Fortune Cookies,Leveled-up

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Article by Maria Lobo?

Da Jia Hao, which means “Hi, everyone!” in English.
[Photo/Weibo account of Chen Nan]

Da Jia Hao, which means “Hi, everyone!” in English.
[Photo/Weibo account of Chen Nan]

Fa Hong Bao, which means “Red envelopes” or “Lucky money” in English.
[Photo/Weibo account of Chen Nan]

Zhen Ke Ai, which means “You are adorable” in English.
[Photo/Weibo account of Chen Nan]

Xiang Ni, which means “I Miss you” in English. [Photo/Weibo account of Chen Nan]

F rom afternoon greetings to business meetings, it is no secret that social life in China revolves around food. So, it felt perfectly fitting when I learned that food is to thank for one of China’s greatest archaeological discoveries as well: Oracle Script. China’s earliest documented form of writing was lost to history for close to 3,000 years, only to be rediscovered on bones floating in a scholar’s soup!

As legend goes, there was a 19th century barber named Li Cheng who lived around 500km south of Beijing. Supposedly, Li suffered from a skin condition and had open sores all over his body. He found some ancient bone fragments one day with strange carvings on them, and assumed that must be ancient “dragon bones.” Like any rational person would, Li ground up the bones and smeared the mysterious powder all over his sores. Lo and behold, his sores miraculously healed, and he began selling his ground up “dragon bones” door-to-door as a cure-all remedy.

Dragon bones (actually the fossils of dead animals) became really popular in the 1800s for their healing powers. In 1899, a scholar named Wang Yirong saw that one of the bone fragments floating in his medicinal herbal soup had unusual carvings on it. Wang had just found the earliest writing ever discovered in East Asia.

Historians believe that oracle script originated during the Shang dynasty. Basically, the Shang royal family believed that their ancestors possessed the foreknowledge of future events and the ability to influence their outcome; the Shang rulers used oracle script to seek answers to their questions. A fortune teller would carve a question onto bone, and then heat the bone until it cracked. A king could ask about a potential harvest by phrasing two statements to be carved on the bone: “We will receive a millet harvest,” and, “We will not receive a millet harvest.” The bone would then be heated until it cracked, and the diviner would then interpret the cracks and write, “Auspicious. We will have a harvest,” or, “Inauspicious,” on the bone. Shang rulers asked about anything on their mind, from what to do about toothaches and dreams to the potential outcomes of military campaigns and administrative orders.

People say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but China really takes that expression to the next level. China developed a pictographic script at a time when its neighbors were using phonetic scripts, allowing for writing to become an increasingly central element of Chinese trade, cultural expansion, and cultural assimilation. The written system stayed constant even when pronunciations changed, so literate Chinese were able to read and identify with writings of predecessors from centuries earlier and with people across vast geographic distances. Accounting for the stylistic evolution and variance in writing methods, the structural principles of oracle bone script are identical to those used in the Chinese script of today.

Artist Chen Nan from has created two emoji sets for smartphones, ”The Oracle Speaks” and “Chinese Zodiac Oracle,” that illustrate everyday expressions and internet slang. One user commented, “They’re the most highbrow emojis I know. They have profound cultural connotations.” Chen said, “Besides their value in the study of history, the pictographs allow us to connect with our ancestors. We can feel their wisdom and humor.” Perhaps as cryptic as the original oracle bone carvings, these colorful and friendly line drawings may not look like much to the average eye, but they hold tremendous cultural weight. Making room for oracle script in the modern digital pop culture database is bringing history into the future in the most meta way. I can’t help but imagine a Shang Dynasty emperor asking “will future descendants read my books?” to which the diviner replies “yes, your inscriptions will appears on their tablets, carved with light.”

Maria Lobo? is a human being doing human things.