In The Classroom: Ancient Chinese Communication

Oracle bone carved from a tortoise shell
On May 19, Dr. William C. Y. Lee enlightened us on the rapid development of mobile communication within the past 40 years.  What I can (safely) say I learned from that experience is that human beings are always in search of better ways to communicate with one another.  Easier, faster, more enjoyable -- you name it, we want it! This week we'll be talking about Chinese inventions that helped people in ancient China communicate with one another.  So put down that cell phone or  hand-held device and get hooked on ancient Chinese communication -- no electricity needed!

Oracle Bones

Examples of characters carved on oracle bones. 3
Oracle bones were in use during the Shang dynasty in the Second century B.C. and the practice ended around 1045 B.C.2  Unlike common uses for written work, oracle bones were ritualistic and used to communicate with ancestors.  Pictographic symbols would be carved into animal bones or tortoise shells, then heated until the bones or shell cracks.  The oracle bones would be heated on specific days to honor specific family ancestors or to ask the ancestors about the future.  For example, many people in ancient China were farmers and a number of oracle bones that have been found relate to question about seasonal crops, weather, and the need for a water source.  Many imperial and wealthier families had the means to create oracle bones to coincide with each ancestor's day of honor, which is was customarily assigned on the day of a family member's death, with each cracked bone representing a specific time in the family's future.  Most of the remaining oracle bones are housed in museums in London, Japan, the United States, and China. 

ACTIVITY - Oracle Bones:  A simple activity you can try with children of varying ages is to pick out a lively and  descriptive poem or sentence.  Shorter is better.  Read it out loud to your students and have them write the sentence through simple pictures or pictographs.  Advise them to use very simple characters and to try to use as little lines or strokes as possible.  Then take a step back and talk about the different ways different students interpreted the poem or sentence. 

For older children, 3 - 6 grade, have the children do the activity on clay.  Flatten the clay before having the children write their poem or sentence.  Then leave the clay out in the sun to dry for a few days.  On warmer days, the clay should show signs of cracking. 
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Paper was made from pieces of bark submerged in
water to create a soup called "pulp". 5

Chinese calligraphy was a well established form of communication hundreds of year before the invention of paper.  Paper was invented during the Han dynasty in the Second century A.D. and was connected to a number of different uses before it became a staple for writing, printing, and communication. 

In 1980, archeologist at an excavation in Turfan, China discovered a hat, belt, and a pair of shoes made entirely of paper.  Paper clothing was made from a soup of mulberry, fig, or laurel bark called "pulp," which was created by soaking the bark in water until the fibers began to separate.1   Once the fibers were fully separated, the soup would be stirred and then poured onto a screen and dried.  One screen would produce one sheet of paper.  The resulting paper would be very thick, soft, and easily pliable but warm and strong.  One account in 1629 by a composer named Mao Yuan-I described how arrows and even bullets were not able to penetrate through thick paper armor.  Throughout Chinese history, paper has also been connected to wrapping, lacquer-ware, and personal hygiene.

Prior to paper, books were made of the soft, inner bark of trees, usually the mulberry, fig, or laurel.  These were called "tapa books."1  Sheets of tapa pages would be tied together using string.  Unfortunately, tapa books did not preserve well and were victims of either dried out, cracked (or crumbling) pages, or rotted.  This made owning books a rare and very expensive luxury as the process was time consuming, as was copying the books page-by-page (usually done by monks), and the lifespan of the books were so short.  The invention of paper, though time consuming, provided an alternative that would preserve much better and paved the way for mass producing books without a clergy of monks.

ACTIVITY Paper:  Paper hats are a simple activity you can do with children of varying age group with minimal assistance.  
  1. Take paper and fold in half (hamburger style)
  2. Fold again (hamburger style) to create a crease down the middle of your folded sheet. 
  3. Fold two corners along the connected side of the paper towards the crease.  You should have long flaps left below the folded corner.  
  4. Fold the long flaps up, one on each side of the hat. 
  5. Open and you should have a hat!
Here's a link to Make Paper Hats instructions with great visuals!  Old newspapers work best and will produce larger hats in addition to finding fun and creative uses for old newspapers.  

For older students, here is a wonderful link to How to bind your own hardcover book by KaptinScarlet.

Did your class try out our activity?  Send us your pics and we'll include them in our newsletter!  Do you have another ancient Chinese form of communication you would like to see on our blog? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!
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1.  Ancient Communication Technology: From Hieroglyphics to Scrolls by Woods, Michael; Woods, Mary Boyle.  2011. Twenty-First Century Boos, Minneapolis, MN.  
2. Oracle Bones:  A Journey Through Time in China by Hessler, Peter.  2006. Nanjing University Press.
3. Outline of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives: An Alphabetical Compendium of Antique Legends and Beliefs, as Reflected in the Manners and Customs of the Chinese by Williams, C.A.S..
4. Chinese Childhood: A Miscellany of Mythology, Folklore, Fact and Fable by Fawdry, Marguerite. 1977. Blaketon Hall Limited, London, UK.
5. The Genius of China: 3000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention by Temple, Robert.  2005. Carlton Publilshing Group, London, UK.


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