Research Project


Oracle Bone inscriptions from the Bingbian collection

Marco Caboara, David Sehnal

My project at the Consortium consisted of inputting a body of Oracle Bone Inscriptions, together with my colleague David Senhal, into the largest Western language database of Classical Chinese Texts, the Thesaurus Linguae Sericae, and then analyzing it. It was divided into three stages: 1) inputting data from the Bingbian collection and its translation by Kenichi Takashima; 2) undertaking a syntactic, semantic and rhetorical analysis of a selection of inscriptions, together with the author of the most authoritative study on the collection, Takashima himself, and the creator and soul of the database, Christoph Harbsmeier; 3) producing a Primer of Oracle Bone language based on the work on the texts undertaken in the previous two steps, with a general introduction by Harbsmeier and a bibliographical introduction by Takashima.

Making these ancient texts readable via a browser and analyzable in terms of their linguistic constituents required a lot of teamwork and a series of fascinating arrangements, with which the staff of IKGF, and particularly Dr. Michael Luedke, provided essential help. At the same time, conversations in formal and informal settings with the director of the Centre, Michael Lackner, and several visiting fellows, especially Joachim Gentz, and Marc Kalinowski, allowed me to develop my understanding of Chinese Divination, making it possible to understand the formulaic language of the inscriptions in a much wider setting.

This pleasant mixture of formal (lectures, seminars, workshops) and informal (Tuesday teas, office chats) settings made my stay extremely rewarding and stimulated further research. In certain cases, this will be reflected in my future publications, such as an annotated translation of the oldest divinatory text on bone cracking interpretation, which relies on my previous and present research on Chu bamboo manuscripts, and which has been stimulated by Michael Lackner, or my study of strange creatures and prodigies in the Book of Mountains and Rivers, which was inspired by a seminar on Monsters and Prodigies in 16th and 17th century Europe presented by Elena Del Rio Parra, to which I and Sophia Katz tried to find counterparts in the rich Chinese tradition of writings on the Strange.

In other cases, my research horizons have been equally rewardingly widened by conversations with fellows who studied topics that at first sight were not only unrelated, but even more eccentric than my own, such as Michelina di Cesare, who studied the eschatological interpretation of the Prophet Muhammad in Latin Medieval Texts, and Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, whose research focus is the symbolic manipulation of rituals surrounding the body of the Pope in the Late Middle Ages as a mean to establish his political authority. Through exchanging views with them, I have been reminded of how the Western emphasis on close readings, attention to the historical implications and a sharp eye for the relationships between texts can serve as a model for my own sinological research.

Ongoing projects: my paper on the Book of Mountains and Rivers will be presented in September 2014 at a colloquium or workshop at Erlangen as part of the project on the phenomena of the Strange stemming from Del Rio Parra, Katz, Sehnal and mine reading sessions.