Sunday, October 16, 2016

Ancient Script

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China (May 21, 2016)

China is old. You won't realize it based on the modern buildings in the post-Olympics busy Beijing, but just enter in on one of the many pavilions inside the Palace Museum and you will breathe the air of history. The Forbidden City is actually one of the largest museum of the world, with 980 surviving buildings and 8707 rooms covering a total 720,000 square meters.

Ancient Script
This is much more than can be seen in just a brief afternoon visit, so we cherry-picked a few collections to visit, and that was still mind-blowing. I am not known to be a meticulous tourists, of the very organized sort that reads tons of guides and one month in advance of the trip knows the exact itinerary to maximize a visit. I do buy a guide or two, but then wait to the last minute before actually opening them, so that by the time of the tour I only have a sketchy idea of what I can see. Not the most efficient way, but on the other hand it leaves one's mind open to the surprise of discovery. This visit was no exception. It was also a hot day, and we had already walked a lot just to get to to the Forbidden City entrance, so it didn't take very long until we found ourselves looking for a cool place to rest. This is how we found a pavilion with the holy combination of shade, air conditioning, and an impressive collection of fine bronze utensils, musical instruments and weapons, some of them 5,000 years old.

Ancient Script
Several of the items were actually inscribed, with ancient characters that were at the same time familiar and novel. One example is in the photo above, that shows an example of such writing (on the left) with the corresponding modern characters. The resemblance is there, but the older version is more closely representing an actual drawing of the subject it portraits, while the modern equivalent is more stylized. The legendary origin of the Chinese characters refers to the mythical Cangjie (倉頡), the four-eyed historian of the equally mythical Yellow Emperor, the founder of Chinese civilization and the ancestor of all Chinese people. Legend has that Cangjie used his four pupils to see things that nobody else could see, including ghosts and deities, and was very observant. Tasked by his emperor to devise a method to record informations for posterity, he was inspired by the footprint of a pixiu (a winged lion), and created a large number of symbols to represent all things: the ancient Chinese script. Another version of the legend postulates that Cangjie was instead inspired by the veins in the shell of turtles: particularly interesting postulation, given that archeologists have unearthed fragments of turtle shells with actual writing on them. Whatever the inspiration, the legend of Cangjie would place the invention of Chinese writing around 2700-2600 BC, when the Yellow emperor reigned.

The earliest record of actual writing (apart from individual isolated signs inscribes on bones), however, go about as back as the Shang dynasty (about 1200 BC). One example is the inscription in the ox scapula shown in the small photo above (left), which I photographed the following day at the National Museum of China. That is where we will go in the next post.

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China (May 21, 2016)

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