Oracle bones are the earliest written records of Chin­ese civilisation. Photo: Handout

Crack China’s ancient riddle of the bones and bag big cash rewards

Chinese museum offers financial incentives for breakthroughs in decoding 3,000-year-old inscriptions

A picture may be worth a thousand words but one mysterious ancient Chinese character could be a 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) payday for anybody who can definitively say what it means.

The National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan province, has issued a worldwide appeal for help to decipher thousands of esoteric characters cut into bones and shells dating back more than 3,000 years to the Shang dynasty.

The inscriptions, resembling modern characters, are the earliest written records of Chin­ese civilisation and shed light on life and society at a time.

They were carved by fortune-tellers on turtle shells and ox shoulder blades known as oracle bones, and record questions on everything from weather to taxes.

So far, scholars have managed to crack the code to less than half of the roughly 5,000 characters found on excavated oracle bones. Around 3,000 of them remain a mystery.

Now the museum is hoping cash incentives and technology will help reveal the meaning behind the rest.

Thousands of ancient characters are still to be deciphered. Photo: Handout

In a notice posted on its website earlier this month, the museum said it would pay 100,000 yuan for a definitive explanation for each uninterpreted character. It is also offering 50,000 yuan for anybody who can provide a definitive explanation for a disputed character.


The museum is encouraging researchers to use cloud computing and big data along with traditional methods to generate breakthroughs in understanding.

The notice said the museum started offering the rewards in late October because progress on deciphering the characters had stalled in recent years.

Liu Fenghua, an oracle bone specialist from Zhengzhou University, said most of the undeciphered characters were names of people and places, the Chengdu Economic Daily reported.

“Since it was a long time ago and many places have changed their names, it has been difficult to verify them,” Liu was quoted as ­saying.

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

Archaeologists have so far unearthed about 200,000 oracle bone fragments and about a quarter of them have inscriptions. Photo: AFP

For researchers studying the ancient Chinese texts, making sense of one character can be a career-defining achievement.


Zhu Yanmin, a history professor from Nankai University in Tianjin, told Beijing Youth Daily that making sense of an ideogram could lift the veil of the past.

“If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” he said.

Oracle bones first became known in the wider world in 1899, when Chinese antiquarian Wang Yirong found the script engraved on “dragon’s bones”, an ingredient used in a type of traditional Chinese medicine.


The discovery triggered wide interest among wealthy collectors, many of whom fell prey to forgeries.

It also provoked controversy at the time, because many scholars doubted whether the Shang dynasty had really existed.

In the 1920s, the Chinese Academy of Sciences excavated many oracle bones near ­Anyang, the late Shang dynasty capital.

Inscriptions on oracle bones can reveal much about life in ancient China. Photo: Ritsu Shinozaki

The researchers confirmed that the artefacts dated back to the Shang era, the start of China’s Bronze Age, when people learned to how to make weapons and tools with the alloy instead of stones.


Archaeologists have so far unearthed about 200,000 oracle bone fragments and about a quarter of them have inscriptions. Despite being in pieces, favourable soil conditions meant many of the bones were well preserved.

The inscriptions on the bones bear many similarities with modern Chinese writing.

And as well as offering a rare glimpse into everyday life thousands of years ago, the bones are a trove of scientific information, providing the earliest records of a solar eclipse and a comet.