Decipher ancient drawings in Chinese oracle bone inscriptions

When illustrating Chinese characters, people like to connect them with pictures. Such as this one:

xiang xing zi

The first row shows pictures of physical objects: the sun, the moon, a person stretching out, and a mountain. The second row shows ancient drawings that appeared in ancient oracle bone inscriptions to represent the objects above. The last row shows Chinese characters that we use today: “”, “”, “”, “”.

We can see a clear resemblance between the physical objects and the oracle bone inscriptions, and between oracle bone inscriptions and current Chinese characters. So that we can forge a connection between physical objects and current Chinese characters.

This is pretty cool.

However, the reason that I can show this evolution is because I’ve learned these modern Chinese characters first, then I read some references which point to their pictorial origins. I can not do the same thing the other way around. I tried.

Recently, I came across some ancient drawings in a book, and I tried to figure out what they meant. It turned out that I had no clue. Nevertheless, I had lots of fun. Therefore, I’d like to share some of my experience here.

The first ancient drawing in oracle bone inscriptions

This is what the first Chinese character looks like thousands of years ago:

ancient Chinese character

My impression was that it looked like a person kneeling down with arms stretching out upwards. Was this person praying? Perhaps lamenting? Or even wailing? 

My guesses were “pray” or “lament”. 

They were all wrong.

It turns out that this ancient drawing is the current Chinese character “”. What?!

If we look up the character “” in Pleco, we’ll find the following information:

: Its meanings include “as if”, “like”. This character has a grass radical “十十” at the top. The component at the bottom is the character “”, which means “right”. 

What relationship is there between this ancient drawing and grass radical?

The answer is “none”.

Does this ancient drawing mean “as if” or “like”? 

The answer is “no”.

The correct interpretation of this ancient drawing is that a person is kneeling there, using two hands to comb hair! 

Once hair is combed, it becomes smooth, without any knots. Therefore, this ancient drawing means “smooth”, “success”. 

Why is this person kneeling? My guess is that chairs weren’t invented at that time. Kneeling was a form of resting or sitting. (This practice is still widely accepted in modern Japan)

After thousands of years, this ancient drawing gradually became the current Chinese character “”.

The second ancient drawing in oracle bone inscriptions

This is what the second Chinese character looks like thousands of years ago:

ancient Chinese characters

I immediately recognised the tree on the left. But why was the tree bulging in the middle? The right side looked like a fork. A fork and a tree. My guesses were “to plant” or “to grow”. 

Again, they were all wrong.

This second ancient drawing is the current Chinese character “”.

Looking up the character “” in Pleco, we’ll have the following information:

: its meanings include “to confer”, “to grant”, “to bestow a title”, and “to seal”. The radical is “”, which means inch, small, tiny. The component on the left is character “”, which means “jade pointed at top”. (About the component on the left, my opinion differs. I think the left side is made up with two identical components “” stacking up on top of each other.)

As a regular person with limited knowledge, I did not see the connection between this ancient drawing with the character “”, although I did get the “tree” part right.

The explanation from the expert is that the “fork” was actually a “hand”. This ancient drawing shows that a hand plants a tree onto the ground to mark the border. Therefore, this ancient drawing means “border”. 

Why is the tree bulging in the middle? No explanations. My guess is that this is a realistic representation of a particular tree at that time. 

After thousands of years, this ancient drawing gradually became the current character “”.

Source of the two ancient drawings

These two ancient drawings come from this book, “爆料商周: 上古史超譯筆記”, the authors call themselves 野蠻小邦周. This book teaches us tons of archeological information about Shang Dynasty (商朝, 1600 - 1046 BCE) and Western Zhou Dynasty (西周, 1046 - 771 BCE). 

This book is a fantastic read for average people like me. I learned a lot. 

But, for beginner students, it is better not to get into this business of connecting Chinese characters with their ancient drawings. Learning about ancient drawings does not contribute directly to proficient Chinese reading and writing skills. It’s the other way around. Excellent Chinese reading and writing skills help unlock the secret of ancient drawings. 

For beginner students, spending two minutes on an article like this is sufficient. It’s a nice break, a pleasant digression. The main goal is still to follow a long term study plan, and step by step, they know that they’ll be able to enjoy excellent native Chinese materials sometime in the future.


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April Zhang
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