Museum Offers $15,000 Per Character to Decipher Oracle Bone Script

The inscriptions offer detailed information about the Shang Dynasty, but researchers need help to read them

Oracle Bone
An oracle bone description National Museum of Chinese Writing

In recent years, research into oracles bones, used to divine the future during China’s Shang dynasty, has fizzled out. The main reason is that researchers cannot decipher the characters cut into the ox shoulder blades and turtle plastrons used for the soothe-saying, stymieing efforts to understand the writing system. Now, Michael Waters at Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan province, is hoping to revive research into the bones by offering a hefty reward to anyone who can translate the tricky symbols.

Sidney Leng at the South China Morning Post reports that the museum is offering 100,000 yuan, roughly $15,000 dollars, for each character researchers are able to translate (with sufficient evidence of course). They are offering 50,000 yuan for anyone with a definitive explanation for some of the many disputed characters. Of the estimated 5,000 symbols found on oracle bones, scholars have only been able to translate about 2,000, meaning there’s a lot of room for any brilliant code-breaking scholars out there.

According to Leng, the museum hopes that the cash incentive will draw more researchers into the game and that they will bring new big data and cloud computing applications into the study of oracle bones. Many of the characters on the bones represent the names of people and places, but those references are lost to history.

For over a century, scholars have puzzled over oracle bones, which are also known as dragon’s bones. According to Emily Mark at the Ancient History Encyclopedia, a Chinese scholar in the late 19th century named Wang Yirong first recognized that the symbols in oracle bones were a form of writing. As the story goes, Yirong had contracted malaria in 1899. His doctor prescribed dragon bone, a traditional remedy for the disease. When Yirong picked up his bone from the apothecary, it was not ground into powder. Instead, he received a bone with a strange ancient script on it. Yirong, who was interested in ancient writing, bought all the bones he could from apothecaries, who refused to tell him the source of the ancient artifacts. Yirong died (by suicide) before he could crack the case.

In 1908, philologist Luo Zhenyu took up the work, Mark writes, and he was able to discover the source of the apothecaries bones—there were thousands outside the city of Anyang. Soon, researchers began collecting and translating the bones.

According to the Cambridge University Library, the oracle bones contain the oldest-known Chinese script and have helped researchers confirm the names and succession of Shang dynasty emperors. To interpret the bones, diviners would heat them until cracks formed on the surface. They would then read the cracks answering questions about the future. The answers to those questions were inscribed onto the bones themselves. Mark reports those inscriptions have provided a windfall of information, from the time cities were built to what crops were planted, who married who in the royal household as well as well as astronomical events and when taxes were raised.

Deciphering even one new symbol could unlock a huge amount of new information from the bones—and, of course, a chunk of change for the person able to crack the code.

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