Would You Like Ruins With That Civilization? (Part Six of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)

Which best represents a civilization to you?  Architectural ruins or preserved calligraphy?


Photo by Erin Silversmith, GNU Free Documentation License



Calligraphy of Chinese Poem by Mo Ruzheng

(public domain)

My home is in the Midwest of the United States, where buildings more than 150 years old are relatively rare and are considered really, really ancient. When I travelled to Europe, I realized how funny it was to think of 150 years as being old.   I learned in Europe that honoring the past means to live surrounded by ancient edifices.

Therefore, I assumed that China, which is truly an ancient civilization, must be overrun with magnificent old structures.   Reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones changed my mind. Hessler, who spent several years living China, noticed that although the Chinese take enormous pride in their history, there are in fact very few really old buildings. The Chinese tended to build out of wood, brick, and tile—elements that were not designed to endure for centuries. Hessler also points out that, historically the Chinese did not pay a great deal of attention to their architecture. He finds that an odd lapse, as do I. But, Hessler, goes on to point out, that is because we, as Westerners, are taught since childhood that “the past was embodied in ancient buildings—pyramids, palaces, coliseums, cathedrals” (185). Antiquity, we are taught, is found in old buildings.

It’s true that I do think of ancient cultures as being embodied in architecture—so much so that it really disappointed me to read what Hessler said about the paucity of old buildings.   I can just see myself having a temper tantrum in the middle of Beijing, crying out, “Where are all the old buildings? I WANT some old buildings!!!”

I will try to control myself.

On the other hand, Peter Hessler observes that while the Chinese may be indifferent to old buildings, they ARE very interested in calligraphy. They will spend hours every day practicing their strokes and take great pride their accomplishments in writing Chinese. Hessler says that they were shocked at his own sloppy handwriting in English and could not believe that an educated man like himself could not write well—in the sense of creating beautiful letters.

When I travelled to the Persian Gulf, I noticed that the Arabs also took great pride in their calligraphy, displaying it on the walls, in museums, etc. To be honest, I found this obsession with calligraphy a bit of a yawner, and wanted to see some REAL art. Now I’m starting to realize how blinkered my views have been and how thoroughly they have been molded by a Western world-view.

What do you think? What do you think best captures the traditions of a culture?

Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China, Part V. Oracle Bones: The Original Fortune Cookies?


See source of photo here.

Like many people, I sometimes dabble in “fortune telling,” purely for entertainment. By that, I mean I will occasionally consult my horoscope or have my tarot cards read or my tea leaves interpreted.

(Yes, I know, that places me in Dante’s eighth circle of hell. Does it help, Dante, to know that I don’t really believe it?)

And of course I always read the contents of the fortune cookies found in Chinese restaurants.


See source of photo here.

Perhaps that is one reason I am so intrigued by Peter Hessler’s discussion of Chinese oracle bones in his nonfiction book called, well, Oracle Bones.  I learned from his book that in China in the late 19th-early 20th century, some Chinese people discovered large caches of buried animal bones (mostly turtles and oxen) dating back to approximately 1300-1000 B.C. On these bones were written brief inscriptions (of no more than 200 words, usually much less) in Chinese. This discovery was important for many reasons. For one thing, these bones contain the earliest example of written language from East Asia. Furthermore, they provide archeological evidence of the existence (and many of the practices) of the Shang dynasty. Up until that point, people had no proof that it had actually existed.

I have to be honest, though. I find the oracle bones fascinating because I see them as the original Chinese fortune cookies. Here’s the way it worked. If you wanted your fortune told, you would have your question written on the bones of the turtle or ox by the diviner (the fortune teller.) Then the diviner would poke some holes in the bone to weaken it. After that, he would apply so much pressure to the bone that it would crack. They believed that somehow this process gave them access to the wisdom of spirit world.   The diviner would then interpret the cracks and inscribe the fortune on the bone.

Some of the fortunes they found were these:

  • “In the next ten days there will be no disasters.”
  • “There will be harm; there will perhaps be the coming of alarming news.”
  • “The king goes to the hunting field; the whole day he will not encounter great wind.”

Just like fortune cookies, right?

We in the decadent West sometimes add the word “in bed” to the end of fortune cookie sayings in order to make them more interesting.   This technique works just as well with the oracle bones:

  • In the next ten days, there will be no disasters in bed.
  • There will perhaps be thunder in bed.
  • We will pacify the Wind with three sheep, three dogs, three pigs in bed. (Well, maybe that one doesn’t work so well.)

It should be noted that although the oracle bones and other archeological evidence have revealed that the Shang dynasty was advanced for its time, having an advanced civilization is NOT the same as having a humane and benevolent one. Archeologists also discovered that large numbers of human victims were sacrificed to be buried along with the kings. As W. Scott Morton and Charlton M. Lewis note, these humans victims were buried in groups of ten. “They were ceremonially beheaded with large axes, also found in the tombs. They were prisoners taken in war or captured from nomad shepherd tribes on the western borders of Shang” (China, Its History and Culture 15).

I wonder if these victims ever had their fortunes told by the oracle bones. If so, what did they say?

  • “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Start running now!”
  •  “You have worked hard in your life, and it is time for a very long rest.”
  •  “A challenge is near. Try not to lose your head.”

 What’s your favorite fortune cookie saying? Do you think the rulers of the Shang dynasty could profit from it?