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From Oracle Bones to Computer Bytes, the Smithsonian Celebrates Chinese Script(05/03/04)

 

 
   

For thousands of years, thoughts and ideas have been conveyed around the globe through the use of written languages. According to legend, one of these languages was invented over 5,000 years ago by Cangjie, a Chinese official who was inspired by the footprints of animals and birds he saw around him. These images moved him to create the characters that became the basis of Chinese script.

Today, Chinese script is one of the oldest and most widely used writing systems in the world. "Chinese Script-from Oracle Bones to Computer Bytes," an exhibition at the International Gallery of the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center, explores the history behind this written language and the impact it has had on the world. The exhibition runs from March 11 through May 31.

"Chinese script is one of the most important instruments of communication in the world," says Franklin Odo, director of the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American program. "Not only has it been the basis of writing in China for thousands of years, but it has also influenced many other written languages in East and Southeast Asia, as well as the diasporic communities around the globe."

The earliest traces of real script are the "oracle bone inscriptions," or Jiaguwen, which date back to the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C.). "Oracle bones" were tortoise shell and animal bones that were inscribed with Chinese characters. Over time, new types of script were developed and engraved into bone, clay, wood, stone and bamboo. During the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, written scripts became standardized, establishing a basic foundation for all Chinese characters.

The standardization of script also led to the development of two of the most important Chinese inventions, papermaking and printing. Coupled with the invention of various writing instruments, the writing of Chinese characters gradually developed into the art of calligraphy, which is still appreciated by people throughout the world.

Today, Chinese script has found its place in the age of computers. There are many methods that allow Chinese script to be typed on the computer, either by shape, pronunciation or both. New technology, such as handwriting and voice input, facilitate and speed up the input of Chinese characters.

Among the 49 objects that will be on display in the exhibition are replicas of an ox bone and tortoise shell containing the oldest known Chinese characters. Also on display will be a bronze pot from the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 25 A.D.) decorated with a descriptive writing known as Xiaozhuan (Small Seal) and inscribed wood slips from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C to 220 A.D.). The exhibition will also contain a Chinese study room, complete with the traditional furniture, decorations and the Four Treasures (writing brush, inkstick, inkslab and paper) set up to show the environment a scholar or calligrapher would have required for research or artistic creation.

The exhibition will also contain an interactive area with computers set up with animated cartoons to show the evolution of Chinese script. The computers will also have CD-ROMs containing Chinese character input software.

"Chinese Script-from Oracle Bones to Computer Bytes" was organized by the Embassy of the People's Republic of China.

The International Gallery is located at 1100 Jefferson Drive S.W. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.smithsonian.org.

 


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