March 24, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Earliest Chinese Language Revealed

Scholars are making 3-D models of the earliest Chinese language inscriptions available for research.

Investigators of early Chinese cultural history have a new tool: 3-D images of oracle bones inscribed with the earliest Chinese characters. The University of Cambridge is starting to publicize its stash of these bones in the form of scanned 3-D images accessible to anyone on the web. This is like making the Dead Sea Scrolls searchable online after having been available only to academic researchers.

Cambridge University Library, which is celebrating its 600th anniversary this year, holds 614 Chinese inscribed oracle bones in its collection. They are the oldest extant documents written in the Chinese language, dating from 1339-1112 BCE. Inscribed on ox shoulder blades and the flat under-part of turtle shells, they record questions to which answers were sought by divination at the court of the royal house of Shang, which ruled north central China at that time.

The inscriptions on the bones provide much insight into many aspects of early Chinese society, such as warfare, agriculture, hunting, medical problems, meteorology and astronomy.

The earliest recording of a solar eclipse, from 1192 BC, is included in the collection. Viewers will be able to rotate the 3-D images to get a seamless view of the artifacts from any angle.

The image brings into sharp focus not only the finely incised questions on the obverse of the bone, but also the divination pits engraved on the reverse and the scorch marks caused by the application of heat to create the cracks (which were interpreted as the answers from the spirit world). These can be seen more clearly than by looking at the actual object itself, and without the risk of damage by handling the original bone.

Only one has been scanned so far, but the university hopes to make more available as funding permits.

Many creationists have been fascinated by the work of Ethel Nelson, whose book The Discovery of Genesis (with the aid of C. H. Kang) alleged that stories from Genesis, including the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark, were embedded in the earliest Chinese pictographic characters (for example, see ICR article). Nevertheless, the claims are controversial (AiG), and have been frequently mocked by atheists and anti-creationists. There’s nothing like raw data to confirm or falsify a claim. We hope scholars will study this original material and draw firmer conclusions than have been possible before the originals became available.

A Chinese lady I know claims that the Chinese characters still in use in Hong Kong contain the allusions to Genesis. She says the characters were changed under Chairman Mao, so you have to go back to the pre-communist character set to see them.

Undoubtedly the characters on the 3,000-year-old oracle bones will look different than any used in the 20th century. Will they show a closer correlation to the stories of Genesis? Time will tell; even if the correlations are there, enough time had passed since Babel to the Shang Dynasty to make some corruption likely, especially since we see the scribes using these bones for divination. One would have to infer that the scribes were using characters previously designed by ancestors with a cultural memory of the Genesis accounts after a period of oral tradition (one should keep in mind that 1339 BC, the earliest date, is well after the Exodus).

Even so, finding correlations with Genesis separate from the Mosaic record would provide strong independent corroboration of the events in the Bible, and would imply the Chinese had migrated from Babel where the memories of Adam and Noah persisted. The only other possibility would be migrants from Mesopotamia bringing those stories to China in the 2nd millennium BC. It’s unlikely that happened, or even if it did, that the proud Chinese culture of the time would consider incorporating western stories into their own language. I would like to see new scholarly research on this lively topic now that anyone can look at the original inscriptions.  —DC

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  • Russell says:

    On a recent visit to Beijing and the Forbidden City I was s truck by similarities between the Forbidden City and the Temple and tabernacle layout. Both are rectangular with outer and inner courts, and a central place where a connection to heaven was made.

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