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Experts in Exchange at Anyang - Reflections on Archaeological Research



Close to the excavation site of the former capital of the Shang dynasty at Anyang, called Yinxu, the KHC Director, Prof. Dr. Michael Lackner , introduces Prof. Dr. Su Rongyu 蘇榮譽, a leading specialist in the Chinese Archaeology of Early China and cooperation partner of the sinology at Erlangen. Prof. Su, in interaction with Prof. Lackner and Prof. Dr. Iwo Amelung (Universität Frankfurt a.M., visiting fellow at KHC Erlangen), traces the development of Chinese archaeology and the influence of Gu Jiegang (1893-1980) who drew attention from written texts to archaeology itself, and explains how archaeological research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was founded in the 1980s at Anyang. The discovery of huge numbers of oracle bones inscribed with predictions shaped the image of the ancient capital, Yinxu, as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The discovery of oracle bones provided the very first insight into the thoughts and practises of Early China. Although Anyang remains, to date, the largest excavation site for oracle bones, only about 1% of the excavated oracle bones remain in Anyang today, with about a third being stored in Taiwan.

Prof. Su states that Chinese researchers highly welcome the unique approach of KHC Erlangen in exploring the long-neglected history of Chinese divination, starting with its earliest traces at Yinxu. He especially highlights the huge digital database of oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen.uni-hd.de) established by KHC Erlangen,which is of outstanding value to Chinese researchers.

Oracle bone divination can be traced not only in Anyang but through a geographic variety of findings. Only in the Western Zhou period did oracle bone inscriptions dissappear and the medium of divination change from oracle bones to methods of Yijing divination and trigrams, which were later followed by a huge array of divinatory practices. The change from oracle bone divination to Yijing divination has to be reconstructed as a gradual, overlapping process. It is tempting to assume that Chinese script developed out of a need to record the result of divinations. Indeed, very few examples predate Anyang oracle bone inscriptions, certainly not a developed writing system. Still, it it possible that writings on other material than oracle bones might simply be lost. There are single instances of bronze production including inscriptions in Zhengzhou during the Erligang period that predate the Anyang finds, but these consist of single characters. Only in the later Anyang period did inscriptions become longer and record narrations, by which time the remnants of oracle bone divination had dissappeared.