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Chinese museum offers $15,000 per character to decipher Oracle Bone

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Oracle Bone Chinese Musuem

The National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan province promises to pay a cash reward to anyone who helps to decode the mysterious Oracle Bone.

The writing, from the Shang dynasty, is thought to be one of the earliest written records of Chinese civilization.  Scholars know that the writing is a prediction about the future.  This kind of text was carved into the shoulder blade of an ox or onto turtle shells.  They are known as oracle bones and were made by fortune tellers.

Research on the bones has died out in recent years, says The Smithsonian.  The main reason is that researchers are unable to decipher the characters.  So far scholars have only been able to interpret around 2,000 of the 5,000 characters.  The last 3,000 or so are still a mystery.  Hence the hefty cash rewards being offered.

Translators don’t need to unlock the entire text.  The museum is offering 100,000 yuan (around US$15,000 dollars) for each and every character translated (subject to sufficient evidence).

It’s thought that the majority of the un-deciphered characters are names of people and places. “Since it was a long time ago and many places have changed their names, it has been difficult to verify them,” says oracle bone specialist Liu Fenghua.

Oracle bones are also known as dragon’s bones. Wang Yirong, a late 19th century Chinese scholar first recognized that the symbols on the bones were a form of writing.  Philologist Luo Zhenyu took up the work in 1908.  He found thousands of the bones outside the city of Anyang.  Researchers then began collecting and translating the bones.

According to the Cambridge University Library, the oracle bones contain the oldest-known Chinese script.  Fortune tellers would heat the bones until cracks formed on the surface. Readings from these cracks could, they believe, answer questions about the future.  The answers were subsequently inscribed onto the bones themselves.

These inscriptions provide a mass of historical information: when cities were built; what crops were planted; when taxes were raised; which royal marriages took place; plus the timing of astronomical events.

The cash was first offered back in October 2016.  Now The National Museum of Chinese Writing is hoping more researchers will bring their expertise to bear on the project.  The expectation is that they will “bring new big data and cloud computer applications into the study of oracle bones,” says The Smithsonian.

Image courtesy of The British Library.

Chinese museum will pay over $18,000 per character to anyone who can decipher ancient text

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