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UBC Theses and Dissertations

An analysis of the uses of the various forms of the human figure in the Shang script Fowler, Vernon Keith


The present thesis is a study of the design of the script of the Shang dynasty oracle bones of China. These are the earliest known examples of the Chinese script, and may be dated roughly to 1200-1051 B.C. The creators of the Shang script basically had two approaches to the representation of words: one was to represent the word indirectly, via the concept (i.e. draw the concept or refer to it graphically in some way), and the other was to represent the word directly (i.e. its phonetic shape-this was only possible after the first approach had been used, thus providing a source of graphs that could be used for their sound). In one type of graph, the so-called xingsheng or xi6sheng. both approaches are combined. In this thesis, I am primarily concerned with the type of graph in which either the whole graph or some part of it is designed with reference to the concept. In order to set reasonable bounds on the topic, I limit myself to an examination of graphs containing human figure elements. There are three basic human figure elements in the Shang script: [See thesis for symbols], and a small number of variations. The question I address in this thesis is: What determines their distribution? At first glance they appear simply to indicate different postures: a standing figure seen from the side, a standing figure seen from the front, and a kneeling figure seen from the side. One can readily understand why there should be a standing figure and a kneeling figure, but why should there be two standing figures seen from different angles? Taking as my corpus all the graphs in Shima Kunio's Inkyo bokuji sorui containing the above mentioned human figure elements (approximately 850 graphs, or about one seventh of the total number of bone graphs distinguished to date), I systematically investigated all of them, in order to determine the relationship between the human figure elements in them and the concepts that they represent. I then sorted out about 200 of those graphs for which I felt I had been able to arrive at a correct analysis. Finally, I compared the factors determining the usage of the human figure elements in each graph to see if any consistency could be detected. I then categorized these uses, and sorted the graphs into these various categories. The body of the thesis is structured according to these various categories. The conclusions of the thesis are: 1. The element [See thesis for symbol], although as an independent graph is the modern character da , did not signify 'big,' but was chiefly used instead of [See thesis for symbol] when the concept was felt to be most easily or most naturally depicted from the front, i.e. where the involvement of both arms and/or both legs was felt to be particularly important to expressing the concept. 2. The [See thesis for symbol] element was used in graphs to do with (a) kneeling; (b) actions typically performed in a kneeling position; (c) concepts in which kneeling could be used as a sign of inferiority, yielding, submission, subjection, etc. 3 [See thesis for symbols], the commonest form of the human figure, could be used in any graph denoting any concept that was felt to have anything to do with human beings, and restrictions on its usage were determined by whether the other two elements were felt to be more appropriate.

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