28 July 2017

Chinese museum offers reward to decode ancient prophecies

AN oracle cast this bone 3000 years ago to predict an uncertain future. Now a museum is offering a $19,000 reward for every word you can decipher.

The South China Morning Post has reported the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province, has been struggling to translate what are the oldest known examples of Chinese writing.

It has a collection of ‘oracle bones’ — inscribed turtle shells or ox shoulder blades used to predict everything from tax returns to the weather.

The existence of such oracle scripts was rediscovered in 1899, when a Chinese antiquarian was prescribed a ‘dragon’s bone’. Before it could be ground into dust, he recognised the significance of its ancient script.

Thousands of ancient Chinese characters on 'dragon's bones' or 'oracle bones' — such as this turtle shell — have yet to be deciphered. Picture: National Museum of Chinese Writing

Thousands of ancient Chinese characters on ‘dragon’s bones’ or ‘oracle bones’ — such as this turtle shell — have yet to be deciphered. Picture: National Museum of Chinese WritingSource:Supplied

It belonged to the almost mythical bronze age Shang dynasty, a kingdom harking back to the dawn of civilisation in the East. He scoured the local apothecaries, buying up as many as he could save.

Since then some 200,000 oracle bones have been recovered. About 50,000 bear text in some form or another.

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Most come from excavations near Anyang, the Shang Dynasty’s capital, conducted since the 1920s.

Since then, China has only managed to translate some 2000 out of the 5000 different characters they contain.

“Since it was a long time ago and many places have changed their names, it has been difficult to verify them,” Liu Fenghua, an oracle bone specialist from Zhengzhou University told the Chengdu Economic Daily.

Cash rewards offered for deciphering oracle bones https://t.co/h2S7HHVGJA pic.twitter.com/df2fL7Xym2

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“For financial reasons, many oracle bone scholars have changed their research focus to other subjects.”

So they’re crowdsourcing out the problem, at a rate of 100,00 yuan each character cracked.

Chinese linguists believe most of the characters represent the names of people or specific locations.

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Simply identifying one of them is sufficient to define the career of a Chinese linguistic researcher.

While the reward applies globally, it will only be issued after two language experts have submitted their approval of the translation.

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