Prof Adam Smith – Origins of Writing Keynote: 20 May 6pm

“The Beginnings of Writing in China:
Managing Livestock and Anxiety”

The National Museum of Scotland holds the largest collection of inscribed ancient Chinese oracle bones (1800 fragments from c.1300 BCE) in Europe (the second biggest outside of Asia), donated by two Scottish missionaries in 1909.  A three day academic conference will take place in the University of Edinburgh at the end of which there will be a public lecture which will consider the early origins of writing in China.


The emergence of literacy in a culture previously unexposed to writing is an exceedingly rare, but consequential event, one that has taken place at only a tiny handful of places and times. Northern China, circa 1300 BCE, of was one of those places and times. Archeological evidence for the beginnings of literacy in China is spectacular in its abundance, and arguably provides a more complete picture of the process than that from any other region.


Records of divination inscribed onto cattle scapulae and turtle shells are the most numerous and best known examples of early Chinese writing. They document divination performed on a daily basis to address the sacrificial routines and personal anxieties of the Shang royal family. But these so-called ‘oracle bones’ are only part of the picture. Brush-written labels on stone and pottery objects, and inscriptions on cast bronze objects, are two other important strands of early evidence. Documents written on strips of bamboo or wood bound together with thread have not survived, but their role in maintaining registers of sacrificial livestock can be reconstructed from references to them in the ‘oracle bone’ texts. By combining these complementary lines of evidence, we can start to answer the question ‘How does writing begin?’


Adam Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, and a curator in the Asian Section of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. His research is focused on the beginnings of writing and literate institutions in China, and the linguistic and palaeographic reconstruction of the earliest stages of the Chinese language.

Public lecture details

Friday 20th May 18.00-19.15 followed by a drinks reception
Confucius Institute for Scotland, Abden House, 1 Marchhall Crescent, EH16 5HP