‘Spirits on Turtle Shells and Cattle Bones’: An Exhibition of Art inspired by Oracle Bones

Things to do this weekend in Cape Town: Oracle Bone Inscriptions - the precursor to Chines charaters - as depicted in art

Ancient inscriptions on ‘oracle bones’ (pieces of ox bone and turtle shells used in divination rituals in ancient China) are considered the ancestors of Chinese characters, and those found so far date back over three thousand years.  These inscriptions are arguably the lifeblood of esteemed traditional Chinese culture, and are a fascinating study for those interested not only in Chinese cultural heritage, but also in the history of scripts, fonts, and the fine art of calligraphy, as well as the visual interpretation of ancient experience.

In celebration of 2024 International Chinese Language Day, the ‘Spirits on Turtle Shells and Cattle Bones: Oracle Bone Script Art’ exhibition is a rare chance for South Africans to learn a little about these fascinating oracle bone scripts and, in particular, how they have inspired a massive collaborative project resulting in a series of beautiful images.

Oracle Bone Inscriptions - the precursor to Chines charaters - as depicted in art
Oracle Bone Inscriptions – the precursor to Chinese characters – as interpreted in the art project behind ‘Spirits on Turtle Shells and Cattle Bones: Oracle Bone Script Art Exhibition’

Oracle bone scripts: a brief history

Oracle bone scripts were mainly used to record the results of official divinations carried out on behalf of the ruling Shang dynasty royal family. During such divinations the oracle bones were exposed to flames, creating patterns of cracks that were then subjected to interpretation. Both the prompt and the interpretation were then recorded on the same piece of bone that had been used for the divination itself.

Oracle bone inscriptions are the earliest mature written language system discovered in China to date, and serve as the origin of Chinese characters and the roots of outstanding traditional Chinese culture. They can also be considered the earliest “calligraphic works” in China, embodying the essential principles of calligraphy such as brushwork, structure, and composition, nurturing the beauty of calligraphic art.

Art inspired by inscriptions on ancient oracle bones

From inscriptions to pictures

Each character in the inscriptions represents the ancient people’s understanding and contemplation of the world. Like a painting, bone inscriptions have simple lines and vivid images. The cognitive process of children learning to read is similar to the ancient process of creating characters — both use pictures to describe the world and express emotions from a sensory perspective.

Oracle bone inscriptions are primitive “pictographic characters,” serving as a natural bridge between pictures and Chinese characters by “expressing meaning through form”. Often, with a few bold and powerful strokes, they can outline the appearance of objects, presenting a vivid and delightful imagery. Through the lines of oracle bone inscriptions, we can associate with rich visuals, reconstructing why a character looks the way it does, and stimulating imagination and creativity.

Art inspired by inscriptions on ancient oracle bonesArt inspired by the oracle bone scripts

Ten skilled artists from the renowned Picture Book Studio of the Central Academy of Fine Arts have reinterpreted these ancient inscriptions using their distinctive visual language, allowing a modern audience to gaze through the eyes of our ancestors and catch a glimpse of the ancient landscape of China.

The picture books they have created are the product of a three-year collaboration pairing experts in oracle bone scripts with illustrators and graphic designers. The pictures showcase a diverse collection of over 70 oracle bone scripts, and echo ideas in the ancient world that still strongly resonate with us today: ideas of astronomy and geography, deities and ancestors, the miracles of life, human relationships, bodily organs, domestic scenes, fishing and hunting, feast and merriment, birds and beasts, and the animate world of plants.

Art inspired by inscriptions on ancient oracle bonesThe power of visual imagery

Humans share a profound understanding of visual imagery: a fact reflected in the global presence of early rock paintings, including the remarkable and extensive collection housed in the Iziko South Africa Museum. Chinese writing exhibits a unique path of evolution, transitioning from images to inscribed symbols and culminating in oracle bone inscriptions. This exhibition faithfully recreates – through artistic representations – the oracle bone pit at Yinxu (Yin Ruin), the cradle of oracle bone inscriptions so far unearthed.

Art inspired by inscriptions on ancient oracle bonesThe process of interpretation of inscriptions to art

The exhibition also includes a showcase of the creative process behind the picture books, offering a glimpse into their making. This exhibition is sure to enlighten South African audiences about the origins of Chinese scripts, fostering a love and appreciation for these characters that are as captivating as paintings.

Cost: free entry

When: 19 April to 5 May 2024 | 10am to 5pm daily
Where: Learning Centre, Groot Constantia

See other fascinating things to do while you are in Constantia

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