An Evening of Ancient Chinese Archaic Writing

arabic writing
By Won Xue Li
Epoch Times Staff

On October 9, Epoch Times had the pleasure of being invited by the French Embassy to a presentation on the Grand Ricci Dictionary of the Chinese Language, and the works of Fr. John Lefeuvre on Chinese archaic characters.

It was an intimate event with about 30 attendees. Held in a luxurious European-style bungalow nestled in the lush greenery of the Botanic Gardens, the event also paid tribute to Fr. Lefeuvre, who passed away in 2010.

H.E. Marc Abensour, Ambassador of France to Singapore, gave the opening address, before inviting Professor Olivier Venture of the Paris-based Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes to speak about the works of Fr. Lefeuvre and the Grand Ricci.

The Grand Ricci Dictionary of the Chinese Language is the largest bilingual dictionary of the Chinese language ever published. With 300,000 words and expressions and 13,000 individual characters, the dictionary was compiled by over 300 contributors over a fifty-year period and published in 2001. The dictionary provides more than just Chinese to French translations, but also covers meanings and facts, in similar fashion to an encyclopedia.

On the other hand, Fr. Lefeuvre was an ordained priest in the Society of Jesus in Shanghai in 1952, before becoming a pioneer in the study of early Chinese writing – the inscriptions on oracle bones and ancient bronzes. He devoted his life to the field, and authored the first multilingual dictionary of characters found on Chinese bronzes – the soon-to-be-published Chinese-French-English Ricci Dictionary of Chinese Bronze Inscriptions.

Professor Venture started with a brief history of China and the archaic writing system. The earliest bronze inscriptions appeared at the end of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC–c. 1046 BC), and featured prominently especially in the Qin and Zhou Dynasties.

Mao Gong Ding (Cauldron of the Duke of Mao) from the late Western Zhou Dynasty
Mao Gong Ding (Cauldron of the Duke of Mao) from the late Western Zhou Dynasty

Among the artefacts that remain from this period, the Mao Gong Ding (Cauldron of the Duke of Mao) from the late Western Zhou Dynasty has the longest bronze inscription ever discovered, with over 500 characters.

bone inscription

Other types of inscriptions were on bones, also known as jia gu wen, or oracle bone script. These were inscriptions on animal bones or turtle shells, which were used for divination purposes in ancient China. Wang Yirong (1845-1900) was the first to recognise that the inscriptions on these ancient bones were a form of writing. As of currently, there are 59 such pieces of oracle bones conserved in France.

These publications set a precedence for future bilingual works that connect China and its ancient culture to the rest of the world. What was once said to be unimaginable is now possible, thanks to the work of minds like Fr. Lefeuvre, who devoted their lives to researching Chinese writing.

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