his legs. And that's what it means - criss-cross (交). 

Now that we have seen all these characters ,maybe we can create our own Oracle Bone Script characters. If we had to write the word mat, how would we write it? Well, we will probably draw a mat. This is how Oracle Bone Script looks like.

Let's guess the meaning of another character. We know that some Chinese characters are formed by radicals which individually have meaning, and contribute to the character's overall meaning. Now look at this. This is a person, on a mat. If this person has a roof over his head, we have the word "house" (宿) in Chinese.

 Now though, we have changed the left-most radical from "mat" to "hundred" (百), so I like to think that it's a big house for hundreds of people! 

Through my study of Oracle Bone Script, I developed a deeper appreciation of the origins of each Chinese word - that each word told a story, which brought them to life. I also became more aware of the differences between the way our ancestors (in the Shang dynasty) lived, and how we now live. They lived in close harmony with nature. Through Oracle Bone Script, we can connect with nature too. And it is natural that a single character can be written in different ways, since Oracle Bone Script represents the infancy of the development of the Chinese language, and hence will change and adapt with time. This is why my speech is titled "When Chinese Language was still in its infancy". 

My love for Oracle Bone Script has permeated my life. I constantly think about the meaning behind every Chinese word. For example, I passed one of the roads in Shanghai Pudong one day, called Agastache Rugosa Road (藿香 - a plant that looks like lavender). In particular, I wonder why the word (藿) was constructed with a (雨/rain) radical and a (崔/high) radical at the bottom. I reasoned "Perhaps it is meant to evoke the sudden change in movement in flocks of birds when it rains. The scent of the plant - when it reaches your nose - is so unexpected and so strong, just like how birds flee when it rains". I checked the dictionary, and to my delight found that my reasoning was correct. 

There is meaning even in Chinese words that are created with radicals that sound like the overall word. There are so many different radicals with the same sound that can be used to represent the word, but it is the radical that has the closest meaning to the word that is chosen. 

As I learnt more about the Chinese language, I appreciated its beauty even more. And I wondered how to share it. I thought I should start with my daughter. I thought she would appreciate her good fortune in having a Dad who had so much knowledge about the origins of the Chinese language. She was three when I started - she is six now. 

But when I started to teach her, she simply refused to learn. She would escape her classes, and showed no interest whatsoever. After multiple attempts, I decided to call it quits.

One night, I was preparing to give Oracle Bone Script lessons by drawing some characters. My daughter saw it, and even though it was already 10pm she insisted on drawing character after character with me. 

I wondered why she was so interested in Oracle Bone Script. And I found that children were better than adults in interpreting these characters. I think it's because these characters are so visual, maintaining the visual traits of the item that the word is describing. For example, the word (羊/sheep) is highly visual, with horns at the top. Such visual depictions are more relatable in a child's every day life, and I think it is why my daughter remains so interested in Oracle Bone Script till this day.

This is one of her drawings, using Oracle Bone Script. I find that many children, like her, are intrigued by the visual aspect of the Oracle Bone Script. 

It is also evident how each child has his or her own interpretation of the character. I get multiple depictions of the same character (山/mountain) even in the same class. 


After this class, I received a message from a parent. The family went on a mountain hike. They reached the summit and rested on a rock. While resting, my student picked up a rock and started to draw a rock, the sun, the mountain - in Oracle Bone Script. I was deeply moved. I felt so privileged that my work helped connect our children with nature. 

At the same time, I realised that it was probably better to teach the Chinese language using the Oracle Bone Script. For example, I met foreigners who were trying to learn Chinese, and they could not understand the construction of individual Chinese characters. Because Oracle Bone Script is so visual, it was much easier for them to understand the word, and form associations. 

As my daughter remained interested in Oracle Bone Script, I decided to make a book for her. To make a professional book, I asked child psychologist 戴震东, word designer 厉致谦 and artist 阿咸to help me. I thought it was easy, but truth be told, it was not. My daughter would ask if I was done, and produce her own books. She had created eight such books and I was still not ready! We took so long because we were trying to digest the enormity of the undertaking. For example, we took 3 months to decide our name! 

Initially, we were called 大象汉字. The literal translation of this is Big Elephant Chinese. We chose this name because the Chinese word 象 is a pun. The word's first meaning is elephant, and the second meaning is likeness. But people wondered; since our target audience were  3-7 year old children, shouldn't we be called 小象汉字 instead, since the word 小 means baby? So we toyed with the idea of calling ourselves  大象和小象汉字, but it was such a mouthful. In the end, we asked 3 children who happened to be playing together, if they would like 大象汉字 or 小象汉字. They unanimously preferred the latter. So our name was fixed as "小象汉字“. (Side note: Our English name is Like-Chinese. It is also a pun on the word like - because our goal is for people to like the Chinese language, and also because Oracle Bone Script looks like the Chinese characters we use today.)

We considered many factors as we embarked on developing these flashcards. Because the Shang Dynasty was more than 3,000 years ago, we chose words that would feature strongly in a child's life now. We also chose words that represent the child's growth.

Most of you will be able to Guess this word.

It means (齿/teeth). When a child is growing his or her teeth, some may be missing, so it looks like this. This word then evolved, and the radical (止/stop) was added. 

We also felt these 2 characters would be very popular. From child psychology, we know that when children are between 3 to 5 years of age, they become more interested in slang, particularly "dirty" words. Indeed, many parents tell us that these 2 characters are their child's favourite. One mother even told me that her child would normally step on a flashcard to indicate that he has learnt the word, but he refuses to do so for these 2 characters! 

In this digital age, everyone is making apps or internet related ventures. But we insist on creating hardcopy flash cards, because we feel that touch is an important way for our children to really experience the Chinese language. Also, like most parents, I am also reluctant to have my child use electronics at a young age. 

This project - to share the beauty of the Oracle Bone Script with the world - has blossomed from a seed, to sprout leaves, and finally started to bear fruit. I am happy to share our first product, a series of 120 flash cards. Each word has been designed using Oracle Bone Script as the basis, through which I hope our children will be able to appreciate the history behind our language. 

The Chinese Language embodies so much beauty, and so much of our cultural heritage. We hope that more people will get to know about the history of the Chinese language, and how it evolved. I have a small ambition - that when I mention 甲骨文 in the future, the first thing that comes to mind is not Oracle (the IT company) but the rich, evocative Oracle Bone Script.