Cradle of writing (or the fate of king’s toothache)

Yīnxū 殷墟 in Anyang city is one of the world’s most important archeological sites.

We are talking about very, very old times here: Tutankhamun-old and Trojan War-old; the times of Ancient Babylon, the times of Rigveda, the times of replacing bronze tools with iron ones. The Shāng 商 Dynasty period of Chinese history is traditionally dated to 1766–1122 BCE, but estimated by archeologists at ca. 1600–1046. The city of Yīn 殷 was the last capital of the Shang. Long lost to the human eye, its ruins have been excataved in the 20th century, leading to an astonishing discovery: the oldest known samples of Chinese writing.

Let’s imagine that the king of the Shang realm is suffering from a toothache. What is causing it? Is it one of his grand ancestors calling from beyond the grave? Is it the wrath of gods? It shall be determined at once. A divination ceremony will be carried out. A turtle shell or a shoulder blade of an ox, cleaned and polished, will be prepared. Small holes will be drilled in the bone. It will be then heated up until these pinholes crack. A schooled diviner will examine the shape of the cracks and interpret them. So the nature of the king’s toothache may be explained. Or the result of a battle. Or of the millet harvest. Or the next week’s weather.

Hundreds of thousands or such oracle bones have been found at Yinxu, buried ritually in separate pits. Most of them are carved with text: the date, the diviner’s name and the divination subject. Sometimes there is even a later remark about whether the interpretations turned out to be correct or not. The oracle bone script (甲骨文) is an early form of Chinese writing, the earliest ever found, but the historical continuity is obvious and texts’ meaning is often surprisingly clear.

Needless to say, this discovery has caused an avalanche of revelations. New details about the traditions of the Shang were determined, especially about the spiritual beliefs of the elite, warfare and diplomatic relations. Historicity of some facts, until now questioned, was confirmed: even the sole existance of the Shang Empire was not certain until now! DNA studies gave an insight into the genetic makeup of the ealy East Asians. Obviously, it was also a major breakthrough for historical linguistics.

The city of Yin was established about 1300 BCE. The last nine kings of the Shang dynasty reigned from here. Apart from the oracle bones, many artifacts and the foundations of more than 80 buldings were unearthed – palaces, temples and workshops. Among the findings were the earliest chariots discovered in China and many magnificent bronze vessels and jades. Since 2006, Yinxu is inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Several kilometers to the north from the main excavations, is the royal cemetery site. Shuttles transport visitors between the two areas. Underground tombs are scattered around a vast territory, with a handful opened to tourists. There aren’t many artifacts here – I believe they must have been either looted or moved to museum rooms – but I always enjoy visiting places like this. Places which witnessed a fare share of history.

Deers live in the archeological park, which is a nice touch as this animal has symbolical significance to the Chinese since the ancient times.

Postscript: Anyang beyond the ruins.

I arrived to Anyang 安阳 straight from southern China and in winter. I was so excited about the Yin ruins that I didn’t realize something at that point. When I look back at it now, I see that I was experiencing a culture shock that day. It’s cold. The sky is gray. People look different. Their clothes are different. All the stereotypes about the poorer, grimmer, littered and polluted North echoed in my heart. Are they true?! I am writing these words in retrospective – I have visited North China many times since then, but at that point I was a rookie and based in Hong Kong and Shenzhen: rich cities bathed in subtropical sun and overgrown with flashy high rise buildings. It was my first time, but that “another world” feel accompany me whenever I swing between South and North. Every single time. And I love it.

North and winter mean also that the light was different. Here are some photos taken in Anyang outside of the Yin ruins.

Wenfeng Pagoda 文峰塔 is the city’s symbol. It’s rather unique: while most pagodas narrow from the base towards the summit, this one is slender at the bottom and gets bulkier to the top. It also has a stupa-like steeple. Its history is of one thousand years, but the current structure dates from the later times of Ming dynasty. Just few steps from the pagoda is Wenfeng Snack Street 文峰小吃街, adorned with faux “ye olde” architecture and funny sculptures. Remember, this is the North. So your absolutely obvious food choice is wheat noodles.


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