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Reflections: bones to pick

Wee Kek Koon

 

The destruction of a 2,300-year-old Mayan pyramid in Belize by a construction company may have struck a chord with Hongkongers, whose own past continues to be obliterated through corporate and individual greed. Stones quarried from the Nohmul pyramid were used for roads; but, before the 20th century, the Chinese actually ate many of the ancient artefacts they unearthed.

Old medical texts state that "dragon bones" can treat asthma and gastrointestinal ailments. Over centuries, what would have been unearthed fossils - of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures - were pulverised and sold as medicines. When dragon bones became scarce, they were replaced by tortoise shells and animal bones dug up in copious quantities in Anyang, Henan province.

Anyang happened to be the site of the last capital city of the ancient Shang dynasty (17th-11th century BC), and the shells and bones dug up there and sold had curious cracks and markings on them. The story goes that in 1899, a court official who was sick and taking the shell-bones (jiagu) medicine, saw the raw materials that went into making it. A scholar of old texts, he immediately realised the markings as ancient writing. Subsequently, scholars within and outside China began collecting and studying these artefacts, which they ascertained were oracle tools for the Shang kings.

The shell-bone script (jiaguwen) is the oldest extant form and a direct ancestor of modern Chinese script.

 

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